Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home



As Minnesota Goes...
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kevin O'Malley

This column began during that period immediately after an election--a period known as the hangover. That's when we stumble around, fuzzy of mind and speech, trying simultaneously to remember and deny whatever we said the night before. Much of what had rolled across the TV screen on Tuesday was familiar: our former governor, rambling on about the good old days just as he did in the good old days; Dan Rather making a garish analogy (something about being as nervous as a pig in a packing house); and the usual pundits pondering whether the American people had spoken, muttered, or made rude noises.

It took a while to realize that beneath the familiar surface were signs that this election could transform American politics. Gone from center stage were the soccer moms and angry white men of recent elections. (The latter are now in Congress or hosting talk shows.) When the dust and my head cleared, I suddenly understood that a new voter was telling us how to solve two of the nation's political problems: voter apathy and campaign financing. The road to that revelation runs from my neighborhood through Minnesota.

This was the first year our precinct used electronic voting machines. We were entranced by little green arrows, blipping sounds, and a keyboard to write in candidates' names. I changed my votes just to watch the machine perform. It was so fascinating that I would have voted again and again, and probably could have if our district hadn't recently gone Republican in a Democratic city. If these machines get that response from a middle-aged guy, imagine how a voting machine with video arcade graphics would draw young people who now disdain elections. Even better, for that generation no act comes more naturally than putting a quarter in a slot. You get the picture: youth vote and campaign financing in one neat arcade-quality, quarter-gobbling package. For this idea to work, people would have to be able to vote more than once, but for some cities that would be a return to tradition.

Then there is Minnesota, where Jesse "The Body" Ventura became the first governor to have a live action doll, opening the possibility of the first political sex scandal involving Barbie. (Or even--this is the '90s--Ken.) That aside, let me establish my credentials for explaining Minnesota before returning to the key issues. In addition to studying the state the way most outsiders do, by listening to Garrison Keillor and watching Fargo, I've been there twice and thus have more expertise than election-night pundits displayed. My past visits convince me that the state is stranger than California and therefore a reliable indicator of where American politics are headed.

Less than an hour into the first visit I believed I had walked onto the set of a movie titled Planet of the Tall Blonde People. The fact that everyone was friendly further persuaded me that something was radically wrong. I spent my final paranoid moments there imagining that I was surrounded by space aliens who modeled themselves after a Scandinavian Ozzie and Harriet and spoke a language concocted from intergalactic transmissions of Canadian Public Radio.

The next trip was to Northfield, described by friends as a pretty, quiet, wholesome town. Arriving on a Saturday night, we found Western gunslingers hanging around downtown street corners. The official explanation was that we blundered into Jesse James Days, commemorating his gang's raid on a local bank. A likely story: cowboys and Minnesotans. I did not risk staying another Saturday night to find out the truth about Northfield.

My first take on the election, therefore, was that we have been scammed by Garrison Keillor; far from being gentle and quaint, Minnesotans are the kind of people who would naturally elect a pro wrestler. However that may be, they, like the inventors of our district's voting machine, have glimpsed the latest fundamental principle of American politics: Voters just want to have fun. And they will pay for it. Jesse Ventura is fun. He is marketable.

There are limits beyond which we would not want to go in franchising politicians, even in the name of campaign finance reform. Jesse to the contrary, live action dolls of candidates are not a good idea, given recent affairs. For another governor and a vice president, moreover, the concept of an action figure is problematic. We have, nonetheless, a wonderful opportunity to pay for elections by selling political products, just as we have in charging people to vote. I would happily dump quarters into an arcade-quality voting machine and I'd spring $20 for an Al Gore Out-to-Lunch box or an Al D'Amato Farewell Tour T-shirt.

There are undemocratic implications--Bill Gates has more quarters than the rest of us. But if he wants to stand at a voting machine and pump in quarters, that's better than having folks pump in millions under the present system, especially if we attract younger voters at the same time. Better yet, merchandising candidates holds out the greatest democratic promise of all. Everyone can buy a politician.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.