“Think of it as The Establishment 2.0,” says the New York Times, of the “Working Team of the Itasca Project,” a group of “14 men and women who oversee some of the biggest companies, philanthropies and other institutions in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding area,” and who meet weekly “to quietly shape the region’s economic agenda.” Or think of it another way, if you want. Like... as a cabal?
Or at least think of it as an illuminating example (and an unusually open one) of the “deep state,” the loose conglomeration of the unelected industrialists, financiers, spooks, and bureaucrats who actually run things. Except these guys... are good!
“Itasca operates behind the scenes,” said Tim Welsh, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which hosts the weekly breakfasts at its offices in the IDS Center here. “We all know each other but we are clearly not recognized as the people of Itasca.”
I don’t think that’s supposed to sound ominous, but it’s basically how one might refer to, say, SMERSH.
Itasca’s impact is very real, however. And its consensus-oriented approach offers an alternative path at a time when politics nationally — and in many state capitols — seems hopelessly divided along partisan lines.
Powerful business leaders “operating behind the scenes” to influence policy does indeed “offer an alternative path” to what is traditionally called “politics,” which, as we all know, is hopelessly partisan.
It is an eternal wish of the elite political press that a group of terribly smart “non-partisan” people with solid credentials and good intentions will just step in, take charge, and fix all our problems, partisanship and politicians be damned. This is a profoundly anti-democratic impulse, but because the sorts of elites we’re talking about consider themselves beyond and above ideology, they don’t generally understand that they’re expressing an ideological preference for oligarchy. (The best recent example of this preference was the 2012 “Politico Primary,” an amazing exercise in un-self-awareness in which the top editors of Politico—a publication that is resolutely “nonpartisan”—held an imaginary third-party presidential primary, contested by deeply unelectable longtime establishmentarians like Erskine Bowles and David Petraeus.)
That wish is why this particular group is treated, by the Times, as a bunch of do-gooding problem-solvers who get results, and not like a secretive cabal of powerful unelected elites who exercise power by literally ringing up politicians and telling them what to do:
So when a proposal to raise the gasoline tax in 2008 to help rebuild roads and transit systems was vetoed by the Republican governor at the time, Tim Pawlenty, phone calls from Itasca’s business leaders helped persuade enough Republican legislators to cross the aisle and override the veto.
So it’s a well-intentioned cabal. Raising the gas tax is a good thing. (I guess leave it to Minnesota to have a secretive business cabal of polite good citizens who want to raise taxes to improve infrastructure.) And they are interested in doing something about “ income inequality,” too, which sounds nice.
But also, they are apparently “pushing for McKinsey-style benchmarks to measure the performance of local public schools.” That sounds like a campaign that ought to be waged in public, maybe, considering the highly ideological nature of that pursuit, and the stakeholders involved.
The Itasca Group is actually exactly how things aren’t supposed to work. Say what you will about Chambers of Commerce (they’re among the most destructive institutions in American civic life, is one thing to say), but at least they’re a proper lobby. They’re a recognizable and public thing you can point to, clearly identified and identifiable as advocates for business interests. This is... something else.
Though if you subscribe to the theory that the only way to make society more equitable and just within the strictures of our current economic and political system is by getting the wealthy people whose preferences actually determine what is considered politically possible to somehow take up that cause themselves, then I guess the Itasca Project is the most logical model of progress. I’m just not sure we should be celebrating that it has to exist.