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Minnesota Farmer-Laborism

Minnesota Farmer-Laborism: The Third-Party Alternative

Millard L. Gieske
Copyright Date: 1979
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 404
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  • Book Info
    Minnesota Farmer-Laborism
    Book Description:

    Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor party, a coalition of reformers and radicals ,farmers and unionists, flourished in the state during the years between world wars. Unlike most third parties, it gained political power and for a time virtually displaced the near-moribund Democratic party, vying successfully with Republicans for congressional and state offices. In this book, Millard L. Gieske provides the first detailed history of the Farmer-Labor movement from its inception late in World War I down to its merger with the state Democratic party in 1944. Gieske finds the origins of the Farmer-Labor party in the Populist and Progressive movements, its specific forebears in the farmers’ cooperative movement and the Nonpartisan League. Radical union members in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the Iron Range, dissatisfied with the conservative program of the American Federation of Labor, gave the party an additional economic base. Most Farmer-Labor adherents shared the belief that the political and economic systems were n responsive and that the two parties were either unwilling to reform them or incapable of doing so. Down the years, the Farmer-Labor movement was subject to mercurial shifts in its strength and effectiveness. Gieske’s narrative covers the party’s squabbles and near-collapse in the late 1920s and its resurgence in the 1930s during the Great Depression. He emphasizes the divergent and often conflicting elements that made up the party, traces its tortuous relation with Communists, and notes that significance of foreign policy issues in a movement concerned for the most part with domestic economic issues. The Farmer-Labor party attracted some of the state’s most vivd political figures, whom Gieske skillfully portrays -- Henrik Shipstead, Floyd B. Olson, Elmer Benson, and others. Primarily the story of a specific party, the book also examines the role of the third-party movement in a two-party system. Minnesota Farmer-Laborism is based largely on primary sources and will be a valuable work not only for political historians but also for readers who are interested in Minnesota history or in radical political movements.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6259-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-x)
    Millard L. Gieske
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xii-2)
  5. CHAPTER 1 The Roots of Farmer-Laborism
    (pp. 3-14)

    Farmer-Laborism was a political and economic movement that firmly believed workers and farmers should unite for the mutual advancement of both. Underlying this feeling was a common assumption about the system of economic distribution and social justice: The American dream of an equitable society could be realized only by adopting a fairer method of distributing income. Consequently, Farmer-Laborism attacked concentrated wealth, monopoly, capitalism, the power of the few over the many, and the prevailing American two-party system.

    As a third-party movement, Farmer-Laborism grew gradually, evolving from two rather distinct ideological traditions. One was reformist, moderate, and had as political and...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Emerging Coalition
    (pp. 15-31)

    In mid-1916 when the Nonpartisan League launched an intensive drive to organize Minnesota farmers, the immediate political objective was not to create a third-party movement. Two years later when the Farmer-Labor party was conceived, it was not by choice. Because the league preferred to work with the two major parties, it employed a pragmatic and opportunistic strategy, patterned after what A. C. Townley called the tactics of “balance of power.”

    Townley reasoned that neither Republicans nor Democrats could gain victory if a large, well-organized interest withheld support. He believed a disciplined, cohesive group with mass membership could take command of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 From Primary Campaigns to Early Confederation
    (pp. 32-64)

    Neither Nonpartisanism nor Farmer-Laborism was content to play the role, so common to third parties, of social critics without power. The movement’s first priority was to win elections, and to achieve this objective its leaders were prepared to compromise on policies, parties, and candidates. That electoral success counted most in the minds of Nonpartisans was obvious from the way its leaders and candidates approached the elections of 1918 and 1920. In both years the NPL first attempted to capture the Republican party nominations by offering popular progressives as alternatives to “regular” Republicans. Only when this strategy failed twice—the NPL...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Third-Party Breakthrough and Retreat
    (pp. 65-94)

    After two unsuccessful attempts by the Nonpartisan movement to gain political control by working through the Republican primary, a growing number of Nonpartisans and their sympathizers began to question the wisdom of continuing this strategy which had worked in North Dakota but which could not be duplicated in Minnesota. Because in 1918 and again in 1920 the movement had been forced belatedly to fall back upon a third-party campaign, many, though not all, insurgents concluded that the next campaign should begin with the third party rather than just end with it. This feeling was by no means unanimous, and its...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Unsuccessful Attempt to Rebuild Farmer-Laborism
    (pp. 95-121)

