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Occupy the Precinct Caucuses

February 07, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Tonight’s precinct caucuses in Minnesota offer frustrated citizens a chance to be heard, to promote social and economic justice, and to serve as a check on institutionalized privilege.

If you doubt such results are even possible, you ignore Minnesota’s history and our cultural inheritance. We are a people of protesters and reformers.

An expert on the Farmer-Labor movement in Minnesota reminds us that we’ve done it before. A leading national advocate for social justice in the Occupy movement reminds us that similar movements in Northern Europe greatly changed the politics, economies and cultures of their countries. Later this month, the Minnesota Historical Society Press is issuing a book looking back over 150 years of protest movements in Minnesota

A pause to recall these movements is in order before heading out to either Democratic or Republican precinct caucuses this evening.

Tom O’Connell, a political scientist at Metropolitan State University, sees a lot of similarities between the Occupy movement today and the agrarian and labor uprisings in the early part of the past century.

Frustration with the privileged class’ control of the economy and politics led to creation of the Farmer-Labor Movement (1917-1948). O’Connell wrote a thesis on this successful Minnesota movement for his doctoral studies.

Keep in mind that many of the roots in the Farmer-Labor Movement went deep in the Republican Party since the Democratic parties in the Upper Midwest were weak as a legacy of the Civil War. Socialist thought that came into the movement with labor, meanwhile, was largely shaped by experiences in Europe.

Much of this history was forgotten after the merger that formed the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in 1944. Yet, the Farmer-Laborites became the dominant political party from 1930 to 1938, O’Connell said, and won four gubernatorial elections, four U.S. Senate races, and elected eight members to the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Connell recently discussed protest and political reform at a lunch meeting at Swede Hollow Café in St. Paul. It was a fitting location; he passed along an essay, “How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’,” by George Lakey.*

The Lakey essay is especially informative of Norway’s populist emergence in 1931-1935. This was roughly on track with political and economic reforms in Sweden, as noted two years ago in a Minnesota 2020 report, “Prosperity Ahead: Sweden’s Past Points Minnesota Forward”.**

Minnesota 2020 called on Minnesotans to heed their cultural ties to Northern Europe and recall their own past to adopt “a Minnesota way” to cope with economic and social problems in the present time.

A key report recommendation was a call on Minnesotans to demand that public officials not sign special interest pledges; such as tax giveaways, to interest groups that prevent sound public policy resolution. Other recommendations called on lawmakers to anticipate consequences of public policies to avoid harming people, rationalize resources for the common good, encourage entrepreneurship and cooperative development, and finally, require "folkhemmet" impact statements, like environmental impact statements, to anticipate how public policies will impact people’s lives and opportunities.

To link Sweden’s experience with the rhetoric of today’s Occupy movement, there is a need for cultural compromise in Minnesota and America to free policymakers to champion the needs of the 99 percent and not just serve the whims and subsidies of the powerful 1 percent.

Can Minnesota serve as such a force for change? It always has.

Historian Rhoda R. Gilman has a book entitled Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition to be officially launched on Feb. 23, It looks back over 150 years of protest movements.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press said groups and movements profiled in the book include the abolitionist Republican Party, Grangers, antimonopolists, Populists, strikers, progressives, suffragists, Communists, Farmer-Laborites, communes and cooperatives, and abortion politics.

It is common but incorrect to assume these movements were failures because they didn’t become permanent parties or institutions. They were successful and continue to be successful when continuing political parties and other groups adopt their causes.

They have had failures as well. Special interests have turned back progress on social justice issues. Among examples are current rights for labor to organize and collectively bargain for workers, for access to healthcare, and for educational opportunities for the 99 percent.

The precinct caucuses are not just a process to elect delegates who will nominate candidates for public office. They are an opportunity to protest, shape the issues going forward, for which there is a rich Minnesota tradition.

*Modern Sweden’s transformation became widely known as “the Middle Way” from the writings of American author and journalist Marquis Childs.

**For more details on how Norway and Sweden transformed their economies and political cultures into models for all nations can be found at the Nonviolent Action Database that Lakey and others operate at Swarthmore College.

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