Populism Lives in Minnesota’s DFL

By Nate Pedersen

As we watch the ongoing battle between the two would-be Senators from Minnesota play out in court, it’s worth reflecting on why Al Franken’s party is listed as DFL rather than just D for Democrat. The short answer is DFL stands for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, reflecting the 1944 merger of the Democratic Party with the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. Since then, all Democrats from Minnesota run under the DFL banner. The longer answer, however, is much more interesting:

After steering the Nonpartisan League to stunning electoral victories in 1916 in North Dakota, A.C. Townley opened up shop in the Twin Cities with visions of similar success in Minnesota. The original NPL was primarily a coalition of farmers but, in Minnesota, Townley joined forces with the labor movements in the Twin Cities and Duluth. Together, they nominated a slate of NPL endorsed candidates in the 1918 Republican primary, including Charles A. Lindbergh Sr., father of the famous aviator, who was nominated for the governorship.

With an eye on the rapid success of the NPL in North Dakota, who were on the brink of holding complete control over state government, the Republican governor of Minnesota hastily formed an anti-NPL “Commission of Public Safety.” The Commission investigated the NPL and, unsurprisingly, declared them traitors with Communist sympathies, thus providing the state the justification it needed to break up NPL meetings with strong arm tactics. Organizers were run out of town and “sedition” leaders were jailed. As a result, the NPL handily lost in the 1918 primary. The NPL Republicans, consisting primarily of Norwegian and Swedish farmers, were outraged and left the party in droves.

United by an anti-corporate political outlook with the strong labor movements in the Twin Cities and Duluth, the remnants of the NPL formed a third party for the general election. Calling themselves the Farmer-Labor party, they elected a number of state legislators in the general election of 1918, firmly displacing the Democrats as the leading opposition party to the Republicans in Minnesota.

The Farmer-Labor party built on its success in the early 1920s, briefly holding both US Senate seats; however the Republicans coasted to victory on the prosperity of the late ’20s and it wasn’t until the onset of the Great Depression that public sentiment returned, with renewed force, to the populism of the Farmer-Labor party.

The Farmer-Labor party reached the height of its domination in the 1930s, electing three governors and holding both Senate seats. The first Farmer-Labor governor was Floyd B. Olson, a charismatic speaker with a strong populist streak, who was elected in 1930. Olson was enormously popular in Minnesota and was easily re-elected twice on a radical political platform of a “cooperative commonwealth” of state-owned banking, insurance, and industry interests. Olson’s premature death from stomach cancer in 1936, at only 44 years of age, cut short an enormously promising political career.

After Olson’s death, his lieutenant governor served the remainder of his term. Minnesotans then elected Elmer A. Benson governor. Benson was another radical from the Farmer-Labor party, in 1936. In the same year, the Farmer-Labor party held both Senate seats, five of 10 US House seats, and maintained control of the state legislature. Benson, however, lacked the coalition-building ability of his predecessor, and was soundly defeated by a Republican in the 1938 election. With Benson’s defeat came the end of Farmer-Labor dominance in Minnesota politics. Burdened by accusations of corruption and Communist sympathies, the party gradually lost its hold on power.

The party was saved from extinction by the intervention of a young political science professor, Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey led a coalition to bring together the radical elements of the Farmer-Labor Party with the conservative elements of the Democratic Party in order to forge a single opposition party against the newly resurgent Republicans. Largely through Humphrey’s impressive diplomatic efforts, an official merger was pronounced in 1944. The newly formed Democratic-Farmer-Labor party promptly elected Humphrey as mayor of Minneapolis, beginning a long and fruitful political career.

While the merger with the Democratic Party of necessity moderated the more radical elements of the Farmer-Labor party, the progressive elements on which the party was built still play a role in Minnesota politics. This populist strain was most recently voiced in Sen. Paul Wellstone, a fighter for progressive causes. Wellstone was pure Farmer-Labor party and would have felt right at home with Olson and Benson and the anti-corporate battles of the 1930s. As it’s Sen. Wellstone’s seat Franken and Coleman are currently vying for, let’s hope Franken wins his court battle and we have one more progressive voice from Minnesota in the Senate.

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

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2009

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