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Political warfare: Looking back at early DFL caucuses

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of posts by Iric Nathanson about Minnesota history.

When upwards of 100,000 DFLers crowd into Minnesota’s 4,000 precinct caucuses Tuesday, they may find that their caucus experience will be brief and rather low-key.

The evening’s high point — balloting for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee — will occur without discussion or debate.  Caucus goers will be able to register their presidential choice merely by putting a ballot in a box.  Then, they will be able to leave and get back home to the TV in time for the 7 p.m. reality shows.

Only the real political junkies may stay around to conduct the evening’s other major business — electing delegates to the district conventions — the next step in the DFL endorsement process for congressional and legislative seats.

Even then, there will be little opportunity for grass roots politicking if the precinct has been allocated more delegates slots than people who want to fill those slots.  In those precincts there will be no delegate contests; everyone who wants to move on to the district conventions will be able to do so.   In fact,  many caucus goers may become a district delegates without having to declare a preference in the numerous DFL endorsement battles now taking shape — including the relatively high profile battle for the U.S. Senate endorsement. 

This was not always the way it was in the DFL. During an earlier time, intra-party combatants fought it out at the precinct caucuses in what was then the political equivalent of trench warfare.  

Hard-fought battle
One of the hardest-fought of the caucus battles occurred in 1948, just four years after the Democratic Farmer Labor Party was created through a union of the state’s once-dominant Farmers Laborites with the national Democrats.

The 1944 merger was the result of a complex interaction of domestic and international political forces that created an unholy alliance between Robert Hannegan, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Earl Browder, the head of the U.S. Communist Party.

In 1944, World War II was still underway.  The Russians were allied with the United States in an effort to defeat the Nazis, and the Communist Party believed that its short-term interests were best served by aligning with the Democratic Party and supporting the Roosevelt administration’s war effort.  That position would soon change, but in 1944 it was the party line.  Browder directed his followers in Minnesota’s Farmer Labor Party to support the merger, and they did as they were told — albeit somewhat reluctantly.

Browder’s position also influenced left-leaning Farmer Laborites who were aligned with the Communists in a movement known as the Popular Front.

While Browder was supporting the merger for his own purposes, Hannegan was looking ahead to the 1944 presidential election. The DNC chairman feared the prospect of losing Minnesota to the Republicans if the forces on the left were split here, so the merger was very much in his party’s interests as well.

By 1948 a major international realignment was causing fissures to occur within the newly formed DFL.  With the end of World War II, Russian and the United States moved from being allies to adversaries, sharpening the split between those DFLers who were part of the Popular Front and remained Soviet apologists, and those who were staunchly anti-Communists but supported the liberal principles embodied in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Rallying around Hubert Humphrey
Soon after the merger, former Farmer-Laborites from the party’s more radical Popular Front faction, known as “left-wingers,” were able to get themselves elected to most of the newly formed party’s top offices. But the anti-communist liberals, known as “right wingers,” were not willing to sit back and hand the DFL over to their ideological enemies. The right wingers rallied around then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, and began a concerted effort to wrest control of the party away from the left wingers when the DFL caucused at the precinct level in 1948.

The Humphrey forces knew that the stakes were high that year. As a cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union became the driving force in international affairs, the right wingers knew that any continued links between the Communist Party and the DFL would spell disaster for the newly merged Minnesota party.  For their part, the left wingers were drifting towards Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party. If they were to prevail in 1948, they were almost certain to take the DFL out of the national Democratic Party and align it with the Progressives.

In later years some DFL Party leaders were reluctant to acknowledge Communist involvement in the early DFL, but that involvement was a political fact of life in 1948.  Orville Freeman, the right wing’s chief organizer, raised the issue quite openly in a campaign brochure that declared: “Will the D-F-L Party of Minnesota be a clean, honest, decent progressive party? Or will it be a Communist-Front Organization?”

Humphrey and Freeman were able to out-organize their intra-party rivals and bring substantially more supporters to the April 30 precinct caucuses than were the left wingers. While intra-party squabbles would continue through much of 1948, the right-wing forces would eventually overcome their left-wing foes, gain control of the Minnesota DFL and win a DFL Senate endorsement for Hubert Humphrey at the state convention in June. 

Twenty years later, the precinct caucuses were the battleground in Minnesota as international conflict, once again, threatened to tear the DFL apart.  In 1968, with Viet Nam as the flash point, anti-war followers of Eugene McCarthy would slug it out precinct by precinct with Humphrey loyalists for control of Minnesota’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

Fast forward to 2008.  With Iraq fading as a divisive issue, DFLers will caucus this year as unified as they have been at any time in the party’s 64-year history.  While party loyalists may differ in their candidate preferences, these differences will revolve mainly around issues of personality, electability and leadership. Profound differences about philosophy and policy will not be the motivating factor driving caucus attendance. Party unity may bode well for the party’s prospects in November, but it will make for a tame evening Tuesday.

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