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Ana Maria Cornea / Gavel Media

“Go Out There And Be Loud”: An Interview with Will Stancil

There's this traditional mold of what a politician is supposed to be. Of course, that classification is increasingly meaningless in a country where, for instance, a bartender can become Congress's foremost progressive voice, but in America, it's a truth universally acknowledged that 'politicians' – whoever they are – are some combination of distant, uncaring, corrupt, or flat-out incompetent. The incompetence criticism goes double for local officeholders; why else would it take two weeks to fix the Green Line? I think it's telling that the only positive cultural depiction of local politics is Parks and Recreation.


Of course, local governments' near-universal reputation for incompetence, sloth, and general unimportance is (generally) unmerited. And no one can speak to the importance of local policymaking more than Will Stancil, a Democratic candidate for Minnesota House District 61A in 2024. Stancil, an attorney and civil rights expert by training (and controversial Twitter presence by way of his spirited defense of the Biden economy and online sparring with far-right scientific racists), hopes to bring his unique academic background to Minnesota politics. On a Friday afternoon Zoom call, Stancil shared his priorities as a prospective legislator and vision for his community.


So, if people outside your district know you, I'm guessing it's probably from Twitter, where you've gotten into these arguments with people across the entire political spectrum. Just thinking recently, there was the whole 'vibecession' discourse and that racist pseudoscience garbage with [far-right personality] Steve Sailer, those sorts of folks. So why those issues? What motivates you to – when you're picking the battles that you choose online – what drives that? 


It's a good question. I mean, with regards to the race science stuff, I just really hate the far right. I really hate the racists. My background is in civil rights. You know, I just think these people are the scum of the earth, and frankly a danger to the country. And I think that there's a real problem where no one confronts them. With regard to the other thing, I felt like it was this almost emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Where there was this, you know, you could look at any of the data, and you'd see that the economy looked pretty good. And then yet everyone was treating it as incredibly obvious [that] the economy was terrible. And it just was intolerable, like, why can't we just say what's happening here?


I think, in some ways, that's what draws me into something. There would be the elephant in the room and no one would say anything about it, and I think in those situations it's useful to have someone who just stands up and says, look at the thing that's happening, look at the problem, the situation, the reality. And when you do that a lot of times – the key to getting people to recognize it is just repetition and volume. And it's amazing how much of that you can produce as a single person.


So, I'd like to move on to more about your background specifically. You grew up in small-town North Carolina, got your undergrad at Wake Forest, then you went to law school at Minnesota. So you had these three different environments – how did they shape you into the sort of politically engaged person that you are today?


Since I was a teenager, I've been pretty liberal. But I've grown up around people who were, you know – North Carolina, small town, is not a very liberal place. So I had to grow up learning to talk to conservatives, and I'm never going to get along with far-right MAGA reactionary types. But a more traditional conservative, a religious conservative, or a fiscal conservative, I can get along with these people; that's okay. You know, we don't have fundamentally different values; we just have somewhat different priorities sometimes. 


I also think that, frankly, I've spent my whole life in places that are not Ivy League colleges. I've never really set foot there, I never lived there. I get a little defensive about the so-called "flyover states" – I think that one thing you discover is that people who think that they're real fancy and smart, a lot of the time they're no different than anyone else. They've just learned affectations. The most brilliant people I know, a lot of them come from my hometown in Belmont, North Carolina, and in the Midwest, too, here in Minnesota. Minnesota kind of gets short shrift sometimes, treated as yokels – think Fargo – but there's just as many smart and competent people here as anywhere else. And I think that makes me distrustful of people who claim to have a monopoly on knowledge or the right way to do things. Even the fanciest people make lots of mistakes and are basically no different than anyone else.


I don't like snobbery. I like expertise, and I like smart people, but not once it transitions over to just being total snobbery.


Absolutely. So, in your academic career, you've done a lot of research on racial integration and desegregation, especially public policy in Minnesota. What makes those issues of civil rights so compelling to you?


It kind of comes from where I'm from. I mean, I'm from the South. In college, I studied a lot of Southern history, including the history of civil rights and integration. And I really just believe very strongly that the great thing about America is diversity, integration, pluralism, tolerance – the sort of corny liberal values. Really, deep down, those are the most important liberal values to me. A lot of the time, people are like, oh, you're a neoliberal, you're a liberal. I'm not really a neoliberal, but I'm a liberal, and I'm a liberal who talks a lot about the problems with liberalism. And one of them is that liberals don't defend their values. They act like they aren't compelling or legitimate. And I think the idea of an open society where different kinds of people can belong, and everyone has an opportunity, and no one is the same, is a really compelling idea, and that's always been the promise of America. That's what made America, kept America strong economically and democratically for the most part in recent years, while a lot of countries have struggled.


Right. So with your background in academia, I always found it interesting when someone with a background in research and academia runs for office. Obviously you need different skill sets for these very different environments, but what skills from your academic background overlap with your new political career?


So I have a little bit of an unusual academic job because I am an attorney. I do get involved in a lot of policy work around the state, and I work a lot with elected leaders and policymakers, and I've been involved in lawsuits and litigations on civil rights. So I'm not entirely a professor, I don't interact with students very much. But there's an academic ethos of attention to detail, attention to complexity – the cliché of unpacking an issue piece by piece – that I do think helps a lot when you're thinking about policy issues.


And a really important issue in my district is public safety. Crime overall is down, but there's been a spate in my district of violent gun robberies, and people are scared, and rightfully so. And they're layered on quality-of-life issues, public safety, police response times – instead of being pro-this or anti-this, I think these are four or five different pieces that have to be solved together. It makes it easier for me to engage with some of these problems outside of an ideological frame.


More about your campaign: besides winning, obviously, what would you consider a success for your campaign? You mentioned public safety and quality-of-life issues, but are there any other issues that you want more people in your district and community to pay more attention to?


My district is really concerned with the vitality and prosperity of the city. It actually includes most of downtown Minneapolis, it joins uptown Minneapolis, which was previously a major commercial area. These areas have been absolutely knocked flat by COVID and by the George Floyd unrest, so people are very concerned with this issue, and I think it needs a higher profile in the legislature. It's really bad for the city to have all this commercial tax basis vacant. I also think, traditionally, this issue has been very concerned with metropolitan government, which is a kind of weird, wonky, local thing, but the last two representatives – one of them's my boss, the other one is the current guy – have both been very concerned with metropolitan government and planning, and the state has lost sight of this. So I think drawing more attention to that and the need to have better metropolitan government and use these tools to build lots of housing, making these areas more economically stable or accessible to people from all walks of life – drawing attention to those sorts of things would be huge.


Also: public education. I'm a big, big, big public education supporter. As far as I know, most of the other candidates in the race right now are not. I'm sure they're all public education supporters to some degree because it's the Democratic primary, but it's not as big of an emphasis [for them]. And I'd like to raise the profile of public educators in this race, make people understand that this is an important issue that the legislature really needs to address.


That's really great to hear personally. I'm actually planning on going into public education.


Really? What would you do?


I would get my major in History and minor in Secondary Education, so I'd be teaching high school history.


I have my undergrad degree and Master's degree in History. As you get higher up, you have to specialize more than the high school level. I mean, I could talk for an hour and a half about how the decline of America is being caused by the decline of History as a respected profession.


And I'd probably listen to you for an hour and a half! But unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time, so last question and I can let you go. Obviously, it's 2024; we're in an election year, so politics and campaigning are on our minds now more than ever. So for the students at Boston College who might read this who are from that liberal-progressive sort of background, or really for any young person looking to get into politics or community involvement, what advice would you give?


So the most important thing, I think, is that you have agency. People think the world happens to them and they can't do anything about it. And you don't know – this comes from my history background – going in, you don't know what you can affect, what you can change, because it's not everything. You can't fix the world.


But you do have control over things. The events that happen in the world are a result of what people are doing in the world. And if you go out there, put in an effort and exert yourself, if you make a noise, make a splash, and you don't worry so much about what people think, you can think: what can I do? What levers do I have to make change and how can I pull them as hard as possible? And I've said this every time I have to give an interview, but if people are like, oh, how did you change the vibes on the economy? – which was debatable, whether or not that was me – anyone can do what I do. I wasn't saying anything particularly brilliant. I wasn't going deep into the data. I just kept posting the same charts and saying the same things over and over and over again to the point that it became impossible to ignore.


It was not rocket science. It was just a willingness to go out there and be loud. It doesn't take a genius to do that, it doesn't take any expertise to do that. And I think a lot of people have a lot of power that they don't understand they have, and they could use if they try.

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