On June 14th, North Dakotans voted to overrule their government’s decision to allow corporate ownership of farms. That they had the power to do so was a result of a political revolution that occurred almost exactly a century before, a revolution that may hold lessons for those like Bernie Sanders’ supporters who seek to establish a bottom-up political movement in the face of hostile political parties today.
Here’s the story. In the early 1900s North Dakota was effectively an economic colony of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. A Saint Paul based railroad tycoon controlled its freight prices. Minnesota companies owned many of the grain elevators that sat next to the rail lines and often cheated farmers by giving their wheat a lower grade than deserved. Since the flour mills were in Minneapolis, shipping costs reduced the price wheat farmers received. Minneapolis banks held farmers’ mortgages and their operating loans to farmers carried a higher interest than they charged at home.
Farmers, who represented a majority of the population, tried to free themselves from bondage by making the political system more responsive. In 1913 they gained an important victory when the legislature gave them the right, by petition, to initiate a law or constitutional amendment as well as to overturn a law passed by the legislature.
But this was a limited victory for while the people could enable they could not compel.
In 1914, for example, after a 30-year effort, voters authorized the legislature to build a state-owned grain elevator and mill. But in January 1915 a state legislative committee concluded it “would be a waste of the people’s money as well as a humiliating disappointment to the people of the state.” The legislature refused funding.
A few weeks later, two former candidates on the Socialist Party ticket, Arthur C. Townley and Albert Bowen, launched a new political organization, the Non Partisan League (NPL). The name conveyed their strategy: To rely more on program-based politics than party-based politics. According to the NPL its program intended to end the “utterly unendurable” situation in which “the people of this state have always been dependent on their existence on industries, banks, markets, storage and transportation facilities either existing altogether outside of the state or controlled by great private interests outside the state.”
The NPL’s platform contained concrete and specific measures: state ownership of elevators, flour mills, packing houses and cold storage plants; state inspection of grain grading and dockage; state hail insurance; rural credit banks operating at cost; exemption of farm improvements from taxation.
In his recent book, Insurgent Democracy Michael Lansing explains, “Small-property holders anxious to use government to create a more equitable form of capitalism cannot be easily categorized in contemporary political term.” The NPL “reminded Americans that corporate capitalism was not the only way forward.” Supporters of the NPL wanted state sponsored market fairness but not state control. They wanted public options, not public monopolies. Continue reading