Minnesota’s Progressive Legacy – Ideological Roots

The Grand Consensus

Minnesota's Progressive Legacy - Part II


By Iric Nathanson

The policy-makers who promoted the Minnesota Miracle and other twentieth-century legislative initiatives approached their work with a view toward the needs and concerns of their constituents.  But many at the state Capitol were part of broader philosophical and ideological movements whose roots reached back to an earlier era.

In Minnesota, in the middle years of the last century, those movements were reshaped and updated by two articulate and charismatic leaders, Hubert Humphrey and Harold Stassen, whose progressive legacies contributed to this state’s Grand Consensus.

Writing in the quarterly journal Daedalus in the summer of 2000,  former state Senator John Brandl observed that Humphrey and Stassen “working independently … created a broad political center that dominated Minnesota for the next several decades, each drawing his party away from intemperate partisanship.”

Fusion on the left

hubert h. humphrey as mayorIn 1945, 33-year-old Hubert Humphrey was elected mayor of Minneapolis in a landslide, winning 61 percent of the vote in a repeat contest with the city’s incumbent mayor, Marvin Kline.  Two years earlier, Humphrey, then a political unknown, had come close to unseating Kline.

Between the two elections, the rising political star had been hard at work promoting a merger of the state’s two left-leaning political parties: the national Democratic Party, which was aligned with the Roosevelt administration, and the Farmer-Labor Party, which had dominated Minnesota politics through much of the 1930s.

By 1944, negotiations between the two state parties were moving ahead, prodded by certain outside forces that had a stake in the outcome of the merger talks.  On the Democratic side, political operatives in the Roosevelt administration advocated for the merger because they were fearful that FDR could lose Minnesota in the upcoming presidential election if political groups on the left remained split.


At the same time, Farmer-Labor leaders were being pushed towards a merger by Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party of the U.S.A.  In 1944, the United States was still allied with Soviet Union in an effort to defeat Nazi Germany.  Following directives from Moscow, Browder was promoting a popular-front strategy that called for U.S. Communists to support the aims of the Roosevelt New Deal.

Finally, in the spring of 1944, the merger, or “fusion” as it was known, took place when leaders from the two groups agreed to form a new state political organization, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Humphrey had shuttled back and forth between the two political camps, which had been meeting in separate downtown Minneapolis hotels, as he worked to overcome personality clashes that threatened to derail the merger talks.  When they finally came together on April 14 to ratify the fusion, Humphrey was the hero of the day.

While the young political activist, not yet 32, was not the architect of fusion in 1944, he was clearly one of its key facilitators.  Four years later, in his second term as Minneapolis mayor, Humphrey would lead a bitter fight to oust some former Farmer-Laborites with Communist sympathies from their positions of dominance within the nascent DFL Party.

At the time, Humphrey was viewed disdainfully as a “right-winger” by the so-called “left-wingers” in the DFL.  Despite his key role in the factional battles of the day, Humphrey would, in fact, help knit together the ideological strands that characterized the DFL’s two organizational predecessors.

Indeed, Minneapolis’s young activist mayor was anything but a radical, a term used by the Farmer-Labor Party’s charismatic governor, Floyd B. Olson, to identify himself in 1934.  But as he honed his own political philosophy, Humphrey would incorporate ideas in keeping with Farmer-Labor concerns about the need to combat injustice in American life and redress the economic imbalance between the haves and the have-nots. As mayor, Humphrey would work effectively to promote a human rights agenda, an issue that would define his political career for much of the next 30 years.

In her 2002 book, Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, Jennifer Delton noted that Humphrey recognized the need to combat injustice but moved away from the views held by some former Farmer-Laborites about the imperative of class and the notion of politics as a clash between the ruling class and the working class.  Humphrey did not see politics as a class struggle.  Rather, according to Delton, he saw it as a clash of interest groups, where the interests of the workers were represented by labor unions and other nongovernmental associations.

Humphrey would also draw on the ideas of the New Deal about the importance of governmental intervention as a tool to deal with the country’s economic and social needs.  As a founding member of Americans for Democratic Action, he would link the approach of the New Deal to a staunch anti-Communist stand that sought to reshape American liberalism in the post-war era.

In many ways, Humphrey’s most important contribution as a political leader was his rhetorical skill in framing a refreshed liberal ideology in a positive and uplifting way.  His famous exhortation at the 1948 Democratic National Convention called on the Democratic Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”  The emphasis was on the bright sunshine, not on the shadows.

Finally, Humphrey brought to his postwar brand of American liberalism a sense of pragmatism and a focus on the need for legislative action that produced more workable and effective public policies.  His approach would influence such young disciples as Walter Mondale and Donald Fraser, who would carry forward his agenda in Washington.

A fresh, new progressive approach

On January 2, 1939, the 31-year-old Republican Harold Stassen was sworn in as Minnesota’s 25th governor, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of supporters.  Later that day, Stassen would deliver his inaugural address to a joint session of the state legislature.

Eight years earlier, another young, charismatic governor had delivered his first inaugural address to a legislative joint session.  He was Floyd B. Olson, and his election in 1930 marked the ascendancy of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party.  While Olson’s Farmer-Laborites might have constituted a third party, at least by national standards, in fact, they outvoted their Republican and Democratic rivals in the state during the early years of the Great Depression.

