Monday, March 22, 2010

On politics and the Minnesota DFL

I was born into the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in more ways than one.  If you count back from my July 1949 birthday, you will discover that I was conceived during the elections of 1948.  And even though my father was the Lutheran preacher in a tiny outpost of Swedes stuck in overwhelmingly Catholic central Minnesota, both he and my mother were politically very urbane.

Because a small-town preacher and wife are often also front-line social workers, they were fervent supporters of the New Deal programs such as AFDC.  But it was more than a political agenda solving some of their problems.  My mother's father was a classic Swedish Social Democrat in the Hjalmar Branting mode when he came to Chicago in 1899. When he moved to Minnesota in 1921, it would be to Congressman Charles A. Lindbergh's district.  Lindbergh himself was love child of a sex scandal that drove Ola Månsson, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Sweden, to North America and change his name to Lindbergh.  So my grandfather supported Lindbergh when he was assembling the Farmer-Labor Party for reasons of politics AND ethnicity.  And when she died a few years ago, we discovered that my mother had indeed been sent flowers by Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson, Minnesota's Swedish / Norwegian-American Farmer-Labor Governor during the darkest days of the Great Depression, because we found the carefully dried remains.

My father was a still a seminarian at heart with those sorts of change-the-world passions that entails.  When the election of 1948 came around, I can only imagine the political chatter in the parsonage.  My father came from Kansas and was absolutely opposed to voting for Harry Truman because he considered him a corrupt politician in the service of a Kansas City crime boss named Pendergast.  They both were absolutely thrilled by the speech on civil rights that Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey gave to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in part because it had driven the knuckle-draggers like Strom Thurmund out of the party.

Couldn't vote for Truman--certainly not for Thurmond.  So who to vote for?  Why, the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace, the Iowa Republican who had been run out of FDR's cabinet for being too radical, of course.  Sounded like a perfect Farmer-Laborite to my mother.  Was a spectacular agrarian intellectual to my farm-boy father.

So after I had been successfully conceived and my parent's votes for Wallace in the ballot box, the curiosity over the count began to mount.  Then the local paper came out--there were exactly two votes for Wallace in their own little version of Lake Wobegon.  So I was born to be a "radical" while my parents determined to never discuss politics with their rural parishioners.

Minnesota had an intensely interesting brand of citizen political involvement in those days.  The political ideas came with those brave enough to try to eke out a living in a place with arctic winters and tropical summers.  The Scandinavians brought their cooperatives and Social Democracy, the Yankees their New England town meetings, the Germans brought their classical socialism and intellectual traditions.  Minnesota politics is what grew out of those traditions AFTER the bullshit was removed by the first winter's dose of reality.

And what leaders came from the resulting politics.  The Republicans gave us Frank Kellogg (the Rochester Senator whose name graces the Kellogg-Briand Pact--a treaty that would provide the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials) or Harold Stassen (the "boy governor" who help author the United Nation's charter.) The DFL was so laden with talent that in 1968, the two dominant candidates for President were both from Minnesota (Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy).

But those days are over.  While not as great, the decline in political awareness in both parties is similar to the difference between Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush.  The decline between a Nobel Laureate like Kellogg to Michele Bachmann is the Minnesota version of the Republican slide into insanity.

But I am much more worried about my DFL Party. Our slide into irrelevance has been going on for years--well, anyway since Walter Mondale lost overwhelmingly to Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the timid souls thought that the only solution to such disasters was to become even MORE like the Reagan Republicans.  We had one small reprieve from this cowardly response to everything worth defending--Paul Wellstone--but mostly, the party that still has Farmer-Labor in its name was taken over yuppies who wanted to become "Hedge-Fund Democrats" (HFD).

The most notorious of the HFDs is current Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Ryback.  He is so wedded to the ideals of Finance Capitalism, he actually brags about his early support for Bill Bradley.  Bradley was the first Democratic Presidential candidate since the Great Depression to openly claim that he could also be on the same side as Wall Street.  Because of this, Bradley's campaign went down to resounding defeats and we can see where that thinking has lead nationally.  But does that affect the thinking of a yuppie like Rybeck?  Are you kidding?  He may SAY we are facing the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression, but this most certainly does not include moratoriums on foreclosures or anything else that might upset the banksters.  He's actually a pretty good mayor.  So now he wants to run for governor.  No thank you!  But judge for yourself.

But at the very top of my new DFL shitlist is Margaret Anderson Kelliher.  I grew up around women like MAK.  She grew up on a dairy farm so learned the work ethic the hard way.  She won every possible election and "leadership" award offered her.  She graduated college and soon after won a house seat from a southwest district of Minneapolis.  She was taken under the wing of Alan Spear, the openly gay University of Minnesota history teacher who would become President of the Minnesota Senate.  MAK is now the speaker of the Minnesota House and running for governor.

I met MAK a few years ago.  An occasional co-worker in video productions and I had hit upon an idea.  Why not train young politically active people how to make documentaries that would educate them on the issues of the day--and also address the question--why do Democrats have better solutions for the problems that affect us all?  Fellow worker lives in MAK's house district so he set up a meeting to see if we could drum up some official support for this idea.  I even made a DVD to demonstrate what I was talking about.  And on the cover of the DVD I put one of my favorite pictures of Floyd B. Olson.  This one!

When we walked into MAK's office, there was the same picture on her wall--a BIG one roughly 4' x 5'.  I thought we were going to have smooth sailing.  Well, it turned out that picture was just a sentimental form of decoration--her history professor mentor had ordered it for his office and she inherited it from him when he retired.  Needless to say, our meeting went about as well as most such efforts directed at the teaching of history--it was a disaster.  I left the meeting disappointed and humiliated.

So the other night at a Drinking Liberally we had MAK come to discuss her campaign.  In the question and answer session that followed her speech, I asked whether she still had her giant picture of Olson.  MAK launches into a description of why she so liked the picture, and what had happened to it (it has been moved to a conference committee room in the Capital).  She tells how she has recently read a biography of Olson as mayor of Minneapolis--claims what impressed her was how often he met with the voters (seriously, that's what she said).  Throughout this four-minute talk, she calls him Floyd B. like he was a dear friend.

So I asked a follow-up question.  Since she has kept her maiden name (Anderson) on campaign literature to reassure the remaining Nordic voters in Minnesota, perhaps she would like to say Floyd Olson's middle name (Bjørnstjerne--no I didn't say it) in her best Scandinavian accent.  If she had been prepped, this would have been the high hanging curve ball she could park in the seats.  But since it she didn't see it coming, she could not answer because that would have meant she actually knew why Olson was so important to Minnesota history.

I understand historical illiteracy is common in USA.  But this was Ms. Superfrau Accomplishment talking about someone whose picture she had seen every working day for years--a man whose biography she had claimed to have read.

I also understand you cannot remember everything--especially a name that difficult to pronounce.  But because I understood her indifference to the history of the DFL, this gaffe merely illustrated that she is one of those folks who believes it all right to be historically illiterate so long as you KNOW someone who isn't.  Even more troubling, I get the feeling that MAK is probably embarrassed by the characters of the Farmer-Labor Party and far from learning the lessons they taught, she would not let them into her nice Bryn Mawr Minneapolis house.

So now that the Democrats have decided to self-destruct over this hopelessly corrupt health care "reform" bill, it might be a good idea if those of us in Minnesota who consider good economic policy to be at the center of effective government to split the old Farmer-Labor people away from the hedge-fund yuppie Democrats.  The Farmer-Labor Party was a successful third-party movement.  Perhaps it is time for another.

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