Nonpartisan League

#1319 Looking Back

#1319 Looking Back

"I really loved the year 2018, but I'm even more looking forward to the year 2019."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

We look back at 2018 and wish everyone a happy New Year. This episode is our chance to revisit all of the great conversations we've had about Jefferson in 2018.

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.

North Dakota: A Child of Yesterday, Child of Promise

Even by American standards, North Dakota is a child of yesterday. The Declaration of Independence was written 238 years ago, and the Constitution 227 years ago. I spent some time last week with Grace Link, the former First Lady of North Dakota. She is 96. That means she has been alive for 76% of North Dakota history. She is strong and healthy and eager to talk the issues. "Well," she says, pushing a plate of homemade cookies across the table, "I guess I am slowing down a little." And all I could think was, when I'm 96, I will have been dead for 15 years. It's ok to slow down a little. There are many North Dakotans older than Grace. We have been a state for not much more than one long lifetime. Art Link's parents were immigrants who came to northwestern North Dakota from the Sudetenland. We are that recent on the world's stage.

In England I lived for a time in a house that was built 300 years before President Harrison signed North Dakota's statehood papers in 1889. We are just getting started here.

It always makes me a little uneasy, however, to conflate North Dakota statehood with North Dakota history. Native Americans had been in this place for thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands of years, before white people stumbled in. They had developed an integrated and sustainable lifeway in a very harsh environment that left a light, almost imperceptible footprint on the land. We should have listened more and conquered less; we still should. The earthlodge villages clustered around the Heart and Knife Rivers were the epicenter of a continental trade network before Columbus first held a mariner's compass in his hands. Even the white history of North Dakota is much longer than the story of our statehood suggests. The French explorer Verendrye was here in 1738, and Lewis and Clark lingered among the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1804-05. It's easy to slip into Eurocentrism in talking about the history of North Dakota.

The first person to file a homestead claim in North Dakota was a man named Joseph Rolette. The date was June 10, 1868. I have never been to the site, Section 4, Township 163-57, Pembina County, but I mean to make a pilgrimage. Actually, he never proved up his claim. By 1925, 39% of North Dakota's total acreage had been homesteaded, 17,417,466 acres, 118,472 total claims. Only Nebraska had a higher percentage of land taken up by homesteaders. The number of farms has steadily declined in the course of North Dakota history. Today, there are approximately 31,000 farms in the state. It goes down by 200 or so per year, though I am predicting that that number will begin to rise as the "new agrarian movement" takes root on the northern plains and young couples create smaller non-traditional farms like islands in an agribusiness sea. Meanwhile, after the Civil War, a huge swath of North Dakota was given to the railroads as an incentive to thrust their rails across so unlikely a landscape. The total runs to more than 10 million acres.

The first hundred years of North Dakota history represent our agrarian phase. We all know this story: family farmers struggling to eke out a living against seemingly impossible odds: a fierce climate with a short growing season, periodic drought, a weak credit and transportation infrastructure, and—frequently enough—exploitation by out-of-state railroads, milling companies, and banks. That first century was punctuated with periodic attempts by the farmers to take control of their destiny: the Grange, the Populist Party, the Farmers Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Nonpartisan League, the Farmers' Holiday Association, the cooperative movement, etc. In the end, it was the New Deal and the postwar federal Farm Program, coupled with reasonable consolidation, that brought economic stability to the North Dakota family farm.

What we needed most of all was economic diversity. Great leaders like William L. Guy (1960-72) worked to make sure that some of the value-added remained in North Dakota by way of mine-mouth coal generating plants, and sugar beet processing within our boundaries; and Governor Ed Schafer (1992-2000) carefully crafted a business-friendly climate by way of our tax and regulatory protocols.

Since the ND Centennial (1989), and certainly since the Millennium, North Dakota has been beginning to pass out of its agrarian phase into something else. Agriculture was still the number one industry in North Dakota, but fewer young people wanted to stay on the land, and the rural population of North Dakota had begun a dramatic mass exodus to our cities. Then came the Bakken Oil Boom. If ever there was a fundamental "game changer" in North Dakota history, it was the confluence of a limitless volume of oil bearing shale and breathtaking new extraction technologies. Agriculture will, of course, continue, but, west of the Missouri River, we are rapidly becoming an industrialized landscape that produces more wealth from carbon than from wheat, cattle, and corn. It's going to be wild ride in the next 50 years.

Still, to understand what it is (or at least what it has been) to be a North Dakotan, you have to drive on blacktop roads for five or six hours on a gray wintry day with some ground drifting of snow flurries. It may be mid-morning or mid-afternoon, but the clouds are dark and looming and close to the earth, and the sun, if it appears at all, is nothing but a pale silhouetted disk you can sometimes make out where the cloud cover is thin. It's day, but it feels as if God forgot to turn all the banks of lights on. The earth is inert and everything seems to be in hibernation. The trees of the shelter belts are bare. From inside your car you can almost hear the rattle of the bleached out corn stalks in the wind. A tumbleweed rolls over the gray asphalt on its way to Texas. You drive past one abandoned farmstead after the next. You know the ones that are still occupied, because there are six or eight vehicles parked in the circular drive. You can drive all day through that countryside and it looks essentially the same all day. It's not quite flat. Here and there you cross a coulee where the road dips down to accommodate, or you climb up over a rill, and always you feel the swell of the Great Plains. It is a vast brooding landscape in every direction seemingly to the end of the earth. Every twenty minutes you pass through a town or what used to be a town, with a silver water tower with some painted out graffiti on it, a hapless main street where you find a Rexall Drug store and think, "Wow, there are still Rexall Drug stores!" A café with eight big pickups parked haphazardly around its corner lot. Three bars. A post office in a Quonset. The library/senior citizens center in the old J.C. Penny building. And then suddenly you have drifted past the King Kone Drive In at the end of town, "closed for the winter Go Bobcats!!" and you are back out in the big open again, and the ground drifts are getting a little more frequent and ominous.

You feel free. And you feel little. At the same time.

This is North Dakota. The land matters at least as much as the civilization we have plopped on it. At least for now.