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Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, 1924–1944

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Black and white photograph of Governor Elmer Benson speaking at a Farmer-Labor state convention in Duluth, 1938.

Governor Elmer Benson speaking at a Farmer-Labor state convention in Duluth, 1938.

Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) represents one of the most successful progressive third-party coalitions in American history. From its roots in 1917 through the early 1940s, the FLP elected hundreds of candidates to state and national office and created a powerful movement based on the needs of struggling workers and farmers.

The history of the FLP unfolded in four stages: emergence (1917–1924), consolidation (1924–1930), high tide (1930–1938), and decline (1938–1944). In the first stage, two broad-based organizations, the Farmers’ Non-Partisan League and the Working Peoples’ Non-Partisan League, joined forces. Together, they challenged Minnesota’s ruling Republicans by running their own slate of candidates in the primary elections.

In the fall of 1917, organizers from the League crisscrossed the state. They registered fifty thousand farmers for an anti-monopoly program patterned after the successful effort made by North Dakota farmers the year before. In response, the administration of Republican governor J. A. A. Burnquist carried on a campaign of harassment. His staff branded both farm and labor participants as unpatriotic and even jailed leaders for disloyalty.

Refusing to back down, farmers and workers continued to organize. In 1918, Congressman Charles Lindbergh came within 51,000 votes of defeating Burnquist in the Republican primary. In the general election, the Farmer-Labor coalition elected thirty three of its members to the state legislature and replaced the Democrats as the main rivals of Minnesota's Republican Party. Maintaining its alliance in 1920 and 1922, the FLP continued to elect state and local officials. These included two U.S. senators: Magnus Johnson and Henrik Shipstead.

In 1924, a second stage began when the two organizations founded the Farmer-Labor Federation. (It was replaced by the Farmer-Labor Association the following year.) The association was the educational and organizational center of the movement. The FLP was its electoral arm.

In the Republican-friendly 1920s, the FLP found itself swimming upstream. With its large network of committed members in both city and country, however, the party continued to elect candidates. It remained the strongest opposition party to the Republicans.

In 1930, the steady work paid off. Floyd B. Olson defeated the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, beginning the third and most successful period of Farmer-Labor history. A gifted orator, Olson voiced the feelings of Minnesotans struggling with unemployment and economic hardship. Voters re-elected Olson as governor in 1932 and 1934. He was a sure winner for the U.S. Senate before he died of a stomach tumor in 1936.

Olson’s success, combined with skillful organizing, sparked dramatic growth in Farmer-Labor participation. Dues-paying membership in the party’s association rose to almost forty thousand as organizers set up clubs across the state. Hundreds of Farmer-Laborites held elected offices at all levels of government, from city council to U.S. Senate. In 1936, the FLP captured six of nine congressional seats, the governorship, and a solid majority in the state House of Representatives.

Although the FLP controlled the governorship for eight years, it was never able to win a majority in the state senate and enact their full agenda. Pieces of its platform, however, did become law. These included a moratorium on farm foreclosures, relief for the unemployed, banking reform, a state income tax, and thirteen new state forests.

The glory days of the Farmer-Labor movement ended in 1938. Harold Stassen, a young and energetic Republican reformer, defeated Olson’s successor, Elmer Benson. FLP candidates for statewide office continued to outpoll the Democrats in Minnesota. They finished far behind the Republicans, however, in 1940 and 1942.

When the U.S. entered World War II and the American economy improved, support declined for the FLP’s Depression-era policies. Committed to re-electing Franklin Roosevelt to a fourth term, most Farmer-Laborites agreed to merge with the Democrats in 1944. This merger created the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL).

Unity between the two wings of the new party did not last long. Many in the DFL opposed President Harry Truman’s military build-up and growing anti-communism at home and abroad. When the DFL endorsed the independent presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, the Democrats, led by a young Hubert Humphrey, united behind Truman. In a fierce, six-month battle fought in precinct and district caucuses across the state, the Democrats defeated the Farmer-Laborites. The Farmer-Labor wing never recovered its influence.

