Winter 2020

The pundit


Larry Jacobs is spending the year as a visiting faculty member at the University of Oxford’s All Souls College, where he’s watching both Brexit and the U.S. presidential election play out.
Rich Ryan

Larry Jacobs grew up in a New York family that loved to talk politics. Even children were expected to share ideas and opinions at the dinner table. But shoot-from-the-hip perspectives always garnered a swift response from Jacobs’ father: “Why?”

“It was a terrifying question,” recalls Jacobs, now a professor of political studies at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “It’s easy to give an opinion but much harder to marshal a justification for it.”

Today, Jacobs’ carefully argued and fact-bolstered opinions are regularly cited in Star Tribune articles and Minnesota Public Radio reports, and his views on modern politics have been published in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Roll Call. He has presented at the National Press Club and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and CSPAN, among other media outlets. 

Jacobs, who holds the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies and heads the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, sees interaction with the media as a natural extension of his work as an academic, researcher, and professor.

How did you become the go-to source on Minnesota politics?

It’s not something I cultivate. Reporters and editors come to me, and they’re not always looking for a quote. Sometimes it’s just asking about context or examining a potential trend. A lot of academics aren’t keen on talking with the press, and there are definitely risks, since I can’t control what they write. But I feel like it’s part of my job. I feel honored.

Beyond being a pundit and bringing high-profile politicians to Minnesota, what does your job entail?

For about 15 years, the center has organized a retreat for the entire Legislature called One Minnesota. We put on a day’s worth of seminars focused on demographics, business trends, negotiation, health care, mining, and so on. The agenda is always set by the leadership of both parties.

If you’re a legislator, you spend a lot of time with members of your own party at the Capitol, but talking to and developing a relationship with someone outside your party or even in the other chamber is nearly impossible. At One Minnesota, people get to talk to each other. And afterward, when it comes time to develop a bill, you know some people. You can say, “Let’s get together again for lunch,” even if that person is a Democrat and you’re a Republican.

More talking is the answer to gridlock?

It’s very basic, but we currently have a very hard time talking across difference. Instead, we’re sorting ourselves into like-minded groups and silos. Having conversations across differences is hard. But if we’re going to succeed as a nation, we need to find areas where reasonable people can agree. Not every disagreement is disagreement over principle.

So you think America is more united than Washington would indicate?

Look at gun control, health care reform, immigration, climate change—if you ask most Americans, it isn’t much of a mystery about the direction we need to go. But we’ve also got these well-financed, well-armed, highly organized special-interest groups that will make our representatives pay dearly if they even start a discussion with the other side.

You launched a curriculum for educating election officials. Was it the first of its kind in the country? 

There is no other university or college in the United States that uses an online curriculum to train individuals who oversee voter registration, run the polls on election day, count votes, do post-election audits, or do any of the steps in between. When you look at some of the states that have had hanging chads or problems with their election machines, a lot of it is not partisan—it’s a lack of training. The election officials I know are all hard-working and ethical, but they don’t have the training.

Walter and Joan Mondale helped fund the chair you hold. You also teach a class with the former veep. What’s that like?

The Mondale Chair gives me reliable support to do my research, which is my true passion. But the surprising part about the chair is that it led to a relationship with Walter Mondale. To be honest, it was a little awkward at first, but we hit it off and we’ve been teaching a course on the U.S. Constitution and national security for the last 15 years. 

He was initially skeptical, but we kept at it and now he just loves it. He’s 92. At the end of last term, several students said their favorite part of the class was watching him give me a hard time, which he loves to do.

Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis writer and editor.