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From mainstream to extinct: A look back at the GOP’s progressive era in Minnesota

For a new generation of political activists who came of age after the 1990s, the term “progressive Republican” must sound like an oxymoron. But this now extinct strain of Republicanism did, in fact, represent the mainstream of Minnesota’s GOP at an earlier time. A new book by Dave Durenberger with Lori Sturdevant, “When Republicans Were Progressive,” recounts the rise and fall of a political movement in Minnesota that eventually succumbed to the onslaught of the far right.

Durenberger, a former U.S. senator, traces the origins of his party’s progressive tilt back to the election of Harold Stassen as Minnesota’s governor in 1938. Known as the boy governor, Stassen took office when he was only 31. The charismatic young Republican ended eight years of the left-leaning Farmer Labor party’s hold on the state’s highest office. But Durenberger tells us that Stassen did not intend to reverse the Farmer Labor party’s expansionist policies, aligned with the Roosevelt administration’ New Deal. Instead, Stassen implied that he would achieve many of the Farmer Laborites’ aims but do so more efficiently and with more transparency.

Stassen’s landslide victory in 1938 initiated a period of progressive Republican ascendancy in Minnesota extending well into the postwar era. During the next three decades, Republicans in the mold of Stassen occupied the governor’s office for all but eight of those years. After Stassen, notable progressive Republican governors included Luther Youngdahl, who oversaw the reform of the state’s mental institutions, and Elmer L. Andersen, who actively supported the passage of Minnesota’s landmark fair housing act.

‘For effective government’

Durenberger clearly views himself within the Stassen progressive tradition. That tradition, he explains, “stood not for big or small government but for effective government. It prized government not for its own sake but as a practical tool for creating the conditions that allowed its citizens to thrive. … It nurtured a sense of responsibility for the common good in both citizens and elected officials. It provided keen competition for other political parties while respecting its rivals’ contribution to the whole. It held that working across the aisle as well as across the country was a mark of strength, not weakness or disloyalty.”

Durenberger got his start in politics as an aide to Harold LeVander, a Stassen Republican who was elected governor in 1966. LeVander has been Stassen’s partner in a South St. Paul law firm. Later, the future Republican governor would offer Durenberger a job in the firm as a young associate when Durenberger graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1959.

After working as an attorney and a Republican activist for more than 20 years, Durenberger got his chance to face the voters for the first time in 1978, That year, he had initially intended to run for governor, but soon discovered that Minnesota’s First District congressman, Al Quie, also had his eye on the job. When Quie was able to attract more support for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Durenberger switched to the ballot slot for the two-year Senate term left vacant by the death of Hubert Humphrey earlier in the year.

The ‘Minnesota Massacre’

In November, Durenberger and his running mates, Quie and Rudy Boschwitz, won all three of the state’s top political jobs, defeating their DFL opponents in an election that came to be known as the Minnesota Massacre. The LeVander protégé went on to serve three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he made a name for himself as the Republican’s leading authority on health care policy. But his last years in office were tarnished by ethics violation charges that later resulted in a disciplinary action by the full Senate.


Former Sen. David Durenberger

When Durenberger took his seat in the Senate after the 1978 election, the political foundation for Minnesota’s progressive Republican movement was already beginning to crack. The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions during the first two trimesters of pregnancy contributed, in large part, to that fissure. Ironically, the Roe decision was issued by Justice Harry Blackman with the support of Chief Justice Warren Burger. Known as the “Minnesota Twins,” Burger and Blackman had grown up together in St. Paul. Both had ties to the Stassen wing of the Republican Party.

Durenberger, himself an abortion opponent, observed that Blackman’s ruling  “ruptured a political hornet’s nest. The resulting furor would last for decades and would reshape both major parties in Minnesota.” Before Roe, the DFL had a major anti-abortion faction, while Minnesota Republicans included a significant group of pro-choice supporters. But soon advocates on both sides of this very divisive issue would sort themselves according to their party identity. The anti-abortion faction, virtually en masse, left the DFL and become Republicans. At the same time, pro-choice Republicans found they were not welcome in their party. Many of them gravitated to the DFL.