The FLP was far more than an electoral party. It was a genuine social movement with its own educational and cultural outlets. Thousands participated: farmers, workers, professionals, and owners of small businesses. The movement included militant farm organizations like the Farm Holiday Association, groups representing the unemployed, labor unions, and cooperatives. These movements often connected directly to the Farmer-Labor Association as affiliates. Even when they did not, the collective energy of popular protest in Minnesota built support for Farmer-Labor candidates and programs.

The Farmer-Labor movement reflected diverse social traditions. Some Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants brought socialist ideas with them to their new homes in Minnesota. Temperance and suffrage activists transferred their crusading spirit to the FLP. Generations of rural populists passed on the tradition of farmer solidarity and opposition to the railroad and grain monopolies. Communist Party members, often skilled organizers, also participated. Their involvement caused internal conflict and, eventually, drained public support.

The FLP developed a political viewpoint that was to the left of both the New Deal of the 1930s and the Democratic Party of the early 2000s. FLP activists supported a more equal distribution of wealth through an economy based on small businesses, cooperatives, and public ownership. Above all, Farmer-Laborites believed that educated and organized citizens sustained a strong democracy.

The FLP movement continues to influence Minnesota politics. Its progressive populism led to the liberalism of such DFL leaders as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy. Three decades later, the re-discovery of the FLP tradition spurred a larger renewal of grass roots organizing that led to the election of Paul Wellstone to the U.S. Senate in 1990.

Nor was its influence limited to Democrats. Responding to the FLP challenge in 1938, Harold Stassen forged a brand of moderate Republicanism that lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1980. Indeed, Minnesota’s continuing reputation as a relatively liberal state partly reflects its more radical FLP tradition.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Chrislock, Carl. The Progressive Era in Minnesota, 1899–1918. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1971.

Gieske, Millard L. Minnesota Farmer-Laborism: The Third-Party Alternative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Haynes, John Earl. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Holbo, Paul S. “The Farmer-Labor Association, Minnesota’s Party Within a Party.” Minnesota History 38, no. 7 (September 1963): 301–309. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/38/v38i07p301-309.pdf

Mayer, George. H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

McCurry, Dan C. comp. The Farmer-Labor Party: History, Platform and Programs. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Naftalin, Arthur. “A History of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1948.

Valelly, Richard, M. Radicalism in the States: the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Youngdale, James M. Populism: A Psychohistorical Perspective. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1975.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Governor Elmer Benson speaking at a Farmer-Labor state convention in Duluth, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Governor Elmer Benson speaking at a Farmer-Labor state convention in Duluth, 1938.
Black and white image of Charles A. Lindbergh featured on the cover of The Nonpartisan Leader, the NPL's official publication, 1918.
Black and white image of Charles A. Lindbergh featured on the cover of The Nonpartisan Leader, the NPL's official publication, 1918.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor Convention, Minneapolis, 1922.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor Convention, Minneapolis, 1922.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor political poster atop an automobile, c.1925.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor political poster atop an automobile, c.1925.
Black and white photograph of Henry G. Teigan, Magnus Johnson, and Arthur C. Townley, c.1930.
Black and white photograph of Henry G. Teigan, Magnus Johnson, and Arthur C. Townley, c.1930.
Black and white photograph of farmers storming the Minnesota State Capitol to demand relief, 1933.
Black and white photograph of farmers storming the Minnesota State Capitol to demand relief, 1933.
Black and white photograph of members of the Socialist Workers Party demonstrating, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of members of the Socialist Workers Party demonstrating, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of Governor Floyd B. Olson, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of Governor Floyd B. Olson, c.1935.
Black and white photograph of the Farmer-Labor party of Hennepin County chooses delegates, 1936.
Black and white photograph of the Farmer-Labor party of Hennepin County chooses delegates, 1936.
Color image of a poster titled, "Minnesota's own Farmer-Labor party," 1936.
Color image of a poster titled, "Minnesota's own Farmer-Labor party," 1936.
Poster titled, "Vote Farmer-Labor All the Way," 1937.
Poster titled, "Vote Farmer-Labor All the Way," 1937.
Black and white photograph of a peace demonstration, Minneapolis, 1936.
Black and white photograph of a peace demonstration, Minneapolis, 1936.
Poster titled, "Ernest Lundeen, Farmer-Labor Candidate for U.S. Senate," 1936.
Poster titled, "Ernest Lundeen, Farmer-Labor Candidate for U.S. Senate," 1936.
Black and white photograph of a Minneapolis street corner showing the Farmer-Labor Party headquarters, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a Minneapolis street corner showing the Farmer-Labor Party headquarters, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a progressives meeting, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a progressives meeting, 1937.
Campaign literature for Hjalmar Petersen, Farmer-Labor Party candidate for Governor, 1938.
Campaign literature for Hjalmar Petersen, Farmer-Labor Party candidate for Governor, 1938.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor party rally against fascism, 1938.
Black and white photograph of a Farmer-Labor party rally against fascism, 1938.
Poster titled, "Vote the Straight Farmer-Labor Ticket - Elect Shirley Edelston," c.1940.
Poster titled, "Vote the Straight Farmer-Labor Ticket - Elect Shirley Edelston," c.1940.

