MATTERS AT HAND: North Dakota outgrows the NPL

Here is one last consequence of the 2010 election, this one peculiar to North Dakota: It is the extinction of the Nonpartisan League. Byron Dorgan is the last North Dakota politician to draw successfully on the heritage and rhetoric of the League...

Here is one last consequence of the 2010 election, this one peculiar to North Dakota: It is the extinction of the Nonpartisan League.

Byron Dorgan is the last North Dakota politician to draw successfully on the heritage and rhetoric of the League, and none can be expected to take it up successfully in the future.

So, Dorgan's departure from the U.S. Senate also means the League's disappearance as a political force.

The League was once powerful, producing a succession of governors and other office holders, establishing a range of economic institutions useful to the state and its people, and creating a political culture unique in the United States.

The League had a turbulent life, but did not quite make its 100th birthday.


The League was organized in 1915, controlled state government by 1919, was booted out in 1921, losing three offices in the nation's first recall election, then resurrected as a personal political machine by William Langer, who was successively attorney general, governor and U.S. senator.

The League's founders were socialists. Arthur C. Townley, a brilliant organizer and propagandist, had worked for the Socialist Party.

He knew a loser when he saw one, however, and he knew a winner, too.

He took advantage of North Dakota election laws to run the League's candidates as Republicans, and the movement was identified with the Republican Party for the first 40 years of its life.

Nevertheless, its program was left-leaning. The League created several state-owned enterprises. A state-owned mill and elevator and a state-owned bank survive. Both are unique in the United States, and they are important legacies of the League.

The League also created a series of cooperatives, ranging from grocery stores to lending institutions. None of these were successful, and its housing finance scheme was a scandal.

More successfully, the League founded newspapers -- and it decreed through legislation that each county might have only one official newspaper. The result was failure of many privately owned newspapers throughout the state.

The League also had its own newspaper, The Leader, and it had a brilliant cartoonist, John M. Baer, who later served in Congress.


It was the League's information program -- less politely called propaganda -- that had the greatest impact on the state. It may be an exaggeration to say that the League promoted class warfare -- but only just. The League lambasted "Big Biz," and Baer produced a caricature of a bloated plutocrat to fire the imagination. The League sanctified farmers, condemned bankers and excoriated the rich.

During his long public career, Dorgan sounded all of these themes, and they helped him win impressive majorities in election after election.

In 1956, the League began running its candidates as Democrats, and this helped drive the success of the Democratic Party in the state. Quentin Burdick was closely identified with the League, and he won a Senate seat in 1960.

But it was a chimerical success, as 2010 showed.

North Dakotans weaned on the League's program and propaganda aged and died. Fewer North Dakotans had personal connections with the promise and problems of farming, and farmers began to see themselves as businessmen, not as virtuous yeomen.

Dorgan's political rhetoric continued to sound these themes, but he was increasingly alone. Heidi Heitkamp used them in her campaign for governor in 2000, but she lost to Hoeven, who offered a much more pro-business point of view.

Successive Democratic candidates have made social welfare their primary focus, aligning the state party with its national themes. Rep. Earl Pomeroy became a victim of this realignment. He wasn't able to distinguish himself from the national Democratic Party and its emphasis on health care reform.

But changing demographics have been even more lethal to the League and its legacy. The four most urban counties generated more votes in the 2010 election than 40 of the most rural counties, and three of these counties were solidly Republican. Grand Forks County was the only exception, returning a majority for Rep. Earl Pomeroy in the election's marquee race.


The League's legacy will remain important, especially the mill and the state bank.

But the League's impact and importance have faded, and Dorgan's departure only underlines that truth.

North Dakota has outgrown the League.

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