One last hurrah

Progressive Republicanism did have one last hurrah in Minnesota when Arne Carlson was elected governor in 1990. But in some ways Carlson was an accidental governor, moving up to the state’s top political job only because the Republican Party’s more conservative gubernatorial nominee dropped out of the general election race at the last minute because of a scandal.

By now, a new faction was gaining ascendancy in Minnesota’s Republican Party, according to Durenberger. “They were antiestablishment people with views on a number of issues that ran counter to the thinking that characterized the Stassen line. Many mistrusted and rejected public education. They were skeptical about science and hostile towards the teaching of evolution. They saw the women’s movement as a threat to traditional family values. The budding gay rights movement was sinful in their eyes.”

Taking advantage of Minnesota’s arcane precinct caucus system, right-leaning activists, many of whom considered themselves evangelical Christians, moved into positions of influence in the Republican party organization, displacing more mainstream party members who were part of the Stassen line.

During his 1988 re-election campaign, Durenberger was able to keep the right-wingers in his Minnesota Republican party at bay, in part because of his firm opposition to legalized abortion, but he would soon but heads with an emerging congressional faction led by the wily Newt Gingrich, then the House Minority Leader. Gingrich promoted a strategy of obstructionism, whose overriding aim was to deny Bill Clinton a second presidential term in 1996. Durenberger, who had hoped to broker a compromise over health care, found himself boxed in by Republican congressional leaders who refused to abandon their obstructionism and a Clinton administration that resisted efforts to make its health care plan, orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, more acceptable to Republicans.

State Republicans remove ‘Independent’

Frustrated by his party’s rightward move and beset with ethics problems, Durenberger decided to give up his Senate seat in 1994. The next year, when he was out of office, the Minnesota GOP made a symbolic move that distressed the now- former U.S. senator. Following the Watergate debacle, the state Republican organization had added the term “Independent” to its name, making it the Minnesota Independent Republican Party. Durenberger welcomed the name change because it signaled the party’s effort to move closer to the center of the political spectrum. But party leaders dropped the term “Independent” in 1995, signaling that they were now part of the national right wing Republican mainstream. Durenberger regretted the name change.

“In Minnesota, Republicans no longer saw an advantage in standing apart from the nation,” he noted. “They no longer sought to appeal to independents with a label that implied a philosophy only slightly right of the nation’s ideological center and signaled a willingness to be creative in solving problems.”

Out of office now for 25 years, Durenberger continues to be distressed by what he sees as the extreme polarization of the American politics that has only intensified with the election of Donald Trump. Durenberger says he is still a Republican because he is “loath to disavow a lifetime of affiliation.” Moreover, he believes that he is upholding conservative principles when he promotes “market rate approaches for delivering needed public services.” But the former Republican senator acknowledges that more often than not he is voting for Democrats — particularly at the federal level. He even discloses that he went as far as to display a Hillary Clinton lawn sign in his yard in 2016.

Durenberger does not want to end his book on a negative note, so his final chapter, “Reviving the Center,” looks ahead optimistically to a post-Trump world. “In a perverse way, Trump’s presidency could produce a backlash so intense that Americans are newly motivated to work for ‘a more perfect union,’ ” he writes.

When Republicans Were Progressive” went to press before the recent battle over the Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination came to a head. That battle only served to further shrink any remaining middle ground in Washington.

Durenberger may sound a note of hope about the future, but this country appears to be headed toward an even deeper blue and red divide on Election Day, Nov 6. Durenberger and others like him may face insurmountable obstacles – at least in the foreseeable future — as they attempt to revive the center in American political life..

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 10/18/2018 - 10:59 am.

    From an old DFL’er to now an Independent (had a run as a GOP’er) both parties have gotten too big, too inflexible, too powerful, spend too much and less transparent. The fact that Trump’s America first policy has both Dems and GOP “never Trumpers” in a whirlwind, tells me all I need to know about our 2 party system.

