Sunday, December 31, 2006

More about Politics on a Cold, Rainy December Day

Patrick, who keeps track of such things, says this is the warmest December since the 1930s. It should not be raining in the Twin Cities at the end of December. This isn't even freezing rain, though they are having freezing rain and sleet mixed with snow up north, which is why we are not driving up to visit Duluth today.

I have been looking for a quote from the English historian E.P. Thompson, which -- if my memory is at all accurate -- describes the Upper Midwest states as social democracies hidden in the center of a capitalist nation. I haven't found it, but I found this quote in an essay about the poet Thomas McGrath, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota in the early 20th century.

The Dakotas and Minnesota, so easily to be seen from the East or West Coasts are being way out there beyond the uttermost sticks, were in fact the heartland of a great and effective popular movement, inadequately described in the misty all-inclusive term as "populist." It was an active and democratic movement; the North Dakota Non-Partisan League was socialist in its origins, and demanded the state owenership of banks, grains elevators, etc. In 1919 the NPL caucus dominated the state legislature, created a state bank and grain elevators, imposed income and inheritance taxes, introduced assistance to home buyers, legalized strikes and brought in mine safety regulations. In the judgement of a contemporary historian, "no more dramatic demonstration of democracy has occurred in American history."

This movement was one of the few great impulses on the North American continent in the twentieth century which afforded premonitions of an American socialism or "communitas."

I don't think you can understand Minnesota, if you don't know about the Farmer-Labor Party and the NPL, which spread into northern Minnesota and helped create the FLP, the labor unions and the farmers' co-ops. They did not come out of nowhere, but in response (as Thompson says) to "a climax of exploitation by banks, millers, dealers and railroads." To this list of exploiters can be added the business owners here in Minnesota, whose less than kindly behavior led to events such as the 1934 truckers strike, when a picket line was put around the city of Minneapolis. At the time, the local business community was fiercely anti-union and business vigilantes -- guys in business suits with baseball bats, I kid you not -- helped the police confront the strikers. Two hundred people were injured. Four people died. But the Minneapolis truck drivers won their struggle to unionize. Their victory helped unionize trucking nationwide and was, per the Minnesota State Historical Society website, "a turning point in state and national labor history."

Thompson writes about how much American history has been disappeared, including the poetry of Tom McGrath. If you don't know McGrath, he is a splendid poet, the American Pablo Neruda, and like Neruda he was a lifelong political radical. The official historians and offical keepers of culture in the U.S. tend to be uncomfortable with people like Tom. So they and their work vanish or are mentioned only in footnotes. We in Minnesota are left with the impression that the things that make our state a decent place to live happened because of Minnesota niceness and a natural local tendency toward cooperation. Not so. It is the heritage of the people who organized unions and farmers' co-ops and political parties like the NPL and FLP.

The struggles aren't over. Nothing important is won without a fight or kept without a fight. Right now conservatives tell us that we can't afford social services, aid to education, aid to the cities and so on, though the state's historic commitment to such things has made Minnesota prosperous.