Grassroots Populism: Minnesota Politics

(upbeat music) – [Voiceover] At the
turn of the 20th century, Minnesota’s entrenched
Republican Party was challenged by
the most successful, radical third party
in American history. From 1918 to 1944, the Farmer
Labor Party was strong enough to wrest control of
the state’s government away from the established
political parties, forever transforming
Minnesota’s political climate. (folk music) – [Voiceover] The midwest
had a one party system, because so many of the states
were brought into the Union as Republican states, and
that initial development of their parties
meant that it was hard for any kind of other
competition to grow up. The Democratic Party
basically had it’s stronghold in New York City and
in northeastern cities and in the south. And the rest of the country
was a Republican stronghold. In a one party system, voters curiously are not
very loyal to one party. There’s something
about competition that makes for part
of an identification. And the lack of
party competition and the fact that
the Republican Party didn’t have to fight
to build an electorate, meant that a large
number of voters really were ready there for
being picked up by people who wanted to start
protest organizations, because these people
weren’t particularly loyal to the Republican Party. States are laboratories
of democracy. That is to say that
one of the great things about American
Federalism is that you can have policy experiments
and political experiments and organizational experiments. So there’s a kind of
dynamism and innovation that’s built into
American politics. And for me, that’s
what was so fascinating about the Farmer Labor party
was it showed the possibility for dynamism and innovation that American Federalism
makes possible. Farming is a very
insecure business. So that insecurity was
something that farmers in the 19th century and 20th
century, until the 1930s, were hoping to
politically fix somehow. Workers didn’t have protections. They didn’t have protections
for hours and more important, they couldn’t organize. They would get stomped
on if they organized. So farmers were insecure,
workers were insecure in terms of their
organizational rights, or so it seemed to people,
because they were distant from banks and from cities
and from what seemed to be the centers of national
and economic powers. So they seemed to be
potentially at the mercy of other people making big
decisions about their lives. That created a context that was
very favorable in Minnesota. Between the strength of
the socialist trade unions and suddenly the
emergence and setting up of shop in St. Paul of
the Nonpartisan League, and then their organization out in the rural
areas of Minnesota, the two basic kinds
of economic insecurity created the potential
for a coalition. In the 1920s and 1930s, if you
were an aspiring politician, there were only two
places you wanted go. You wanted to
become a Republican or you wanted to become
a Farmer Laborite. There was a very talented
socialist trade unionist who is completely obscure today, who was actually very important in the development of
the Farmer Labor Party. A guy named William Mahoney. He was a person who threw
himself into this idea that we ought to
have an organization that would function
between elections, to keep the discussion going
about what they’re all about and to focus on how we’re
gonna get good candidates to run for the
different positions. And in the 30s it really
takes off as a third party. And it’s really
the most successful state level third
party we’ve ever had. It’s in that sense a unique
political organization. That’s a growing
concern until 1938 when Harold Stassen takes over all the reasonable sections
of the platform and just says “If you get me, you’ll get
a reasonable Republican “and just have to believe
everything the Farmer Laborites “have stood for.” But the party limped along, and then in 1944 decided “Yep, we’ll go in and we’ll
move into a Democratic Party.” And the democratic party said
“Come on over, we want you, “because we’re trying to build
ourselves a Democratic Party “as now the new party,
it’s the strong party, “and we want to
bootstrap ourselves “into getting the kind of
strength in the electorate “that democratic parties are
getting everywhere else.” The reason that we don’t have
state level third parties like the Farmer Labor
Party is that the new deal was a big success and it
permanently strengthened the Democratic Party. – [Franklin D.
Roosevelt] I recognize that the many proclamations
from state capitals and from Washington,
the legislation, the Treasury regulations
and so forth, couched for the most part
in banking and legal terms, ought to be explained for the benefit of
the average citizen. – [Voiceover] All the
prestige of doing good things in American politics moved
over to the Democratic party. So it’s just very hard to start a plausible third
party organization. (surreal piano music) The Minnesota Farmer Labor
Party’s success, failure. It fails because it’s
not around, right? So we don’t have Farmer
Labor politicians. Success, it’s a
success in the sense that it created a political
tradition and it’s encoded in the name of the Democratic
Farmer Labor Party. To that extent voters,
every election, get reminded that they
have a political tradition here in Minnesota
that is right there on the ballot in front of them. It created politicians who
were more open minded, I think, about social policy and
certainly much more open to organized labor than
Democratic Party politicians elsewhere in the country. Politicians who were heirs
to the kind of progressivism that the Farmer Labor Party
tried to institutionalize and make permanent. – [Voiceover] Prairie
Mosaic is funded by the Minnesota Arts and
Cultural Heritage Fund, with money from the vote
of the people of Minnesota on November 4th, 2008, the North
Dakota Council on the Arts, and by the members
of Prairie Public.

Maurice Vega

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