Nonpartisan League Changed N. Dakota

By Nate Pedersen

More than wheat grew on the windswept plains of North Dakota in the early 20th century. In those wide-open spaces between the scattered farms sprung one of the most progressive political movements in American history. Calling themselves the Nonpartisan League, a group of farmers led by A.C. Townley burst like a prairie fire onto the political scene in 1916 and in a few short years managed to take complete control over North Dakotan government. Quickly enacting such progressive reforms as a state-run bank and mill, the Nonpartisan League became a startling example of what is possible to achieve when the government becomes a direct tool of the people. The NPL, however, quickly fell apart beneath the weight of its own success and while it continued to play an important role in North Dakotan politics for many years, it never again rose to its former heights.

The NPL was the brainchild of A.C. Townley, a failed flax farmer turned Socialist Party supporter, who put together a coalition of farmers to fight against the exploitation of North Dakotan farms by out-of-state business interests. Drawing up a radical political platform of state-owned banks, mills, and railroads, Townley spent 1915 traveling up and down the state in a borrowed Model-T Ford enlisting farmers in what he called the Nonpartisan League. Sympathetic to the NPL platform, and inspired by Townley’s superb oratory, farmers flocked to the ranks of the NPL in droves.

In the elections of 1916, the NPL swept into control of the state House and elected Lynn Frazier, a wheat farmer, governor of the state with almost 80% of the vote. Two years later, the NPL also had the Senate under its control and quickly began to enact some of the most progressive legislation in US history. A state bank was opened, along with a state mill and elevator. A state workmen’s compensation bureau was begun, as was a fire and tornado fund.

The early success of the NPL was short-lived, however, as the deep post-WWI recession combined with a severe drought to force the state bank to foreclose on the very farmers it was intended to support. Outraged, the voters of North Dakota recalled Frazier, who earned the dubious honor of being the first governor recalled by the people, and the NPL fell out of power in 1921. While it would never again enact such complete control over North Dakotan politics, the NPL remained a potent force for many years.

The NPL saw a resurgence in popularity during the Depression and in 1932 the firecracker William “Wild Bill” Langer, one of the earliest NPL supporters, was elected to the governorship. Langer was reluctantly removed from office under a fraud conviction in 1934, after infamously barricading himself and ten friends within the governor’s mansion, declaring martial law, and briefly seceding North Dakota from the United States. After a bout in prison, the fraud charges were dropped and Langer was elected once more to the governorship in 1936 and to the US Senate from 1940 to 1959.

From its earliest days the NPL operated as a political coalition rather than a political party, nominating candidates within the established parties who adhered to their platform. The Democratic Party was essentially nonexistent in North Dakota for the first 50 years of the 20th century, so this meant that the NPLers were primarily Republicans. After WWII, however, a group of young veterans decided that the liberal policies of the NPL would be better tied to a liberal national party and 1956 saw the official merger of the NPL with the Democratic Party and the death of the NPL as a separate political force. To this day, Democratic candidates for office from North Dakota run under the Democratic-NPL ticket. The ultra-progressive policies of the early NPL, however, have largely been set aside in favor of more moderate positions. Despite this, the state bank and state mill remain open and enormously popular. Furthermore, the still-standing NPL ban on corporate farming remains a potent example of the lingering appeal of NPL policies in what has become a relatively conservative state.

Progressive organizers today should be inspired by the early successes of the NPL and Townley’s voracious grassroots organizing abilities in the days before Internet and cell phones. In just over a year, and armed only with a Model-T Ford and a gift for stump speeches, Townley managed to single-handedly forge the NPL into an incredibly effective political coalition. By adopting a similar strategy of pushing a progressive agenda through an established party system, populists today can hope to achieve some of the same thrilling successes as in the early days of the NPL.

Nate Pedersen is a Minnesota native now living in Oregon as a volunteer with the Progressive Democrats of America. See

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

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