Martin Olav Sabo and the Spirit of Democracy

Martin Olav Sabo, who served as a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota for 28 years and became chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, died on March 8, from respiratory ailments.
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Martin Olav Sabo, who served as a Democratic Congressman from Minnesota for 28 years and became chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, died on March 16, from respiratory ailments. Sabo is well known in Minnesota for his leadership in the Legislature, when it effected, often with bipartisan support, a series of major innovations -- balanced budgets, a fairer formula for school funding, and transparency in state and local governments. Partly as a result of these, Time magazine touted the "Minnesota Miracle" on its cover in 1971.

Sabo took his knack for breaking partisan gridlock and getting things done to Washington. As chair of the Budget Committee he was principle architect of the 1993 federal budget and deficit reduction package which resulted in a budget surplus in 1998, for the first time in 30 years.

Sabo is remembered in public life for his devotion to a politics of respect across partisan divides and its potential for productive results. The New York Times obituary quotes him on this theme. "I've tried to treat my colleagues with respect," he said. "I don't recall ever making a public statement critical of my colleague, whether it's Democrat or Republican." The Times described Sabo as a man of "quiet Scandinavian demeanor [who] conveyed a sense of civility during increasingly partisan times." There is a backstory.

I first met Sabo when I was beginning the Reinventing Citizenship initiative in 1993 with the White House Domestic Policy Council, just after Bill Clinton had become president. Barb Rohde, Washington liaison from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute where I directed civic engagement efforts, took me around to meet the Minnesota Congressional delegation. I was excited about the meeting.

The Reinventing Citizenship effort built on Bill Clinton's campaign speech to the National Bar Association in July 1992, arguing that "America needs to restore the old spirit of partnership." Clinton had called for "visionary leaders throughout this nation, willing to work in their communities to end the long years of denial and neglect and divisiveness and blame."

I had interacted several times with the campaign and knew that President Clinton was serious about a renewed spirit of partnership between citizen leaders outside of government and as well as across departments and party divides within government. Martin Sabo embodied the spirit.

This spirit of democratic partnership infused his family background in the Norwegian farmer cooperative movements of North Dakota that birthed the Nonpartisan League which reshaped Midwestern politics. It also reflected the culture of Augsburg College, where he had graduated cum laude.

Augsburg, a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis, is in what can be called "the democracy college tradition" in American higher education. With roots in the Norwegian free church and Scandinavian folk schools, Augsburg's founding statement was chiefly written by Georg Sverdrup, grandson of Jacob Liv Borch Sverdrup, the founding figure in Norwegian schools for the peasantry who spent time in Denmark and was a contemporary of N.F.S. Grundtvig, the Danish philosopher of folk school education. Augsburg's statement challenged traditional university education which held up "the cultivated gentlemen" as the ideal type, disputed pedagogies which produced professionals separated from the people, and argued, in a folk school vein, that learning should be connected with living experience rather than preoccupied with "glossaries, citations, and crammed memories."

Sverdrup, the college's second president, in a talk to graduates in 1884 said that at many colleges "the aim appears to be the stuffing of knowledge into youth as one pours peas into an empty sack...where the teachers are eloquent and the students inarticulate...where everything is communicated but little or nothing is absorbed." At such schools, the rule was "Never think! Learn instead to conform to the prevailing code and you will succeed."

Augsburg was founded as a democratic alternative. Sabo exemplified its values in extraordinary ways, believing in the positive role of government and also the need for a much bigger environment of civic interaction.

Throughout our two years of work with the White House Martin Sabo was a regular source of counsel and helpful connections. His work to create the Sabo Center at Augsburg and his continuing involvement in its work was a major incentive for our moving the Center for Democracy and Citizenship to the college in 2009, where the two centers are now merged in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

Martin was enthusiastic about our work to "bring the public in," working with the Kettering Foundation and other partners to create public discussions on the purpose and future of colleges and universities that can reframe what is now often a polarized and narrow debate. He was, once again, also full of insight, ideas and relationships.

Martin Olav Sabo was full of the democratic spirit. His life and legacy are a vital resource for a nation which has never needed it more.

Harry C. Boyte, founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey Institute, is now Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg College.

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