Olson, as leader of the Farmer-Labor Party, faced staunch opposition to his activist agenda from conservatives of both parties in the state legislature.  Nevertheless, he was able to achieve some notable legislative successes, including a foreclosure moratorium, a state income tax, an expanded public relief system, and a ban on “yellow dog” contracts that impeded union organizing in the state’s industrial plants.

Olson’s career was cut short when he died in office after twice winning re-election.  He was succeeded temporarily by his lieutenant governor, Hjalmer Peterson, and then Elmer Benson, a stern Farmer-Labor ideologue, who was elected to a two-year term in 1936.

By now, the Farmer-Labor Party was caught up in factional strife and headed by a man who lacked Olson’s charisma and political skills.  Benson’s administration, moreover, was tainted by its association with party operatives who were thought to have Communist leanings.


harold stassenThe youthful Stassen capitalized on Benson’s weaknesses during the hard-fought 1938 campaign, accusing the Farmer-Labor governor of mismanagement and harboring known Communists.  While Stassen himself remained above the fray, some of his political allies cast a cloud over the campaign,  playing on anti-Semitic sentiments by highlighting the ethnicity of several of Benson’s key advisors who were Jewish.

On November 8, Stassen crushed Benson and delivered a death blow to the Farmer-Labor Party by winning 60 percent of the vote.  Two months later, the young Republican laid out his program at his inaugural address.   There, he talked about the need to modernize state government, implement civil service reform, and establish a new youth employment program.  But Stassen gave no signals that he wanted to cancel or undercut the policies initiated by his Farmer-Labor predecessors and he aimed no barbs at the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal, then a target of conservatives across the country.

Minnesota historian John Haynes has observed that Stassen’s victory in 1938 was due as much to the young Republican’s strengths as it was Benson’s weaknesses.  In his 1989 article, Radicals, Reformers, and Conservatives, Haynes noted that “since Olson’s election in 1930, Republicans had been thrown on the defensive and driven back to their conservative bastions, unable to do much more than act as naysayers to Olson’s Farmer-Labor Party and Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Stassen changed all that and changed it decisively. … [He] offered a new fresh, progressive Republicanism and asserted that the major difference between his administration and Benson’s would be the absence of corruption and Communism.”

Stassen’s brand of progressive Republicanism accepted the changes brought about by the New Deal, Haynes went on to assert.  “There was no covert longing to return to the days before Social Security, minimum wage, income tax, and unemployment compensation. Rather, Stassen and his allies argued that they could manage those policies with greater efficiency, prune away excesses, and even expand programs where needed.”

In 1938, one of Stassen’s key allies was a 29-year-old St. Paul businessman named Elmer L. Andersen.  “[Stassen] was a natural leader with a big voice and bold ideas that captivated people.  He captivated me,” Andersen would later write.

Andersen himself would go on to serve as Minnesota governor in the early 1960s after  several successful terms in the state Senate.  The Stassen disciple would clearly identify himself as a member of what was then known as the liberal wing of the Republican Party.

“I was in favor of civil rights legislation and higher spending on education and welfare—none of which appealed to the party’s hard-line conservatives. But among those in the Party’s liberal wing, I was a hero.  I was doing everything just the way they wanted it done. I was promoting education, building the state’s infrastructure, backing taxation based on ability to pay.”

The leader of the Republican Party’s liberal wing in Minnesota in the 1950s and ’60s would later acknowledge that his views had been shaped by the progressive movement of the early 1900s, championed by men such as Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette.  “[He] had advocated a platform of government activism in pursuit of a higher standard of living for all people,” Andersen noted.  “The Progressive Era’s principles had been embedded in me.  I was sympathetic to making government work for everyone.”

Those principles would influence another progressive Republican, Luther Youngdahl, who served as governor from 1947-51.  “Youngdahl was not only like Stassen—Scandinavian, stolid, and moralistic; he too saw social responsibilities for government, and he advanced public housing, education, care for the mentally ill, and race relations,” noted John Brandl.

By the 1970s, the progressive impulse in the Republican Party was beginning to wane, but even then, in the aftermath of Watergate, Minnesota Republicans sought to distance themselves from  their national counterparts when they temporarily  rebranded themselves as “Independent Republicans.”

By the 1990s, many Minnesota Republicans had disavowed their progressive roots, but some links to an earlier era remained in place.  When Elmer L. Andersen ran for governor in 1962, one of his campaign aides was a young political activist named Lyall Schwarzkopf. As a state senator representing a South Minneapolis district, Schwarzkopf would later become a leader of the Republican Party’s progressive, or moderate, wing, as it was later known. 

In 1991, the former Andersen aide would serve briefly as chief of staff to Republican Governor Arne Carlson.
Carlson had become the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1990 when the party’s endorsed candidate, Jon Grunseth, was caught up in a personal scandal.  Serving through the early days of 1999, Carlson’s two terms as governor represented the conclusion of a trend towards moderation in the Minnesota Republican Party that began with Harold Stassen’s inauguration sixty years earlier.