Empty theatrics dictate 2020 politics on the Iron Range

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

For one remarkable fall afternoon the President of the United States and his Democratic challenger converged on the political battlefield of northern Minnesota.

The Sept. 18 appearances of President Donald Trump at the Bemidji airport and former Vice President Joe Biden at a union training center near Duluth fed the hungry narrative that Minnesota may prove a pivotal swing state in the 2020 election.

Biden leads the state by about 8 points according to polling averages at the Economist. But Democrat Hillary Clinton only carried the state by 1.5 points in 2016 (though a significant third party vote contributed to Trump’s close finish).

Nevertheless, in a terrible election for Democrats, Clinton still won Minnesota. And in 2018 Democrats swept the whole slate of statewide elections, most by 6-10 percent.

Trumps’s strength in rural sections of central and northern Minnesota, however, should not be ignored. I live on the western Iron Range in Itasca County. This county voted for Obama twice, but tilted hard toward Trump in 2016 and rejected every statewide DFLer except Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2018.

But amid all this horse race talk, what issues are really at stake?

The end game for many Trump supporters seems to be full employment in mining, augmented by temporary pipeline work and perhaps some new copper nickel mines.

But the long term outlook for all these industries does not suggest lasting economic growth for the region. In fact, automation and corporate consolidation will reduce mining jobs over time. So, at best, the conventional political thinking of this region can only bring stratification — the preservation of good jobs for those who have them, and subservience for those who struggle at the margins.

I stayed on my native Mesabi Iron Range for the same reason you might turn to the next page of book you don’t want to end. I have to. The story is too good. But all stories must end. If the endings are good, they breed sequels.

A better future for the Iron Range does not begin with the fear-mongering of a rising strain of authoritarianism. You can vote however you like, but the outcome only matters if our communities can sustain themselves in a changing economy.

At some point we on the Iron Range simply became props in a political play. Matters of great local importance — jobs, the environment, economic migration, health care — become forged into zero-sum cultural battering rams. In fact, we are the battering rams, our heads worn to nubs by the pounding.

And when the vote is done we keep nothing but compounded versions of our old problems: job losses, income disparities, health care inequalities and declining schools. None of these woes attract national attention on their own. They are all too common. That’s because we live in a nation obsessed with power but afraid to use it for the common good.

I don’t know what the “Iron Range” means to these people who couldn’t find it on a map. I do know that the “Range” means one thing to a miner making a six-figure salary and another thing to a gay kid trying to get through school. It holds a certain meaning to a single mom pulling double shifts as a nursing assistant and yet another to a family pinned by generational poverty on the periphery of Range society.

This dichotomy prepares the sons and daughters of the Iron Range to die on both sides of a terrible war with ourselves.

At its best, Iron Range culture exemplifies togetherness, community, and upward mobility. At its worst, life on the Range is imbued with disdain of the outside world, power struggles over dwindling assets, and abject loneliness in the pit of the soul. Our strong hands clench into fists or fold in worry, but too often do nothing.

How your hands vote matters. What they do in our community matters more.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



Downtown Hibbing, like most Iron Range towns, features empty storefronts, a reminder of the real story that affects voters in the upcoming election. (PHOTO: Michael Steeber, Flickr CC-BY-SA)


  1. If Biden wins and Dems control House and Senate, go big or go home. 1. Repeal Taft-Hartley. 2. Expand Davis-Bacon to at least all employment that makes use of federal assets (BWCA-logging/mining on fed property, etc.) AND all hospital and care providers that receive federal funding. End the fillibuster.

  2. Sensible analysis and explanation. I hope some worthy candidates for public office are reading this and incorporate it into their platform.

  3. Julie Stroeve says

    Aaron, economic diversity will provide the long-term answers to life on the Iron Range, right? I hope so. The narrow confines of iron ore mining have stripped thousands of acres of their usefulness, and mining of any kind garners the same result. Think big, think long-term, and think out of the box. Small towns can thrive and succeed with diversity at the forefront of the debate. And thanks for your considered perspective, Aaron.

  4. Well crafted piece kind sir. And yet I have heard through a long grapevine at First and Howard there are those who still go for the bellicose. The towns be saved as you point out so nicely if all get on board with what will work as oppose$ to what will make the very few some dough. Fair shake for all.

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