When I was growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, I recall asking my mother why the slogan “Buy Dakota Maid Flour” was written at the bottom of my report card. When she started talking about the Nonpartisan League, I stopped listening because I knew it had something to do with politics, a topic that bored me silly. The only thing I retained from that conversation was her enthusiasm about a great victory of which I should be proud. Decades later, deep in the stacks of the public library, I discovered what that great victory was – a bloodless revolution at the ballot box in one of the most conservative states in the nation, one that required no faith in any political party, only overwhelming numbers – which is probably why it has been such a well-kept secret for all these years.
I have been feeling compelled to pass it on ever since my long-dormant hope for meaningful change in this country was reawakened last fall by the Occupy Movement. I am grateful for the way it spread like wildfire across the country and forced the media to focus on the previously taboo subject of extreme economic injustice. However, for a number of reasons I am beginning to have doubts about the future of the “American Spring” I had envisioned only months ago.
First, the media’s long history of never revisiting a story that’s already been saturated on the 24-hour news cycle. The next wave of bloodied heads and mass pepper-spraying, I fear, will be mostly ignored because of this been-there-done-that attitude. Second, I’ve been protesting in the streets for going on five decades, and if I were thrown to the pavement by a vicious cop I’d probably end up behind a walker. So direct action in this era of a militarized NYPD is no longer my cup of tea. Third, something I heard during the Trayvon Martin family’s press conference on the day their son’s killer was arrested: “The marching is significant, the protesting is wonderful, but it is not enough. Every person must register to vote.” The lesson of the Civil Rights Movement is that meaningful, lasting social justice must be legislated, and I believe the same is true of the struggle for economic justice.
Here’s how it was achieved in my home state almost a hundred years ago, during hard times that will seem remarkably like our own. Similar to now, there was widespread corporate ownership of elected officials. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which the U.S. government had given ten million acres of land in North Dakota on which they declined to pay taxes, pretty much ran the state like a fiefdom. Back then, the definition of an honest politician was the state senator who, when a railroad agent offered him a hundred dollars for his vote, told him it was too much, “but I’ll take fifty.”
The economic system was also rigged. Farmers paid 30 percent interest rates on mortgages to “the bloated buccaneers of Wall Street.” They sold their wheat, #1 Hard, the finest in the country, at outrageously low prices set by the grain merchants, then paid the railroad outrageously high fees to ship it out of state. In a good year, farmers made barely enough to live on till the next harvest. In a bad year, they were forced to sell at confiscatory prices below the cost of production. In 1915, facing ruin after several years of drought, a group of farmers traveled to the capital at Bismarck to seek relief, only to be told to “go home and slop the pigs.” Those words started a revolution, and the Nonpartisan League was born.
The League had a single weapon in its battle against these powerful interests: three out of five voters in the state lived on farms and it didn’t take much to convince any of them that something drastic had to be done. They organized without publicity, avoiding the towns. Some time ago, I visited Henry Martinson, a relative who was part of that effort, and he told me how organizers were loaned a Model T and assigned a territory to cover. When the roads weren’t a river of mud or drifted over with snow from the latest blizzard, he signed up a dozen or more farmers a day. Within a year, the League had 50,000 members, to the shock of many, even the farmers. At the end of our visit, Henry handed me a pamphlet he had written about his days in the Nonpartisan League, called “Comes the Revolution,” and told me in his rich Norwegian accent, “It does-sn’t haf to be blood-dy you knoh.”
Within two years, the League had doubled its membership and was ready to revolt. Due to of all the political corruption, the League did not work within either party but endorsed any candidate who agreed to vote their platform into law. Having nothing to lose, they went for broke. They demanded a state-owned mill and elevator, a state-owned bank, a graduated income tax that distinguished between earned and unearned income, an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, women’s suffrage, workman’s compensation and payment of back taxes by the railroads. In the election of 1919, the League candidates won with 79 percent of the vote, controlled the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, and their entire platform was voted into law. Henry Martinson called it “the biggest and finest crop of revolution you ever saw.”
The League continued to be a powerful influence in the state, particularly during hard times. In the 1930s, when farmers made up 95 percent of the legislature, they declared a moratorium on foreclosures and passed the Anti-Corporation Farming Law, a most radical piece of legislation, which prohibits anyone but farmers who live on their land to own it.
All these laws are still on the books today. Monsanto still can’t own farmland in the state. Dakota Maid Flour is still the best bread-making flour on the market. Good times and bad, because the money stays at home in the Bank of North Dakota, the state has always operated in the black, even though politically it has always been decidedly red. As for the story of the Nonpartisan League, it is still a well-kept secret – too radical, I guess, not to be conveniently forgotten. Yet the message of that history is still clear and couldn’t be more relevant to the 99 percent. When times get really bad, and you’ve got big numbers of registered voters on your side, meaningful, lasting change is possible. And it doesn’t have to be bloody, you know.