North Dakota's Non-Partisan League
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
North Dakota's Non-Partisan League: Lessons for the Free State Project
by Sean Scallon
This article first appeared in the February 2002 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (www.ChroniclesMagazine.org).
"Here in North Dakota, people vote Republican for president or for local offices because they're seen as the white party," North Dakota State University political science professor David Danbom told me. "But they'll vote for the Democrats for Congress and some local offices to look after their economic interests in Washington or here at home."
North Dakota is as good a place as any to see these cultural and political forces in action. But it is also a place where people on the outside of the elite economic and political structures of the state once used the two-party duopoly to build an independent political force that swept the Upper Midwest from 1915 to 1925. It was not a new party, like the Progressives of Wisconsin or the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, but an organization that used the Republican and Democratic nominations to advance its own agenda: the Non-Partisan League (NPL).
I am not offering a paean to the League's socialist policies or its legacy within North Dakota, which includes a state bank that contributes $40-50 million to state coffers each fiscal year and a state grain elevator and mill that, like so many socialist enterprises, struggles every year and is constantly asking the state for more money. A brief overview of the League's history, however, may help conservatives, patriots, libertarians, and even the occasional Green understand that third-party politics are often infantile and that the best way to promote policies and candidates favoring their own views may be to build independent political organizations based on cultural and economic factions that can use familiar party labels to advance their own policies and candidates.
Throughout the decade of the 1910s, the Socialist Party tried to organize farmers across North Dakota. Since farmers got virtually nothing for the wheat they worked hard to produce, many sympathized with their ideas, which included state control of banks, railroads, mills, and elevators. Low prices on Minneapolis grain markets, low payments from Minneapolis millers such as Pillsbury and General Mills, and high shipping rates from railroads squeezed North Dakota farmers in a tight vise. The state banks - also controlled by Minneapolis financial interests - foreclosed on farms all over the state in 1915 and 1916, and the failure of the legislature to act upon a successful ballot initiative in favor of a state grain-terminal facility fueled farmers' frustration and anger.
The Socialists could never warm themselves by this prairie fire. They had little support outside of Fargo and a bad reputation for atheism, rabble-rousing, internecine warfare over party doctrine and theory, labor unrest, and violence. In Northern Lights, an independent film that won a critics' award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, Ray Sorenson, a Norwegian farmer who is organizing for the NPL in the northwest part of the state near the Canadian border, tells a grocerystore owner in Crosby, who happens to be a Socialist, that "I've never seen a successful Socialist." In many ways, the Libertarians of the late 20th century are similar to the Socialists of the early 20th century. Many are sympathetic to their ideas, but no one wants to identify with the Libertarian Party.
Socialist organizer A.C. Townley recognized this problem first. A former flax farmer, he was frustrated at Socialist infighting, the party's failure to strike a chord in the rural parts of the states that were suffering the most, and its inability to court more moderate voters. He focussed his efforts on builing a cultural and economic coalition of small farmers and businessmen from hamlets across the state. Rather than engage in party politics, this new group simply called itself the Non-Partisan League.
In 1915, the year of the League's founding, North Dakota switched to an open primary. Since the Democratic Party was a nonentity, the NPL ran candidates under the GOP label. NPL candidates, however, did not join the GOP or become a part of the party structure. The NPL was a political force for nearly half a century. In 1916, it swept its way into office, taking control of the North Dakota House of Representatives and electing Lynn Fraizer governor. By 1918, it completely controlled the government of North Dakota.
The deep distrust that most farmers had of cities played a role in the development of the NPL. Cities such as Fargo - and especially Minneapolis and St. Paul - were where those who ripped them off, when it came to the price of their grain, lived. And those were the places where the evil bankers cut off the credit they needed and made them pay high interest rates to try to force them off their land. To build its political base, all the NPL had to do was to tap into rural anger.
"To the small farmer, the Twin Cities was the Evil Empire," Lloyd Omdahl, a former NPL state tax commissioner, lieutenant governor, and political-science professor from the University of North Dakota told me. "They felt exploited by the granaries there, along with banks, which had chains all throughout the state, and the railroads, which charged them high shipping rates to take their grain to market. The further west you went in North Dakota, the stronger the League was."
That dichotomy is still present in North Dakota - even within Fargo itself. Like many Midwestern cities (or many American cities, for that matter), Fargo is made up of two parts. One is the old town of well-kept homes and downtown streets built along or near the constantly flooding Red River. The other is where you find the tract homes, duplexes and multiplexes, and the strip malls and shopping malls that cluster near the two interstate highways running along the western fringe of town. This is the new Fargo, built on the edge of the prairie, and it is filling up with refugees who come looking for work and wind up in the service industry. Some in this pool of cheap labor hope to save enough to own a farm of their own one day - when they're retired, of course.
Alas, the League became a part of the powers-that-be between 1918 and 1920. Perhaps it became too powerful. All it took was six dollars to become a member; by 1918, there were over 40,000 NPL members in North Dakota. The League also got into banking and publishing and became a distributor of consumer goods to general stores all over the state. Townley organized NPLs all across the Upper Midwest and managed to increase the membership to 188,365 dues-paying members. Charles Lindbergh's father was an NPL member in Minnesota who ran in Republican primaries, and Montana's Sen. Burton K. Wheeler also used an NPL organization to get himself elected.
With all these interests, it soon became obvious that the NPL was turning into what it was set up to oppose: a corporation. Splits began to appear in the leadership between Townley and a faction led by Fraizer and North Dakota Attorney General William "Wild Bill" Langer. The severe recession after World War I and the depression in crop prices forced the League-inspired Bank of North Dakota to foreclose on the very farmers it was supposed to serve. The war and the Red Scare that followed also caused splits, with charges and countercharges of anti-patriotism, communism, pro-Germanism, and disloyalty filling the air. The League lost power in the 1920 Republican sweep and withered in the rest of the Midwest.
But the NPL still held sway in North Dakota, even as the major parties became irrelevant during the Roaring 1920s. Elections were decided along pro- and anti-NPL lines. (The Independent Voters Association, organized by citizens who opposed the League, became the NPL's competition in 1920.) Thanks to the Great Depression and Langer's efforts to restructure it culturally, the League revived in the 1930s. Norwegians had been the core of the League back in the 1910s. From the 1930s to the 1960s, they were the backbone of the NPL, along with the Volksdeutsch. The latter, while officially listed as Russian immigrants on the U.S. Census, were really German farmers who, at the invitation of Czar Alexander II, settled in southern Russia, particularly along the Volga River, the Black Sea, and in the Ukraine. They arrived in North Dakota in the late 1890s after a series of severe famines and droughts. Langer, a descendant of a Volga German family, spoke fluent German. The Volksdeutsch appreciated his antiwar stand back in 1917 and his cultural conservatism; their descendants hold similar views today. If you want to know where Pat Buchanan did his best during the 2000 election, check out the towns of southern North Dakota where Volksdeutsch wrought-iron cemetery crosses rise up among the prairie grasses.
These disparate elements from the corners of old Europe - Norwegians, Volga Germans, and Slavs from the Ukraine and Russia - came together in the 1932 election when Langer was elected governor, Gerald P. Nye was elected to the U.S. Senate, and William Lemke was elected a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. These three were the NPL's top vote-getters in the 1930s and 40s, and they made their mark on the national scene. Nye became famous when he coined the term "merchants of death" while investigating the munitions industry. Langer eventually moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1940 and served for 20 years, and Lemke was the presidential nominee of the Union Party, the most vocal anti-New Deal party in the 1936 election. The NPL joined in coalition with Fr. Charles Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith, the remnants of Huey Long's "Every Man a King" organization, and Francis Townsend. Unencumbered by party machinations, these men could fight the powers-that-be on a national level, just as they had in North Dakota.
Unfortunately, they did not remain independent for long. The NPL, like so much that was unique in America, was destroyed by FDR's New Deal. Before 1932, Democrats in North Dakota and the rest of the Upper Midwest were not part of the political culture, except in Irish quarters or big cities. To the countryside, the Democratic Party was the party of Catholics, of the big cities, of the political machines and crooked bosses and gangsters. But the New Deal farm programs and subsidies wedded many farmers to the new party of Big Government. Young NPL members, backed by the liberal Farmers' Union, wanted to steer the NPL into the donkey's stable. They did not want to remain independent, as the NPL had with the GOP; they preferred integration. At the same time, Republicans, led by U.S. Sen. Milton Young (who defeated Nye in 1944), were working overtime to eliminate the influence of the League within the party. Old-time NPL members like Langer were caught in the middle and declined in importance. Quentin Burdick, son of NPL Congressman Usher Burdick, was elected to the House as a non-NPL Democrat in 1958. When Langer died in 1960, Burdick grabbed his seat, and the NPL slowly faded into oblivion. Local Democrats in North Dakota still use the NPL label, just as Minnesota Dems retain the old Farmer-Labor tag, but such labels are simply curiosities now.
Could the NPL be revived today? In some ways, as Professor Danbom points out, it already has been. Throughout the 1990s, the Christian Coalition elected like-minded candidates in Republican primaries and precinct caucuses through grassroots organization and financial sup- port. Like the NPL, it ultimately failed because it tried to control the entire party, rather than stay independent of it. The NRA and the pro-life movement are non-party groups that fund and assist candidates sympathetic to their views, but they are limited to single issues. One figure who represents the kind of leader a new NPL could produce is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in 1988. Recognizing the futility of trying to win office with the Libertarian millstone around his neck, he ran as a Republican to win his seat. He has never strayed from his beliefs, however, nor does he feel the need to do so out of party loyalty. Almost alone among congressmen, Ron Paul is asking questions about the way we are conducting our "War on Terrorism." He is protesting the erosion of our civil liberties and the growth of leviathan. Few (if any) Republicans are following his lead, and certainly none of the Democrats are. Recent elections show how a renewed Non-Partisan League could help likeminded candidates. In the 1998 Illinois governor's race, the Democratic candidate, Glenn Poshard, was clearly more conservative than his GOP opponent, George Ryan. Yet the Republicans used the national Democratic Party's platform positions on such issues as taxes, gun control, and abortion to tar Poshard as a liberal. A new NPL could have given Poshard its seal of approval and made him attractive enough to conservatives to gain crossover votes.
Lloyd Omdahl thinks a new NPL could work in the civic-minded states of the Upper Midwest. But he also warns of the difficulties of facing the powers-that-be, since, in his words, politics is "a rich person's game." That may be true now, but it was also true back in 1915, when many poor people first joined the NPL and successfully put their stamp upon North Dakota. If a new Non-Partisan League could identify a potential cultural and economic base among MARs (Middle American Radicals), stay-athome moms, libertarians, WASPs and European ethnics, orthodox Christians, and those who work with their hands, it might put the powers-that-be on the run again.
Sean Scallon is a reporter from East Ellsworth, Wisconsin.
January 6, 2003
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent those of Free State Project, Inc.