The Capacity of Material Prosperity to Undermine Prairie Radicalism

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading books about the Nonpartisan League, including the standard history of the NPL, Robert Morlan's Political Prairie Fire. The League will achieve its centennial moment during the 2015 legislative session in North Dakota. It was during the infamous 1915 session that Cass County legislator Treadwell Twitchell (who appears to have received his name out of a Charles Dickens novel), allegedly told the desperate, crusading farmers who had assembled at the North Dakota capitol to "Go home and slop the hogs!" Twitchell later claimed that he had not made the incendiary remark, but he's stuck with it one way or the other. It's an essential part of the NPL legend, and whatever he said in February 1915 touched off one of the most remarkable episodes in American history.

In 1915 nine out of ten North Dakotans lived on family farms. The great majority of them were struggling against almost impossible odds to put food on the table for their families and buy seed for next year's crops. Out-of-state banks controlled the credit supply. The interest rates they charged were steep, even usurious. Out-of-state milling and elevator corporations controlled the price of wheat. Their grain grading systems were self-serving, often corrupt, and their scales were sometimes rigged to their own advantage. Out-of-state railroads monopolized the transport of grain at a time when automobiles and trucks were rare in North Dakota. The whole "system" was designed to benefit what the NPL called "Big Biz." North Dakota was essentially a grain-production colony controlled by powerful individuals and entities located in Minneapolis, Chicago, and beyond. One historian has called that North Dakota "a tributary province of Minneapolis-St. Paul."

The farmer-citizens of North Dakota had attempted to improve their conditions in a range of ways, beginning with the Populist Movement, but without measurable success. By 1915 they had come to realize that until they took control of the means of production—until they broke the out-of-state monopolies that controlled the economic destiny of North Dakota—they would never know even moderate prosperity. They were, in short, driven to a revolution—not at the end of a pitchfork or musket, but at the polling booth.

The Nonpartisan League was the brainchild of Arthur C. Townley, Fred Wood, and Arthur LeSueur. Townley was the organizational genius. He was a gifted political strategist, a brilliant stump orator, and a born rabble rouser. His goal was to sign up enough farmers to take control of North Dakota before the opposition realized what was happening. In this he succeeded, thanks to the newfangled Model T Fords he rattled over the dirt roads of the state, and his willingness to accept postdated checks from financially strapped farmers. In 1916 the League (technically nonpartisan but in fact mostly an insurgency within the dominant Republican Party), elected a majority in the ND House of Representatives and Lynn J. Frazier of Hoople as ND Governor. Frazier got 79% of the vote. Two years later, Frazier was re-elected, and both the House and the Senate were now solidly controlled by NPL legislators. That made the legislative session of 1919 one of the most interesting in North Dakota history. Virtually the entire League program was enacted: our three-member Industrial Commission was created, with a broad mandate to "engage in the business of manufacturing and marketing farm products" and to "establish a system of warehouses, elevators, flour mills, factories, plants, machinery and equipments, owned, controlled and operated by it."

This was a breathtaking mandate. If the League program had been fully implemented, we might have established a bunch of state-owned banks, state-owned elevators in many locations, state slaughter houses and cold-storage warehouses, and a range of value-added agricultural processing factories (all socialist) scattered across the North Dakota landscape. What we wound up with was a single state-owned bank (Bismarck) and a single state-owned elevator (Grand Forks). Even so, by 1920 North Dakota was "the most socialist place in America."

Well, my, how things change.

The question that puzzles all historians is how the little conservative backwater of North Dakota found itself in the midst of a socialist revolution. We were then, as we are now, a very conservative people. Some historians say those pesky Norwegian immigrants carried a reformist sensibility with them to Ellis Island. Others point to the worldwide workers movement of that era. It is true that the period between 1900 and 1945 represents the high-water mark of international socialism. In thinking about the meteoric rise of the Nonpartisan League it is worth remembering that all the major European countries, including Great Britain, were teetering on the brink of socialist revolutions in the years before World War I. North Dakota's radicalized farmers took power in 1916-1918, just at the moment of the Russian Revolution (1917).

My answer is simple. I believe there are two types of radicals—ideological radicals and reactive radicals. The first category includes people like Lenin and Trotsky or—in the American context—Thomas Paine and even Thomas Jefferson. These are men (and women) who possess what might be called "the revolutionary temperament." It's amazing to me that Jefferson could have been elected to the American Presidency. His writings are full of surprisingly radical pronouncements like, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Such radicals are comparatively rare—and they almost never taste power.

The other brand of "radicals" are essentially reactionaries. They have no instinct for revolution. They are, by habit, non-political. They just want to live their lives with economic sufficiency and something like a "square deal," to use Theodore Roosevelt's favorite formulation. They have no particular ideology. They are certainly not averse to the profit motive. They do not wish to redistribute wealth or level the social order. But when the existing social, political or economic systems are rigged to exploit them to the point of peonage, when they cannot make ends meet no matter how hard they work, otherwise conservative people can be driven into temporary radicalism. One of my oldest friends once gave me perfect advice: "never drive anyone into a corner they cannot get out of except by going over the top of you."

This is what happened in North Dakota in 1915. The actual winning of power in 1916 and 1918 was such an ecstasy that it siphoned off much of the revolutionary anger. It was a stunning and largely unexpected political catharsis, but it perhaps had the unintended effect of returning many of the "radicals" who pulled it off back to a kind of complacency. Meanwhile, World War I broke the trajectory of the farmers' movement. Prices rose. There was a worldwide demand for maximum production. The Wilson administration passed repressive crisis legislation that crushed dissent: the Espionage Act of 1917 (still in effect, though often amended), the Sedition Act of 1918, etc. Townley was jailed in Jackson, Minnesota, for impeding recruitment of the farm boys he rightly recognized as "cannon fodder" for the plutocratic munitions industries fattening on war profits (and profiteering).

Once the Great War had changed everything, and a few of the League's goals had been met with largely symbolic reforms, North Dakotans returned to their normal, largely apolitical, and traditionally conservative ways.

And today, the great-grandchildren of that radical episode are having a mushy love affair with Big Biz. This would have killed Townley; it would sadden Jefferson; and probably it would hurl TR right back into The Arena.