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Here to stay? Journalist’s book considers the legacy of Minnesota’s Scandinavian-laced politics

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Journalist Klas Bergman, author of “Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics,” spoke with MinnPost at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Edina.

When he was growing up in Stockholm, Klas Bergman devoured the novels of Vilhelm Moberg, who wrote famously, in his "The Emigrants" series, about Swedish pioneers making their way in Minnesota. Working as a journalist decades later, in the 1980s, Bergman traveled to Minnesota to cover the farm crisis and the presidential campaign of favorite son Walter Mondale.

For years, while he worked in Washington, D.C., Rome, Belgrade and other places around the world, Bergman held on to the idea of one day returning to this Midwestern state for a closer look. He has finally done so. In his book, "Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics," Bergman focuses his lens on the progressive political legacy forged by 19th- and 20th-century immigrants.

“Minnesota is a state where education has long been a priority and the less well-off are taken care of,” he concludes, “where the progressive traditions of Scandinavian public policy and the social conscience of the Lutheran church combine with uniquely American demographic and character traits.”

Adding fresh perspective, Bergman also considers the future of this political legacy – and whether it will live on as new waves of immigrants put down roots in the state.

In writing the book, Bergman – who has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) – plowed through books, letters and newspapers and also interviewed more than 90 people, many of them scholars and journalists (including this reporter).

“It was a work of discovery for me,” he told MinnPost.

The early part of the book recounts the lives of several Scandinavian leaders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Gov. Knute Nelson, known as “The Little Norwegian”; Gov. Floyd B. Olson, an emerging national figure during the Great Depression; and former U.S. Rep. Charles Lindbergh, a powerful World War I isolationist (and father of the famed aviator with the same name).

Passages from the many books written about the state’s ethnic heritage – such as Odd Lovoll’s books on Norwegian immigrants – provide historic detail, while recent interviews with scholars and journalists offer contemporary insight.

Bergman looks ahead, too

Near the end of the book, in a chapter called “On the Scandinavian Road,” he writes of places he visited as he searched for modern Minnesota, including Lindström, north of the Twin Cities, where he discovered a statute of Moberg, the Swedish author; Willmar, in west-central Minnesota, where he took stock of the city’s Somali community; and Minneota, in the southwestern corner of the state, where he read the tombstone inscriptions of Icelandic pioneers.

For Bergman – American immigrant, political junkie, Swede – the journey was a heady mix of history and heritage.

“I must say I feel at home here,” Bergman told MinnPost. “It was so much fun. I met all of these terrific people from Minnesota and learned about the state. These are my roots, too. These are my folks.” (One of his grandfathers left Sweden for the United States in the 1920s, ending up in New York and California).

The ultimate question posed by the book, of course, is whether the tradition of inclusive and shared politics that Bergman recited will hold up in the 21st century, when a new wave of immigrants are coming to Minnesota, especially Somalis and Latin Americans.

Bergman is optimistic, writing about the election of Somali immigrant Abdi Warsame, to the Minneapolis City Council, from a ward that was once the stronghold of Scandinavian immigrants.

“Most people that I talked to were hopeful that that would continue to be Minnesota’s trademark,” he told MinnPost. “Some told me: ‘This tradition is so entrenched and stable that if it changes it will take a long time.’ Time will tell.”

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Comments (3)

Scandinavian descendants are good at forgetting

When the author Bergman was a young man it was easy to be optimistic about the impact Scandinavian-Americans had on American politics. You had progressive and moderate wings of both major parties that might bend the country toward Scandinavian-style social democracy. You had recent former vice presidents named Humphrey and Mondale who lent high-visible credibility to the notion. You had Republicans named Carlson and Stassen and multiple Andersens who could tout Nordic roots to their American main street values.

That optimism is hard to sustain these days. The most Norwegian parts of the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin regularly elect lawmakers who have more in common with Dixiecrats than they have with LaFollette Republicans. The concept of democracy is regularly challenged via voter suppression, divisive and greedy politics and the leadership of anti-democratic figures like Trump and Walker and Iowa's Rep. King: all with the support or complicity of the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants.

The vast majority of them recall little more of the Old Country than lefse and lutefisk, maybe mountains and fjords. Very few seem to get the concept of social democracy that helps account for high levels of happiness in the Nordic lands. They haven't the tools to challenge the bizarre propaganda relating to failed socialist experiments around the world that hype Cuba and Venezuala while ignoring the places their great-grandparents came from.

Indeed, the values of enhanced voter participation, a healthy labor movement and egalitarian access to health care and higher education are faint or invisible to today's typical Scandinavian-Americans. Bergman's hope lies in modern immigrants exerting their political power, according to the article. Perhaps their stories can help reignite memories of what earlier immigrant groups did -- and remind the descendants of what their forebears were trying to do.

Non/Enduring Legacies

Several years ago, while re-visiting Minnesota, I found that in the gift shop of the American Swedish Institute in Mpls, no one on duty that day spoke Swedish. Just as European settlers to the region 'supplanted' the aboriginal nations' ways of living, modern day immigrants to the North Star state will inevitably superimpose their imprints, as well.
Hopefully, the finest characteristics of native American governance will one day be revived and integrated into contemporary society; and the best of Scandinavian values will endure...as positive complements to the developing story of Minnesota.

What did it mean?

In view of the broad range of views exemplified by politically active Scandinavian-American Minnesotans--compare, for example, Andrew Volstead, Charles Lindbergh, Elmer Benson and Harold Stassen-- I suspect that the only other element they have in common may be political participation and activism. Obviously not necessarily the liberal views to which Ibsen alludes in Rosmersholm and advocates in A Doll's House, nor the misogyny sometimes expressed by Strindberg.