The cover of the Nonpartisan League's newspaper, The Nonpartisan Leader (1919).
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retrieval / power

The Ballot and the Break

Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, the most successful labor party in US history, is rich in lessons for challenging the two-party system.
The oldest political dispute inside the US left isn’t going away anytime soon. Revelations about the Democratic National Committee’s pro–Hillary Clinton intrigues and local victories for leftists in the November elections have added fuel to the fire of that age-old question: how should socialists confront the two-party system?

On one side, supporters of “realigning” the Democratic Party insist that given the constraints of the US political system, transforming the party is the sole viable strategy for progressive politics. On the other side, advocates of a clean break from the Democrats and Republicans see any involvement within capitalist parties as an unprincipled dead end.

Proponents of each stance can rightly point to the practical failures of their rivals’ approaches over the past century, especially at the national level. But both sides have ignored the example of the most electorally successful workers’ party in the history of the United States — the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP).

Founded by socialists in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the FLP built a mass base in the 1920s and captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement.

As party militant Warren Creel explained in 1946, the “Farmer-Labor Party’s quarter century of activity provides the longest experience with a labor party that US history offers up to the present . . . It was not just a pro-labor party, it was a party of organized labor.” Had the rest of the United States gone the way of Minnesota, our labor movement today would likely resemble the rest of the advanced capitalist world instead of standing on the brink of annihilation.

Eager to extract political lessons from how Minnesota’s socialists established an independent mass working-class party, I began researching the formation of the FLP about a year ago. My working assumption was that the experience of the North Star State would vindicate the strategy of a “clean break” with the two major parties.

But it soon became apparent to me why this history has been so widely ignored: the tactics deployed in founding the Farmer-Labor Party challenge the orientations of both major poles in the debate. To my surprise, I found that the Minnesota experience demonstrates the potential viability of what I would call a “dirty break” approach: the use of Democratic and Republican ballot lines to implode the two-party system.
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