    Farmer-Laborites, left and right, foresaw that their 1924 election defeat would lead to the political demise of the movement unless steps were taken to rebuild it. Even while remedies were prescribed, lack of agreement on goals, policies, candidates, and organization kept the movement at odds with itself. Two major factions remained. One was more pluralist, moderate, and amenable to seeking a working relationship with Democrats. The other retained a sometimes overpowering need to push Farmer-Laborism to the left and merely had postponed its plans to displace private enterprises with collective ownership. The moderates, or right-wing, Farmer-Laborites tended to be more...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Economic Tragedy and Farmer-Labor Revival
    (pp. 122-153)

    The dismal political ending to the 1928 campaign undermined the faith of all but the most dedicated Farmer-Laborites. Few remained who still firmly believed it likely that collectivist programs would soon displace capitalistic concentrations of wealth or that the exploited and dispossessed would shed economic and political shackles to turn upon longtime tormentors. For most of 1929 few dared to believe Farmer-Laborism’s revival could be near. The nation was prosperous and exhibited economic confidence, greeting its new president, Herbert Hoover, a man more forceful and flexible than his two immediate predecessors, with a climbing stock market and rising popular expectations...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Temptation to Socialize Farmer-Laborism
    (pp. 154-201)

    The first Olson Farmer-Labor administration improved popular impressions of this Minnesota third party. Both Farmer-Labor factions — as well as some Democratic and (usually former) progressive Republican members — were represented in the Olson administration. The general expectation was that this style of administration, with its tone of moderation, would continue if Olson was joined by other elected Farmer-Laborites in 1932. Yet both Olson and the state of the economy contributed to Farmer-Labor (and Democratic) troubles, and Olson himself had to question increasingly whether he should continue to follow the same cautious approach to problems.

    Olson was a crafty political...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Search for Olson’s Successor
    (pp. 202-232)

    Farmer-Laborism stumbled in disagreement over the real lessons to be learned from the 1934 election, with the result that internal ideological antagonism was unresolved as the time approached for a second generation of leaders to take over. At the same time, apart from its own tactical and strategic errors, Farmer-Laborism was increasingly at the mercy of factors over which it had little or no influence: violent labor organizational strikes, international relations, the United Front strategy and changed Communist tactics, the popularity of the national Democratic administration, and the struggle for power among those who wanted to control the post-Olson governorship....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Benson Takes Command
    (pp. 233-275)

    It is commonly said that Elmer Benson was miscast in the role of governor and as a result Farmer-Laborism was brought to near ruin. Benson undoubtedly contributed to his party’s problems, but he also inherited from Olson a movement full of contradictions and disturbances over which he had little control.

    Aside from Knute Nelson, who was almost his direct political opposite, Benson held the most agrarian values and outlook of any Minnesota governor since 1890. Of Norwegian heritage, Benson continued to live (and in 1979 still does) in the Appleton home where he was born. He spent a year in...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Debate over Merger
    (pp. 276-304)

    “It came as a shocking surprise to most of us,” Henry Teigan lamented, “we had not expected the election to go the way it did.”¹ Third-partyism had been staggered, the small liberal third-party bloc in Congress two-thirds decimated as its charter members Teigan, Bernard, Amlie, Boileau, O’Connell, and Scott were defeated. For Minnesota Farmer-Laborism the 1938 election was no mere setback but a disaster of yet undetermined dimension. Almost immediately it led to a severe cut in association membership, the ending of state employee “contributions,” and the stopping of recruitment efforts. Two general attitudes emerged. The left-wing Farmer-Laborites, the movement’s...

  15. CHAPTER 11 The Last Hurrah
    (pp. 305-332)

    Farmer-Laborism had declined but not collapsed despite Democratic preparations to assume major responsibility for opposing Stassen and Minnesota Republicanism. The third party had survived largely because Hjalmar Petersen had doggedly pursued the governorship and because the Farmer-Labor left had unrelentingly resisted fusion with Democrats. One more solid defeat and the impact of the war on Benson and the radicals would bring a critical shift in their attitude.

    For twenty years and longer, state Democrats had too patiently awaited the Farmer-Labor demise. By 1942, however, such a passive strategy made excellent political sense. In the spring St. Paul city election, through...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 335-360)
  17. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 363-364)
  18. Reference Sources
    (pp. 365-366)
  19. Index
    (pp. 369-389)