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Minnesota showed in the ’30s that radical change can be cross-partisan and systemic reform can be citizen-led

The Depression-era Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association’s once-famous “Cooperative Commonwealth” platform was adopted 85 years ago, on March 29.

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Trygve Throntveit
Could our current “No Deal” era soon be eclipsed by a “Second New Deal” era? In an age of political gridlock and systemic social challenges, left and right are looking to the 1930s for inspiration and cautionary tales, respectively.

Unfortunately, neither progressives nor conservatives get their New Deal history right. Both tell stories of government solution (or creation) of problems through expert formulation (or imposition) of policy. According to the “Green New Deal” resolution recently introduced by House Democrats, the original New Deal was a “Federal Government-led mobilization” of social and economic resources on a gargantuan scale that preserved the Depression-wracked body politic and should guide our response to modern threats. New Deal critics grant the characterization while rejecting the prescription.

Americans would do better to recall the Depression-era Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association’s once-famous “Cooperative Commonwealth” platform, adopted 85 years ago today. The platform, the FLA, and their legacies offer reminders that radical change can be cross-partisan and systemic reform can be citizen-led.

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Citizen drivers, government partners

The Depression rendered a quarter of America’s workers idle, traumatizing families and whole communities. It also ignited the civic energies of Americans, who organized to preserve their communities and create opportunities.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s vaunted “Brains Trust” knew this. Federal New Deal policy was therefore frankly opportunistic. Its strategy was to identify promising responses, organized in and by communities, that government could support, study, and help others adapt to differing contexts.

One prolific center of response was Minnesota — an industrial-agrarian borderland where urban workers, rural farmers, Iron Range miners, and an eclectic mix of faith, business, cultural, and civic leaders formed the Farmer-Labor Association in 1924.

These comrades in citizenship found their standard-bearer in Floyd B. Olson, a former Democrat whose philosophy of collective empowerment appealed across parties and won him three straight gubernatorial elections and a U.S. Senate race between 1930 and 1936. They found their voice and power, however, among themselves. Farmers’ cooperatives and union locals fashioned a message and forged a bond while exploring analogous histories and philosophies of civic action. Farmer-Labor clubs across Minnesota passed resolutions demanding control of their time, work, spaces, and futures, then worked with Democratic and Republican neighbors to elect hundreds of city, county, state, and federal officeholders pledged to uphold them.

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Radically civic, civically pragmatic

The Cooperative Commonwealth platform adopted in St. Paul on March 29, 1934, marked the high tide of this broad civic movement. It was and remains a radical document, striking “at the root” of the problems it identified.

Declaring “capitalism has failed,” it urged immediate steps toward a reorganized society in which natural resources and critical industries were owned publicly and “operated democratically for the benefit of all.” These included land security for farmers; hour and wage minimums; state ownership of extractive, utility, transportation, and banking concerns not otherwise run on “bona fide cooperative” lines; government-run health, life, social, and disaster insurance; and measures ensuring “fullest educational opportunities for all.”

Rejecting the classic (and neo-) liberal conceit of free individuals pursuing narrow interests that alchemically amalgamate into public goods, the platform painted a picture of free communities, negotiating and pursuing common goals through effective control of institutions.

Yet if “radical” means “ideological” or “fringe,” the FLA platform was anything but. Its planks were debated and adopted by cross-partisan coalitions of socially and culturally diverse citizens who made efforts to work and learn together for years before formulating their agenda — one they committed to advancing themselves, over time, through pragmatic experiment and strategic partnerships with and beyond government.

Legacies

The Cooperative Commonwealth vision drove Minnesota to the vanguard of New Deal politics. During Olson’s governorship, the state legislated a progressive income tax, collective bargaining rights, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, social security for the elderly, equal pay for women, and 13 new state forests. None of these nationally and lastingly influential responses to Minnesota’s Depression were conceived or driven by government technocrats. Nor were the hundreds of cooperatively run businesses, credit unions, daycares, museums, playhouses, rec centers, and other ventures that proliferated across the state.

Whatever the wisdom — then or now — of the FLA’s specific policies, we have much to learn from the civic ethos that informed them, and from the radical vision that inspired already heavily burdened citizens to assume the additional task of governing themselves.

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Trygve Throntveit is a development officer and Dean’s Fellow for Civic Studies at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, where he edits The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies. A historian of U.S. politics, social thought, and foreign relations, his most recent book is “Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment,” which won the 2018 Richard E. Neustadt Award from the American Political Science Association.

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