    Whoever decided it was good to lead the World in corporate tax at 35%, regulate Americans out of jobs, make lending harder for qualified folks but easier for “subprime” folks, open our borders to folks crossing, an unregulated NAFTA causing massive job loss, try to make mining, logging and blue collar jobs a thing of the past, take the trades out of school, dumb down k-12 has a poor agenda…. Oh wait, that was both parties the past 3 decades.

    More an more folks are tired of the 2 party rule and this total nonsense of not putting America first is plain idiotic…. Every country puts their interests in front of other countries, when we do, the MSM and political elites cry foul. In another 10 -15 years independents will out number both parties and hopefully folks can vote for good policies (things that actually help them) not party affiliation. This tribalism has gotten ridiculous.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/19/2018 - 08:25 am.

      It literally took me 5 minutes to stop laughing before I could type a response. Mr. Smith’s gripes are 100% identical to today’s GOP, but he thinks of himself as an “Independent”. Sorry, gotta go, I’m laughing again.

  2. Submitted by Josh Lease on 10/18/2018 - 11:13 am.

    Durenberger has on some rose-colored glasses about his party’s history, especially if he thinks Arne Carlson was progressive. Arne was a Republican in the classic IR tradition, which by the time of the name change had already drifted away from its progressive roots, but had not embraced the right-wing extremism we see in the party today.

    It’s also disingenuous for Durenberger to piously declare that Roe is the reason for the fall of the progressive tradition in the GOP. I mean, of course the staunch opponent of abortion is going to blame that one. But it’s an absurd formulation not borne out by history. The fall of the progressive tradition in GOP politics was driven by race, not abortion; by the time the abortion wars were really heating up, the GOP had already abandoned progressive politics for racial animus. A fact already in place by the time Dave starting running for office, and something he seems to conveniently be ignoring. the MN GOP in its transition from being the IR was just trailing a little behind the national party.

  3. Submitted by David Moseman on 10/18/2018 - 11:25 am.

    This story starts out like a generational saga. In the late 30’s the only opportunity for the next generation was to oppose the established Democratic machine. Thus they took up new issues with new faces. The younger people were not tied to the old positions and could be progressive. Once in office they could not change those positions. Society always looks for better ways. The old quickly seems tired and wasted. Thus the party out of office can champion the new ideas. In 1960 Kennedy Dems brought new faces and new ideas like civil rights. In 1980 Raegan Republicans came in to reverse some of those moves and consolidate power in corporate management (also government) Since then we have seen even more rapid shifts with the losing party opening its interior ranks to new blood if not new ideas.

    This pattern of young progressives going to the party out of power faltered in 1990’s when big corporate money funded the Tea Party and other conservative groups. This ascendance of big money achieved legitimacy with the Citizens’ United v FEC in 2010. Minnesota’s media is reaping the windfall of this opportunity with unprecedented amounts of money being spent on our election… Will the People step up and reject the well-funded campaigns for grass roots and issue oriented politics?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/18/2018 - 08:58 pm.

      Whoa there! Kennedy Dems asked civil rights leaders to just cool it for a while longer. Having heard that from FDR, and realizing that justice delayed is justice denied, they wisely rejected that advice, forcing JFK to act.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/18/2018 - 03:54 pm.

    I saw the same process at work in Oregon. When I moved there in 1984, there were Republicans I did vote for (Senator Mark Hatfield) and those I could reasonably consider voting for (Governor Vic Atiyeh). It was Republicans who instituted many of Oregon’s environmental laws, strange as it may seem now.

    By the time I left, the Oregon Republican Party had been taken over by a combination of pseudo-Christian (I say “pseudo-Christian,” because their faith seems to based on sexual conservatism and outright rejection of the rest of Jesus’ teachings) fanatics and grumpy economic libertarians who oppose any government initiative unless they or one of their cronies can make money off it.

    It was disheartening to move back to Minnesota in 2003 and see that something similar had happened here.

  5. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 10/18/2018 - 04:01 pm.

