Josiah Bloss shares how Farmer-Labor’s strategy in the early 20th century can be DSA’s key to success in the 21st.
The Farmer-Labor Party was one of the most significant and lasting American socialist movements. Established almost a century ago, Farmer-Labor was dedicated to bridging the differences between urban and rural workers by helping them realize their common interests as one working class. The party was so successful that it maintained a presence in the federal government for just over 20 years, producing four senators and a handful of representatives as their own party — and not a part of a broader Democratic coalition, giving socialists an independent voice in Congress — and maintained firm grip on Minnesota state politics for decades, winning four gubernatorial elections and a majority in the Minnesota state legislature!
Farmer-Labor accomplished this by concentrating virtually all of its resources on dominating local elections in Minnesota. Although a trade-off (Farmer-Labor did not endure outside of Minnesota), through its domination of state politics it was able to and represent all of the American working class in Congress. Farmer-Labor reduced the Minnesota Democratic Party to a completely vestigial status until the 1944 merger. Unfortunately, the merger — which seemed prudent in the era of the New Deal — ultimately allowed the Democratic faction to push Minnesotan politics to the right by using internal party politicking and disciplinary measures to break up Farmer-Labor once inside the powerful Democratic machine.
DSA might not immediately seem like a natural successor to Farmer-Labor. Democratic socialism has become much more widespread than Farmer-Labor’s socialism and DSA maintains a close link with the Democratic Party. But there are some important lessons that we can learn from the history of the Farmer-Labor Party and, by emulating their tactics, we also might replicate their success.
Farmer-Labor and DSA both have the same tool to take hold in American politics: the inherent progressivism of small cities, towns, and rural areas. It is no coincidence that Bernie Sanders started his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. But responsiveness to socialism is not a New England political anomaly; in last year’s Democratic primaries, Sanders had more donations from rural areas than any other candidate.
We can see this same process unfolding in small cities across the Midwest. In Illinois, small cities have become the center of a surprisingly energetic socialist movement because the Chicago Democratic machine cannot interfere with its growth. Bloomington-Normal DSA (of which Illinois State YDSA is affiliated) is competing for a majority on the Bloomington City Council as well as the mayorship in the upcoming elections.
Neighboring Champaign-Urbana DSA is running six candidates for Urbana City Council plus a mayoral candidate, and is running three candidates for positions in Champaign. These elections are an incredible opportunity for socialists and workers from Illinois, and for people around the country; it provides us with an opportunity to build our own socialism.
Milwaukee’s socialist municipal government did exactly this when it led public investment in education, housing, and utilities, and turned Milwaukee into a model socialist city. A 21st-century replica would allow DSA to demonstrate the viability of our demands at the local level that are dismissed by reactionaries and skeptics as “pie in the sky.” Free public education, free healthcare, ending the war on drugs, and curtailing the power of law enforcement will become a reality for thousands, if not millions, of people. When socialists across the country speak about economic and social justice, it would not be abstract idealism but rather the simple replication of successful policies already in place in a neighboring city or state.
Small cities and rural areas are also free of the massive and powerful political machines that exist in large cities like Chicago. Political machines fight unrelentingly for the interests of capital, and while an electoral victory in the mayoral race of Chicago would be a monumental victory, to say that it would be an uphill battle is an understatement. The cost of running a mayoral candidate in a city like Chicago easily reaches the multi-millions! The prohibitive cost of running a mayoral race in large cities like Chicago has prevented DSA from competitively participating in these elections. But, even if we were to muster the required resources through grassroots efforts, it still might not be enough — the political machines, summoning their overwhelming institutional mass, would fight us every step of the way.
Our own history provides us with a blueprint for electoral success: build targeted power on a state level and use that power to represent and protect the interests of workers around the country. Through this method, we can protect communities of color, LGBTQ+ and homeless populations in areas where they suffer the most. The difficulties of scale created by large cities can be avoided by investing resources in races in smaller cities and towns while still forwarding our goals of representing, protecting, and uplifting the impoverished and oppressed.
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