Rep. Kim Norton: We must end polarization in political discussions

As I prepare for my final session in the Minnesota Legislature, I note a high probability that many important bills will not be heard or considered due to the nature of politics today. Not only have we scheduled one of the shortest sessions on record, but we live in highly partisan times with unprecedented moneyed influence — and it's an election year. All this points to a limited agenda and a limited ability to that ensure well-thought-out, debated, compromised and amended bills will pass.

Are things really all that polarized in politics today? Yes! The Pew Research Center has documented the citizenry's movement in our country away from the center and toward the ends of the political spectrum, which then is reflected in local, state and national elections. The result has been a growing unwillingness to compromise and seek common-ground solutions. Budget and policy impasses lead to shutdowns, special sessions and growing dissatisfaction with lawmakers. We've witnessed an increase in rigid, ideological thinking that has stymied governments across the country.

Today's polarized politics doesn't lead to the best outcomes, but rather a winner-takes-all, no compromise attitude that hinders our democracy. Rather than creating a playing field for compromise, highly partisan polarization has caused incivility, intolerance and other dysfunction. It will take a concerted effort by legislators and their leadership to bring back a more civil, democratic process.

One new and disturbing addition is the moneyed influence of too many political agendas, creating an inability to focus on what is right for the state or its citizens, instead focusing on the causes of the big money donors. When "speaking to the donor base" rather than speaking to the public at large carries the day, we are all in trouble.

As a political moderate I've sought to bring that perspective to my work at the Capitol. It can be difficult when highly partisan, controversial issues are at the forefront and constituent opinion is split, which is common in my district. I've occasionally found myself at odds with my caucus and local activists, especially when seeking compromise with members of the other party. I'm fortunate to represent Rochester, which does have a rich history of electing legislators willing to buck their caucuses to do what they think is best for their constituents and for the state. I've tried to use them as a support system and role models for working across the aisle.


Many current and former leaders across the country want to work actively to negate the polarization and improve how government works. There are several efforts, such as No Labels and A Working Group for A Working Congress, at the national level. The National Institute for Civil Discourse/NextGen also supports similar efforts at the state level. The University of Arizona developed NICD as a result of the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford.

Locally, the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Fellows instituted the Keep It Civil initiative. Mediation also has been used recently to work on contentious legislative issues. I've chosen to be trained through NICD and am also active in the other efforts working to overcome the political divisiveness and improve civility. I'm excited by the potential for change with these efforts.

The NICD initiative works at three important levels: elected officials, the media and the public. Its goal is to transform the political incivility and dysfunction undermining citizen trust and belief in our democracy and build toward a new generation of leaders who can work together to solve problems in our country and world. It is looking to develop statesmen/women — folks who can solve big problems with civil discourse and collaboration. They seek to do this through building and strengthening bipartisan relationships and respecting those with whom they serve.

When you get to know someone, you are far more likely to give them — and their opinion — the consideration it deserves without resorting to name calling and partisan rhetoric.

I've joined a bipartisan team that is facilitating workshops for other state legislatures to improve collegiality and legislative functioning. Small steps such as using the golden rule; talking about issues, not individuals; building on the positive or where you agree rather than dwelling on the negative; and leaving the sarcasm at home are good places for us all to start.

As citizens we can all model the kind of civil behavior and language at home, at school and in our communication with others that we hope to see in our elected officials.

Keep it Civil has paired me with Sen.Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, and I very much look forward to visiting his district this winter and getting to know him. It's a small, but necessary step legislators must engage in to become more civil and functional leaders. I hope large numbers will take up the challenge — it can only help.

Kim Norton, a DFLer from Rochester, represents District 25B in the Minnesota House of Representative. She can be reached by phone at 651-296-9249 or by email at

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