    I actually voted for Durenberger once. when Bob Short defeated my total hero, Don Fraser in the primary.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/18/2018 - 05:15 pm.

    “I saw the same process at work in Oregon. ”

    And the images we see coming out of Portland today are a huge improvement….

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 10/19/2018 - 08:29 am.

      Yes, I hear there’s a mass migration of Oregonians invading the economic and intellectual hotbeds of the new GOP Deep South.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/19/2018 - 04:42 pm.

      The images you see coming out of Portland are neo-fascist “Proud Boys” (proud of being violent bigots?) acting obnoxious in order to “provoke the libs” as the Portland police, who have a long-standing tendency to do things like shooting unarmed mentally ill people, pepper spraying protesters who are just standing there, and sending in provocateurs to incite non-violent left-wing protesters to vandalism, do their usual thing of standing there and smiling approvingly at the right-wingers and attacking the left-wingers.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/22/2018 - 01:47 pm.

        Saw a bunch of people wearing masks chasing an eldwrly man down the street, smashing the windiws out of his car. Was that the neo-fascists?

        I agree, they are a violent bunch, and the police evidently approved of their actions since they stood by while the fascists diverted traffic. Chaos.

  7. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/18/2018 - 05:17 pm.

    It’s almost like the MNGOP woke up after a long winter hibernation and joined the rest of the country.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/19/2018 - 09:00 am.

    It’s been curious and outright comical over the past few years (since Bernie Sanders showed up) to see reporters and others with no progressive familiarity whatsoever attempt to discuss progressivism.

    Here we have a ridiculous proposition being presented as “history” as if Durenberger and Sturdevant have some coherent concept and understanding of the progressive mind set in the 70s and 80s. Any progressive will read this and simply chuckle.

    Sure, if you go all the back to the turn of the 19th century and the “Progressive Era” of Teddy Roosevelt you can claim some Republican progressive bona fides, but that conversation has nothing to do with Durenburger and Arnie Carlson.

    Simply put, no one who would criminalize abortion can claim to be “progressive” in any way shape or form, and THAT’S what being anti-abortion is. If you don’t understand this statement, you don’t know what modern progressivism is.

    Sure, Arne Carlson and Durenburger were less caustic than later Republicans but that doesn’t qualify them as “progressives”. The fact is that there hasn’t been ANY progressive voice in American or Minnesota politics for decades. Both Parties have been suppressing progressive politics for decades. Even Wellstone was less than enthusiastic about progressive agendas like single payer.

    You will note that nowhere in the entire article is a single progressive policy mentioned. And simply believing in government is actually a minimum requirement for those who seek to run governments, it’s not a sign of progressive sympathies. Sure, in the good old days Republicans understood that they were supposed to run the government if they got into power… but that understanding, although beyond most Repubican’s today, is basic feature of democracy, not a sign of progressive mentalities.

    Listen, I was there and I saw what these people did. Progressives weren’t voting for Durenberger and Arne Carlson. We were voting for Ken Pentel, Ralph Nader, Lenora Fulani, and Jesse Jackson. We had no home (and still don’t) in either of the major parties. If you need me to explain any of this to you, you have no business pretending to discuss or represent “progressive” politics.

    This looks like little more than nostalgia for an old comfort zone wherein Democrats and Republicans took turns in power while basic needs and critical issues were ignored for decades. The Minnesota Miracle of the early 70’s was the last time either Party made a concerted effort to seriously address the systemic and critical issues their constituents were facing on a daily basis. It was a time when people shook hands and journalists were friends with everyone and critical of no one other than third Party candidates. If was very comfortable for the elite, but the veneer of comity was thin and strained and the denial of burgeoning extremism was reaching toxic proportions. The illusion of “centrism” enabled toxic politics.

    By all means let’s move forward and seek genuine progress, but let’s not mythologize Republicans who anti-progress by trying to reclassify them as some kind of “progressives”.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/19/2018 - 04:56 pm.

      Indeed, when the right-wing media keep claiming that the Democrats are “radical Marxists,” I can only laugh. And when people act as if they believe that the Democrats are radical Marxists by expressing a wish for “a moderate party,” I can only shake my head at their ignorance of the full political spectrum.