Turning Point

In November 1930, the election of the charismatic Floyd B. Olson to the governorship ushers in an era of Farmer-Labor power in Minnesota politics.

Chronology

Summer 1918

After a campaign marked by violence and charges of disloyalty, the Non-Partisan League candidate for governor, Charles Lindbergh, narrowly loses a primary challenge to J. A. A. Burnquist, the Republican incumbent.

Fall 1918

Farmer-Labor cooperation continues into the general election. Republicans take all state-wide offices, but Farmer-Labor candidates win eleven Minnesota Senate and twenty-two House seats.

1922

Farmer-Labor candidates elect two U.S. senators and a strong minority to the state legislature. The FLP replaces the Democrats as the main challenger to the Republicans.

1924

Farm and Labor allies create an ongoing independent political organization, the Farmer-Labor Federation (re-named the Farmer-Labor Association the following year).

1930

With the onset of the Great Depression, the charismatic Floyd B. Olson becomes the Farmer-Labor Party’s first governor but Republicans still control the legislature and Olson proposes few reforms.

1932

Farmer-Labor power dramatically increases as Olson is re-elected by a larger margin and Farmer-Laborites win control of the Minnesota House and five out of nine Congressional seats.

1933

Olson rallies strong popular support to win passage of a state income tax, relief for the unemployed, banking reform, and a moratorium on farm foreclosures.

1934

With protest by workers, farmers, and the unemployed rising, the Farmer-Labor convention adopts its Cooperative Commonwealth Platform, outlining a new economic system to replace monopoly capitalism.

1934–1935

Olson is re-elected but Farmer-Laborites fail to win either house of the state legislature. Few laws are passed, but Farmer-Labor chapters proliferate and the movement grows.

Fall 1936

After the death of Floyd B. Olson the previous year, FLP candidates win six congressional seats, the U.S. Senate race, the governorship, and a majority of the Minnesota House.

1937

FLP governor Elmer Benson proposes an extensive reform agenda, including taxes on large business interests, as tensions between the governor, union allies, and conservative Republicans increase.

1938

Amid charges of communist influence and political corruption, Elmer Benson loses the governorship to Republican reformer Harold Stassen as Republicans win big majorities in the November election.

1944

With Republicans still dominating state politics, Farmer-Laborites and Democrats merge to create the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). The two wings of the new party maintain an uneasy peace through the end of World War II.

Winter–Spring 1948

With Democrats divided over President Truman’s foreign and domestic policies, a struggle for control of the party breaks out with the pro-Truman Democrats winning a decisive victory.

Fall 1948

Their numbers diminished, Farmer Laborites help create the Progressive Party to run candidates for state office and support Henry Wallace’s unsuccessful challenge to President Truman.