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As the DFL marks its 75th anniversary, do the party’s Farmer-Labor roots still mean anything?

Or does it simply mean the Democratic Party in Minnesota is called something different from what it is in every other state for reasons lost on most people?

Farmer-Labor political poster
A Farmer-Labor political poster atop an automobile, circa 1925.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The marriage of what were at the time Minnesota’s second and third leading political parties was one made more for convenience than for love. Losing will do that.

This year, as the DFL commemorates the 75th anniversary of the union between the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party, does the combination still have meaning? Or does it simply mean the Democratic Party in Minnesota is called something different from what it is in every other state for reasons lost on most people? Does having the only hyphenated party name simply feed the state’s need to feel exceptional?

Recent arrivals and old timers both can be confused. As part of a documentary being produced on the history of the Farmer-Labor movement, filmmaker Randy Croce filmed person-on-the-street interviews near the DFL booth at the Minnesota State Fair. What does DFL stand for, they were asked?

“Democratic Farmer League?” tried one man.

“Isn’t it Democratic … something … something?” offered a woman.

“Something to do with back in the day,” replied another woman.

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A brief history of the Farmer-Labor Party

Back in the day turned out to be 1944. At the time, Minnesota’s Democrats were barely a factor in state politics or government, having not elected a governor since 1915 and not claimed a U.S. senator since the Civil War.

Though the state’s dominant political force at the time was the Republican Party, the populist Farmer-Labor Party had managed to do better than the Democrats. Four different Farmer-Labor candidates had won U.S. Senate seats in the 1920s and 30s, and three different FLP governors — including Floyd B. Olson — were elected during the Great Depression.

Though never in control of both the House and the Senate, whatever New Deal-type legislation passed during those years, it was because of the Farmer-Labor Party, not because of President Franklin Roosevelt’s fellow Democrats. But the FLPers had lost the governorship to a progressive Republican, Harold Stassen, in 1938, leading to a string of GOP governors that lasted until 1955.

In an interview earlier this month, former Vice President and U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale summarized the futility of the Democrats and the Farmer-Labor Party remaining as two separate entities: “There was a built-in fight there, and we always lost.”

Then there was Roosevelt himself. The thrice-elected president was seeking a fourth term and worried that the coalition of Democrats and Farmer-Laborites — who had helped him carry the state in 1932, 1936 and 1940 — was fading.

So who exactly was in the Farmer-Labor Party?

As Croce’s interviews show, present-day Minnesotans are often confused about the odd name of the present-day party. Where are the farmers? Is labor is as committed to the party as it once was? 

William Mahoney
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
William Mahoney, circa 1910
But the Farmer-Labor party wasn’t formed to represent agricultural interests or rural interests. Rather, it was founded as a populist party with a socialist flavor, one that grew out of the Nonpartisan League, an effort by small farmers to fight the power of the grain conglomerates and the railroads, wrote Augsburg University professor Michael J. Lansing in his history of the movement, “Insurgent Democracy.”

And while the rural strength of the Nonpartisan League was enough in states like North Dakota, in Minnesota, where there was a robust industrial base, labor was a necessary ally. It was William Mahoney, a St. Paul labor leader and later mayor, who helped bring the L into the FLP, which also benefited from ethnic Germans, who were targets of oppression by the notorious Minnesota Commission on Public Safety, formed to guard against “foreign threats” during World War I.

Though the party had nearly 40,000 dues-paying members and was fortified by associations around the state that served as the social and education hubs in many communities, their strategy for the Nonpartisan League and the early Farmer-Labor alliance was to work within the existing parties — especially the Republicans, which were stronger and contained a liberal wing, says Tom O’Connell, a retired Metropolitan State University professor who has written about the FLP.

In a bitter primary fight in 1918, Farmer-Labor-endorsed candidate Charles August Lindbergh (father of the aviator) lost to the governor who had led the Commission of Public Safety. J.A.A. Burnquist. (Lansing notes that the New York Times dubbed Lindbergh “a Gopher Bolshevik.”)

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The Farmer-Labor Party went on to run its own candidates in the general election, and the party was able to elect a U.S. senator in both 1922 and 1923. Its leading figure, both at the time and historically, was Floyd B. Olson, who was elected governor in 1930 and was reelected in 1932 and 1934.

“It took a great politician to take them over the top,” said O’Connell.

Charles A. Lindbergh, 1918 candidate for governor
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Charles A. Lindbergh, 1918 candidate for governor
O’Connell writes that despite never having a working majority in the Senate, the FLP governors enacted a moratorium on farm foreclosures, relief for the unemployed, banking reform, a graduated state income tax and 13 new state forests.

