Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I know what the NFL is, but what's the DFL?

Political observers from outside of Minnesota are sometimes puzzled by references to the "DFL Party" in that state.

The Democratic Party organization in Minnesota is officially known at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota.

That organization is the result of the 1944 merger between the Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party.

The Farmer-Labor Party was a socialist third-party movement that was founded in the aftermath of World War I. It was active in several states, but Minnesota is the only state in which it achieved significant electoral success.

Between 1923 and 1940, four party members represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate: Henrik Shipstead, Magnus Johnson, Elmer Benson and Ernest Lundeen. Shipstead was apparently not a full-blooded believer in the F.L. platform; he returned to the Republican Party in 1940, and continued to serve in the Senate, as a Republican, until 1947.

Three F.L. members served as governor of Minnesota between 1931 and 1939. The most prominent of those was Floyd B. Olson, who was running for the U.S. Senate, when he died of cancer in 1936. His lieutenant governor, Hjalmar Petersen, completed Olson's third two-year term. Elmer Benson was elected in 1936, and served one two-year term.

It's obvious from the surnames that the party leadership was heavily drawn from the prominent socialist element in the state's large population of Scandinavian ancestry.

The F.L. Party's 1934 platform was summarized in a article that was published that year in TIME magazine, a periodical that, especially in the heyday of publisher Henry Luce, would not have been at all sympathetic toward the party. That summary is as follows:
The Farmer-Labor platform dictated by Governor Olson announced bluntly that "Capitalism has failed," declared for "a complete reorganization of our social structure into a co-operative commonwealth." It demanded public ownership of factories, packing plants, banks, transportation and communication systems,mines, water power, public utilities.

Olson and his successors were unable to push the more radical aspects of that program through the state legislature.

In 1938, the F.L. hold on the governor's office was broken by Republican Harold Stassen, the "boy governor" who, at the age of 31, defeated Elmer Benson's bid for reelection.

By the early 1940s, the Democrats and the F.L. Party realized that they were splitting the anti-Republican vote. In the wake of Olson's death and the emergence of Stassen, the F.L. Party was no longer strong enough to dominate Minnesota politics on its own.

In 1944, the Democrats and the F.L. held a convention at which they agreed to merge into the DFL Party.

The DFL soon became the dominant party in Minnesota. Hubert Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate on the DFL ticket in 1948, followed by Eugene McCarthy in 1958. Orville Freeman was the first DFLer elected governor, in 1954. The party held the governorship for 26 of the ensuing 36 years.

The balance between the DFL and the Republicans has been somewhat more even in recent decades.

1978 was a calamitous year for the DFL. Humphrey died in January of that year. Wendell Anderson, who had been a very popular DFL governor, saw his support collapse after he had, in effect, appointed himself to the U.S. Senate vacancy caused by Walter Mondale's 1976 election as vice president.

The 1978 general election brought a defeat that must be rare, if not unprecedented, for any state party in American history, when the DFL lost the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats on the same day.

The party has recovered in the meantime. Its most prominent subsequent leaders were Rudy Perpich, who served a record total of 10 years as governor in two different periods, and Paul Wellstone, who was in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his death in 2002.

Image: Minnesota Historical Society (official portrait of Gov. Floyd B. Olson)

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