      In fact, today’s Democrats range from center-right to center-left, and the supposed “radicalism” of politicians like Bernie Sanders is the both the political mainstream of most industrialized countries and a throwback to the ideals of the New Deal.

      The Republicans, on the other hand, have jumped off the right end of the political spectrum. They no longer want to “conserve” anything. They only want to destroy the social, political, and environmental achievements of the twentieth century, the achievements that make America a modern, civilized country. These aims make them reactionaries, not conservatives.

      At the same time, they want to intensify the unfortunate American habits of blending nationalism and religion, treating militarism as if it’s the same thing as patriotism, and coddling racists and xenophobes. If you look at Umberto Eco’s definition of fascism*, you can see almost all of his 14 points in today’s Republican Party. Eisenhower, who made his reputation fighting fascists as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, would be appalled at what has happened to his party.

      *Note that I do not call the Republicans “Nazis.” Thanks to the average American’s ignorance of history, many people do not realize that Hitler was not the only fascist dictator in Europe in the 1930s: Spain, Portugal, Italy, and a few Eastern European and Latin American countries had fascist dictatorships contemporary with and allied with the Nazis.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/20/2018 - 09:59 am.

        Yes Ms. Sandness, those of us who actually know some Marxists (and knew them back in the day) know that Marxist not infrequently argue with each other about whether or not they’re even progressives! And they argue with progressives about whether or not they’re progressives or just plain liberals! And Marxist Feminists are wholenuther deal altogether.

        You’re point about Fascists and Nazis is really important. I think it’s critical to understand that Donald Trump is a fascists, under almost ANY definition not just Eco’s. Trump isn’t running a Fascist government, but he himself is a Fascist. It’s also extremely important to recognize the fact that Republican wittingly or not have been laying an authoritarian groundwork for Trump for decades. The disregard for inconvenient laws began in earnest with Nixon and has only increased from Iran Contra to the Iraq wars and beyond.

        It’s simply an existential fact that many conservative minds are more comfortable with authoritarianism and distrustful if not hostile to the idea of universal suffrage and democracy. The generally dark view of humanity that conservatives hold in general just doesn’t easily lend itself to the idea of widespread self determination. Voters can’t be trusted but they can be duped and whenever these guys get into power they run amok. Look at how MN Republicans in St. Paul have spent the last 16 years trying to limit everyone else’s power while increasing their own. See how the champions of “local” government turned anti-local when the local’s decided to do stuff they didn’t agree with. Whatever.

        I’ve never really understood why Sanders’s calls himself a “socialist” when in fact he’s just a New Deal Democrat, but it seems to work for him. The fact that so many Democrats describe him and his modest New Deal agenda’s as “leftist” tells us how devoid the US has become of any real liberal let alone progressive champions.

        Getting back to Arne Carlson and the idea that he could be described as a “progressive” Republican… again this is only possible if you’re relying on an incoherent concept of “progressive”. Sure, Carlson was not anti-abortion for instance. I remember how outraged and angry so many Republicans were when he ended up the ballot instead of their pro-fetus candidate. But there’s nothing “progressive” about this. Carlson’s position was simply that he recognized Roe as the law of the land. There’s nothing progressive about recognizing the law of the land, it just looks remarkably enlightened compared to so many Republican’s who refuse to recognize any laws they don’t like, but it’s really just a minimum requirement for those govern in a liberal democracy. The fact that some look back on an era wherein Republicans recognized and respected the law as a “golden age” of some kind doesn’t reflect an era enlightened Republican politics so much as it reveals the truly dysfunctional nature of our two Party system.

        And thanks for pointing to the basic Republican agenda of repealing the 20th century! This is still the most concise definition of the Republican project I’ve ever seen. It may not have been Durenberger or Carlson’s agenda, but leaving history in tact doesn’t make a guy a “progressive”, it’s just makes someone a little less inclined to magical thinking.

        • Submitted by Gary Fredrickson on 10/23/2018 - 01:12 am.

          The inability to see through ones innate disdain for President Trump and anything Republican evidently leads to statements like “Trump is a Fascist”. Although Trump can be called a Nationalist, he is far from a Fascist. A fascist would not give power back to the people with tax cuts. A fascist would not remove government control from business by removing regulations and mandates. To the contrary, a fascist would want more government control of business and society, such as Marxist or Socialist maybe? Capitalism is almost necessarily antithetical to fascism and Trump is by any definition a capitalist. Capitalism is necessarily a requirement for “widespread self determination”. The right to the fruits of your own labor is after all, capitalism and ultimately freedom. To think that your “Progressive” mind can discern the workings of a “conservative” mind is some kind of narcissism. Conservatives, liberals, progressives, left or right almost all want the best for the country. They just disagree on how to get there and sometimes what that is.
          Just because something is called progressive doesn’t mean it is actually progress .
          And to Ms Sandness. I am sure that Eisenhower would not like a lot of what he would see in the Republican party today but I am certain that John Kennedy would have to find another party if he saw the Democrats today. You see democrats today as center right to center left. John Kennedy’s views would be considered far right today. HE was a liberal in the best sense of the word.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2018 - 08:42 am.

            Trump is a Fascist. He’s not a Nazi, but he IS a Fascist, he’s Fascist who’s president of a liberal democracy with an thus far intact Constitution. We’re just finding out what it looks like when American’s elect a Fascist for president.

            Fascism ins’t an economic theory so deregulatory schemes designed to enhance wealth don’t violate any Fascist dogma of any kind. And you’ll note that Trump has no trouble targeting individual companies that violate his personal ambitions.

            The problem with Fascist denials based on the absence of Nationalism that looks like Mussulini or Hitler is that the underlying basis of Fascist mentality is that the Fascist dictator believes that he IS the state. This became clear for instance when Hitler decided for instance that his own people deserved to die because they’d failed to produce his 1000 year Reich, so much for the Fatherland. In essence, the Fascist concept of a “State” is a megamaniacal entity more than a political construct at the end of the day… and that certainly fits Trump.

            Yes, the nature of progress is always debatable, but that has little to do with the contemporary progressive movement. The reasons American progressives call themselves “progressives” have little to do with any belief in inevitable “progress” of any kind- that’s one thing that distinguishes contemporary progressives from those Teddy Roosevelt’s era.

            Almost everyone can be forgiven for not knowing or understanding contemporary progressivism because it’s been effectively locked out of the national discourse during a decades long rightward shift under the guise of “moderation”. That’s OK, progressives are used to that… just don’t pretend that those who’ve been suppressing progressive agenda’s like Durenberger and Clinton ARE progressives of some kind because that’s simply wrong.

            • Submitted by Gary Fredrickson on 10/23/2018 - 10:45 pm.

              Again with the hateful blinders. While trying to explain why you think Trump is a fascist you jumped right to Hitler killing his own people. President Trump, in my opinion, is the most pro-middle class, pro-little guy president in my lifetime. That is not fascist. Because he is pro-USA does not mean he thinks he is the state. If his ego is a problem for you look no further than the last president. He had no problem targeting or favoring individual companies. Perspective is everything I guess.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/22/2018 - 08:38 pm.

      Lenora Fulani? She ran a cult, not a progressive movement. And no one who voted for union-busting millionaire Ralph Nader can call themselves a progressive.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2018 - 08:52 am.

        Yes, Fulani got a little goofy later in the 90’s but when she was on the presidential ballot in the 80’s she ran under the Peace and Justice Party banner. There was a tussle of sorts between the Peace and Justice Party and Rainbow Coalition but Fulani got on the ballot in ALL fifty states, something no other third party candidate has accomplished. Neither Perot or Nader ever managed to pull that off.

        So you might not remember Fulani, or ever have heard about her… but I’m sure you remember that goofy photo of Mike Dukakis riding in the Tank… he was supposed to be the “viable” candidate. Whatever.

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