Had Olson not died of cancer in 1936 at the age of 45, he could well have gone on to the U.S. Senate or even national office. Instead, he was replaced first by Lt. Gov. Hjalmar Petersen and later by Elmer Benson, who was atop the party in perhaps its greatest election, 1936, where he won as governor and the FLP carried six of nine congressional seats.

But while Olson and Benson had similar politics, Benson lacked Olson’s skills as a public speaker and as a pragmatist. Many historians of the party cite a businessman who complained that while Olson mouthed some of the party’s most radical positions, “this son of a bitch (Benson) actually believes them.”

It didn’t help that Benson was openly affiliated with more radical elements of the party, including Communists and laborites from the Congress for Industrial Organization. An occupation of the state Capitol and the Senate not only wasn’t resisted by the governor — it was praised by him. There was also the tendency to exploit government appointments to both put FLPers in power and collect a 3 percent “voluntary” party dues payment, all of which gave Stassen the opening to run as a reformer and anti-Communist in 1938, wrote Steven Keillor in his history, “Shaping Minnesota’s Identity.”

“Like many protest movements before it, the Farmer-Labor Party rose quickly, peaked during a time of troubles, and then plunged rapidly into public disfavor,” wrote historian William E. Lass in “Minnesota: A History.”

The merger

The merger between the Democrats and the Farmer Labor Party was finalized on April 15, 1944. With just a few days left in the candidate filing period, lawyers from both parties delivered registration papers to the secretary of state announcing the union that would be known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. So close was the deadline that the secretary of state opened the office on a Saturday to receive the filing, said DFL board member and unofficial historian Jules Goldstein.

Floyd B. Olson
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Floyd B. Olson in 1932
“It was hard for the parties to give up something they had,” Mondale recalled. “People were unsure; those on the left were especially unsure. But they did it, and they helped change politics in this state forever.” 

Yet from the start, the marriage was tense. FDR and World War II were unifying factors early on, but the new party was not only a fledgling union of political factions, there were factions within the factions that emerged once World War II was won and Roosevelt was dead.

One of those factions was Communists who had been welcomed in the Farmer Labor Party and stuck around after the merger to see what would happen. The Communists — some out in the open and some secretive — had opposed war with Hitler when Josef Stalin was allied with Nazi Germany but embraced it once the Soviet Union was invaded. A “Popular Front” strategy of working with any group or politician who opposed fascism marked American Communists during the war.

After the war, however, they opposed any U.S. policy that was opposed by Stalin.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
1936 Farmer-Labor Party ticket
Other leftists had grown up in a Farmer Labor Party opposed to World War I as “the banker’s war” and had lived through the oppression launched against that war’s opponents as well as labor unions by the Commission on Public Safety. While they were able to support U.S. entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were suspicious of a looming Cold War they felt was being pushed by the new president, Harry Truman.

Evidence of this tension comes in a 1947 letter that Goldstein discovered in party archives. It was written by “Third Ward Farmer-Labor Caucus” in Minneapolis chair Ruben Latz to Truman. It reported on a unanimous vote of the caucus asking the president to “repudiate” a speech given one week before by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. By introducing Churchill, Truman had “lent the prestige of your office for an address that can only result in isolation of one (of) our heroic allies,” Latz wrote. 

The speech in question was the one given by Churchill at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in which he warned against an expansionist Soviet Union that had taken control of Eastern Europe and threatened the West and the United states. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill famously said.

In his history of the intraparty battle, Macalester College political science chair G. Theodore Mitau described the combatants as the “left wing,” led by Benson, and the “right wing,” led by Hubert Humphrey, who had become mayor of Minneapolis in 1944 and would go on to gain national attention when his anti-segregation speech helped pass a strong civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.

After he mediated the merger, Humphrey expected the FLers to fade away. So he was surprised when he and his allies lost control of the party in 1946 to a still potent Farmer-Labor faction that outworked and out organized them at DFL caucuses and conventions.

In the wake of that takeover, Humphrey had become a candidate for U.S. Senate, and he was determined not to lose at the grassroots again. Marine veteran and then-state DFL secretary Orville Freeman was the person given the organizing task, with help from Macalester student Walter Mondale, doctoral student Arthur Naftalin, future ambassador Eugenie Anderson, law student and veteran Don Fraser and St. Paul’s Eugene McCarthy, writes Keillor in “Shaping Minnesota’s Identity.”

Macalester College President Charles D. Turck, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in 1948.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Macalester College President Charles D. Turck, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in 1948.
Mondale said the young activists were referred to as “the Diaper Brigade.” As part of the battle, the Humphrey wing made public allegations that the Benson wing was influenced by Communists.

Eugenie Anderson in 1951
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Eugenie Anderson in 1951
“Will the DFL Party of Minnesota be a clean, decent, honest progressive party? – OR – Will it be a Communist Front Organization,” reads one poster from the time. 

