Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Political Prairie Fire

The technique of organizing support for nonpartisan candidates and running them in the primaries of major parties was the brainchild of a fascinating, troublesome character, Alfred C. Townley, whose formal education ended with high school, but whose fertile imagination and great ambition led him to failed plans for large-scale farming, to the Socialist Party as an organizer, and then, in 1915, to the formation and leadership of an extraordinary political movement, the Nonpartisan League (NPL) of North Dakota. The NPL had a brief period of remarkable success, widespread influence and national attention, but has largely been forgotten with time.

Robert P. Wilkins and Wynona Huchette Wilkins, in their bicentennial history of North Dakota say that “Townley owes his place in history to his appreciation that third parties have almost uniformly failed. His inspired idea was to operate within a established party, placing his nominees in its column on the ballot. This was possible in a state with a direct primary and without voter registration. Under that label, his candidate could carry the day in the November election.” This is precisely what the NPL did with remarkable success in 1916 and 1918 in North Dakota.

Townley’s well-organized NPL openly invaded the major party primaries, capturing houses of the legislature, the governorship, and many state offices in the general election. Having done so, they enacted into law their program, aimed at correcting abuses which the farmers, their principal constituents, believed they were suffering at the hands of the bankers, grain elevators, millers and railroads based in Minneapolis.

An important figure in the background, instrumental in organizing the victories, was William F. Lemke, a lawyer who had studied at the University of North Dakota, Georgetown and Yale, where he obtained his law degree. Lemke was elected attorney general of North Dakota in 1920.

In the election of 1916 the NPL won the governorship with Lynn Frazier, a sturdy, highly-respected farmer, a fellow undergraduate of Lemke’s at the University of North Dakota. They won control of the House of Representatives, as well. They failed to win control of the Senate because 24 of the 49 seats continued to be held by holdovers from the 1914 election. Of the 25 Senators elected in 1916, 14 of the Republicans and 4 of the Democrats were NPLers. In the 113 races for the House 72 of the 97 Republicans elected and 15 of the 16 Democrats elected were NPLers.

In 1918, NPL re-elected Governor Frazier and won control of both houses of the legislature. In the words of historian Larry Remele, NPL “obtained virtual hegemony in state government.” By the next year it had in place its program for a “New Day in North Dakota”: a state-owned bank to provide credit to farmers, state-owned mills and elevators, state-funded insurance for coops and farm buildings, and workmen’s compensation and a state-financed agency to aid construction of low-cost housing for urban workers.

In the Spring of 1917 the Congressman of the first North Dakota district, which included Grand Forks and Fargo, died, and the NPL decided to endorse for the office John M. Baer, a Democrat and cartoonist for the Nonpartisan Leader, NPL’s periodical. He won handily over the only other candidate who actively campaigned, an anti-NPL Republican. The NPL now had elected an office holder at the national level.

The star of the NPL, which shone so spectacularly in the 1916-1918 years, and which drew national attention and excitement, faded quickly under a combination of sad circumstances: incompetent management of state-owned agencies that it had created, a powerful counter-attack by the mainline organizations which focused on the socialist strain of some of its leaders, particularly Townley, and its radical program. NPL’s opposition to America’s involvement in the war in Europe became an easy target for its opponents. However, its influence lasted on into the New Deal era. Some of its leaders were elected to Congress: former Governor Lynn Frazier to the U.S. Senate in 1922 and former Attorney General William Lemke to the House of Representatives in 1932 as Republicans with NPL support. Their legislative triumph was the Frazier-Lemke Farm Mortgage Moratorium Act of 1935.

NPL gave rise to the Farmer-Labor Party of Wisconsin, and at times its influence spread to Minnesota and to a lesser degree to Montana, Idaho and Colorado, and even to western prairie provinces of Canada. It was, indeed, for a brief time, the Political Prairie Fire that gave the title to Robert L. Morlan’s pioneering history of the League.

Let it immediately be said that the NPL’s tactic of openly invading the primaries of the major parties is the only part of its modus operandi that A Modest Proposal is adopting: for actually, NPL was a nonpartisan party – an oxymoron – with a large dues-paying, card-carrying membership, paid organizers crisscrossing the countryside in Model Ts, signing up angry farmers; choosing its invasion candidates in open, unbossed conventions in which NPL leaders were ineligible for selection; and with a precise legislative program that it proposed to enact into law if and when it gained power. A Modest Proposal’s ambition is more modest: all it asks is that its invasion candidates be self-selected, independent in mind and spirit, and beholden to no one but themselves and their constituents; that their agenda be entirely their own, preferably including crucial issues that the majors have not faced up to, or have not done so seriously.

No comments: