GRAND FORKS — Everybody seems to have written off the Democrats in North Dakota, and since I can’t disagree, I may as well join in piling on.
Probably things have not been as bad as this for Democrats since statehood. Here I should stipulate that I mean the portion of the political spectrum that Democrats represent. That allows inclusion of the Nonpartisan League years, when North Dakota’s political climate was perhaps the most radical in America – or at least the most successfully radical, even though almost all of the state officials were elected as Republicans.
The League had a program. These years produced the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, which Lloyd Omdahl recently noted “have become so prosperous they’re embarrassing.”
I don’t include the Langer years, however. As governor, William Langer used the League as a personal political machine without much attention to ideology. After 30 years, progressives took control of the League and merged it with the Democratic Party. That’s when the modern era in North Dakota politics began. By that time, Langer had retired to the U.S. Senate, where he liked to make a nuisance of himself.
The new entity took the name Democratic-Nonpartisan League – an oxymoron, of course, but reflective of the League’s earlier history. The League entered its candidates in the Republican primary, a decision that has confused historians and commentators ever since, because the old strategy often put progressives in office, people who might have been Democrats but couldn’t win with that party label.
Once the initials “NPL” were appended, the Democrats began doing quite a bit better almost right away. Their success lasted into recent election cycles; as late as 2010, the entire congressional delegation were Democrats. Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat in 2012 and Democrats had a respectable presence in the state legislature as late as 2015.
I had a kind of front-row seat at their early success. My mother was a precinct worker for the Democratic-NPL Party, and my uncle was county chairman. My front-row seat was on the passenger side of a 1956 Chevrolet automobile. My uncle was behind the wheel, and we covered most of the county roads south of Stanley and north of the Fort Berthold Reservation. At every important intersection, he’d stop the car and I’d get out and put a campaign sign on the telephone pole. His other big responsibility was getting out the vote. He had help in every precinct to do that. My mother’s job was to ensure that everybody who was likely to vote for a Democrat got to the polls. She checked off their names as they showed up.
That’s called organization.
Organization was a legacy of the League. A.C. Townley, its founder, had been a Socialist Party organizer. He didn’t really swallow the program, though. His life story is more about personal aggrandizement than it is about government ownership. Townley was a spellbinder, and he advanced a lot of schemes over the years. In organizing the League, he took $6 from thousands of farmers across the state. “Six Dollar Suckers” they were called.
After his success in North Dakota, he tried to make the League into a national movement. Failing that, he pursued a series of ever more fantastic schemes, including faith healing and oil speculation. Townley was always “betting on the come,” as poker players say.
Once rid of both Langer and Townley – who hated each other, by the way – Democrats began to thrive. Quentin Burdick’s elections, initially to the U.S. House and later to the Senate, were the first major successes. Burdick had run several times as a plain Democrat, but without success, even though his father, Usher Burdick, also a congressman, was both one of the most eccentric and talented vote getters the state has ever known.
It was Burdick the Younger’s campaign signs I posted on poles. The year was 1960. Burdick died in office more than 30 years later. By that time, my own seat was on the sidelines. As a young reporter, I watched Burdick work a room; I watched him receive supporters and supplicants in small-town cafes; and I asked him for a favor. I needed a mailing permit for “The Onlooker,” my weekly newspaper, and the local postmaster said Burdick would be able to get me one. He did.
That’s constituent service.
Program plus organization plus constituent service is pretty much the recipe for political success.
North Dakota Democrats seem to have forgotten that. Of course, Republicans have rigged the system some, but politics is a lot harder to rig if you’ve got two strong parties.
This really matters. The collapse of the Democratic Party leaves North Dakota with its least distinguished congressional delegation ever at a time of national crisis, with one senator mute and one a mouthpiece and a House member with promise but no current clout.
This matters on the state level, too. As I’ve pointed out in the past, government works better when there are two parties, not when one has wrecked its own ship.
More about all of this in future columns.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.