“That’s about how we stated it,” Mondale recalled this month. “Who wanted to be connected to a party that was openly conspiring with the Soviet Union?” Mondale asked. “I was not one of them.” 

In his autobiography “The Good Fight,” Mondale recalls helping get Macalester, Hamline and St. Thomas students to a Young DFL meeting in late 1947 to help Humphrey win the endorsement for U.S. Senate.

“At one point, someone in the audience asked (Humphrey) if he thought the United Front supporters were actually members of the Communist Party,” Mondale wrote. “‘Well, if they’re not members, they are cheating it out of dues money,’ he said.”

Said Mondale this month: “That was very un-Humphrey-like. He did not like to be confrontational. But I think he saw that his career was involved in this dispute.” 

Don Fraser, Orville Freeman
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Don Fraser and Orville Freeman, circa 1956.
In the DFL archives, Goldstein found another telling illustration of the party’s factionalism in minutes from a late 1947 state DFL executive board meeting that occurred after the Young DFL meeting.

“Mr. Freeman moved that a letter of congratulations be sent to Mayor H.H. Humphrey on his re-election as Mayor and complimenting him on his outstanding leadership of the progressive forces of the State,” the minutes stated. But Herman Griffith, a member of the Farmer Labor faction who was a longtime critic of Humphrey, had a problem with that.

As the minutes noted: “Mr. Griffith move that references to outstanding leadership be struck.” The his motion succeeded.

Joked Mondale: “It shows you what love and affection was going on there.”

Hubert H. Humphrey at the 1948 State DFL Convention in Brainerd.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Hubert H. Humphrey at the 1948 State DFL Convention in Brainerd.
The 1948 DFL convention in Brainerd was controlled by the Humphrey wing. According to Mitau, the left wing stormed out, tried to hold its own convention and even delivered a list of electors to the secretary of state. But they lost when the DFL electors were presented the next day and the state Supreme Court sided with the Humphrey wing.

“The Wallace and Benson supporters left the DFL — or were kicked out — and many did not return for another twenty years,” Keillor wrote. “Unique Farmer-Labor politics never returned.”

O’Connell attributes the new DFL that emerged as one more suited for post-war America. While the FLP was a response to the Great Depression, its leaders had “grown long in the tooth” while the liberal Democrats around Humphrey were younger and more energetic with World War II forming their world view, not the Depression.

DFL Delegation
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A Democratic Farmer Labor party delegation prepares to leave the St. Paul Union Depot for Washington, D.C., in 1949. The Twin Cities Zephyr is at right.

‘The divide still exists’

According to Lass, Humphrey advocated for the combined name not just to ease the transition but because he knew there were thousands of votes to be gained by a candidate who had “Farmer-Labor” in his or her party name. There are fewer people alive now who know the story or vote for someone because of the L and the F in DFL. As recently as 1999, after a disastrous 1998 election for DFLers, a party chair proposed dropping the extra letters

Goldstein said he sees the legacy of the merger in modern DFL politics with the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party on one side and the more moderate wing, represented by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, on the other.

Courtesy of the DFL Party
Goldstein, a state DFL executive board member, said 2016 state caucus attendees were split between Sanders and Clinton. “Clinton was an old-time Democrat. Sanders was a Democratic Socialist, his platform indistinguishable from the Farmer-Labor platform. The divide still exists. We come together on most issues,” Goldstein said.

O’Connell has recently helped revive a nonprofit called the Farmer Labor Education Committee that had been incorporated by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. It has put on programs and is using state Legacy grants to produce a film about the former party and the populist movement it represented. He said just as his generation of anti-war activists in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t recognize their connection to the Farmer Labor Party, the current backers of Sanders and Warren don’t know of the connection either.

“It is re-emerging without necessarily a historical antecedent,” O’Connell said. “People don’t necessarily think of themselves as Farmer-Laborites but as Bernie Sanderites.” 

The party still does well with some in organized labor, especially teachers, government workers and unions like the Minnesota Nurses and the Service Employees. But it can struggle with skilled trades, which are less politically active and other industrial trades, such as mining and milling, have lost jobs and members as the economy changed. The DFL’s loss of the 8th Congressional district seat, which represents the Iron Range, is evidence of perhaps waning support in the north.

DFL candidates have also struggled in what might be considered farm country, due in part to the rise of environmentalism as a core tenet of the Democratic platform, though the Farmers Union stays closer to DFL candidates.

Mondale said he does see challenges outside of the Twin Cities for the DFL, but said he always did well in Greater Minnesota, and he notes that both Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have strength around the state. In general, though, he said DFL candidates “have to get off their asses and work and talk to people in rural areas.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the date of Hubert H. Humphrey’s speech advocating for Democrats to adopt a strong civil rights platform. It was at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, not the 1944 convention. The story has been updated and corrected.