Party labels fail to capture political change

PHOTO: hojusaram, Flickr-CC-BY-SA
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

In 2021 politics projects an animated mix of theatrical despair. People seem hopelessly angry all the time, though typically without understanding exactly what’s going on or how anything works. We pick our favorite avatars and cheer them as they battle perceived enemies, hoping for a victory that, even if realized, never seems to change anything.

But make no mistake, very real consequences follow our political decisions, or more often our inaction and inability to focus on policy substance. When something boring like “infrastructure” comes up, most turn away while a handful think of the issue in terms of “jobs” and little else. But then an abnormal weather event plunges the entire state of Texas into chaos. 

No, not because of “green energy” or even because of reliance on coal and gas. Rather, because the infrastructure was so poorly engineered and maintained that all forms of energy generation failed in a crisis. 

Meanwhile, arguments over opening schools or wearing masks amid the lingering COVID-19 pandemic become the be-all, end-all to local disputes, when each are lone factors in a bigger strategy. But wearing masks is neither a comprehensive solution nor an affront to liberty. Whether or not society can use masks, public policy, and vaccines to address this pandemic is what really matters, especially when you consider that we’ve likely not seen our last pandemic because of increasing environmental health risks. 

There are those who would say history provides a clear guide about what to do today, or that history itself is some refuge from the challenges of the present. I’ve been diving into the archives of old newspapers as I write a book about early Hibbing for the last year. No such refuge exists, especially when it comes to politics. Yes, times were different, but no less complex. 

Let’s consider the political conditions I’ve observed in the Hibbing newspapers between the years 1915 and 1920, for instance, just over a century ago.

Party labels meant different things, especially before WWI. There were stalwart partisans across Minnesota, but most voters were pretty flexible. Parties were more important as a means of getting elected to office and governing than they were about identifying your central beliefs. Even though the Democrats were hopelessly mired in the minority, they would occasionally win races for Congress or Governor when they fielded strong candidates or when scandal marred the Republican front-runner. 

John Power, the father of Hibbing mayors Walter and Victor Power, was an Irish-American Democrat. Despite his reputation as a great orator, he lost four races for Congress in Michigan out of loyalty to his party. During a visit with his sons in Hibbing Power remarked that a Republican was nothing more than a “Democrat who wanted to be elected.” Not surprisingly, his sons signed up with the Republicans. 

There’s no current parallel to the fecklessness of the Democratic Party in Minnesota prior to its merger with the Farmer-Labor Party. Even though Dumpsters weren’t invented until 1935, Minnesota Democrats in the early 20th Century certainly conveyed the political agency of burning trash. 

Because Minnesota was founded as a Republican, anti-slavery state just before the U.S. Civil War significant, lasting loyalty to the GOP on a cultural and identity basis endured for decades to come. Early Scandinavian immigrants quickly adopted the GOP as their first political party. But that loyalty would not last forever.

Nationally, the Democratic Party was heavily influenced by its base in the U.S. South, which meant that civil rights and racial equality were issues that Democrats everywhere tried to avoid talking about. But that’s not to say the era was plunged in racial harmony. Indeed, it was a period of the most disgusting and violent racism of our so-called modern times. Silence encouraged this.

For its part, the Republican Party spanned from outright liberals to hardcore conservatives. And yet, external events — namely, the war in Europe and the Russian Revolution — forced the party to the right.

After WWI, Republicans — led by Burnquist and others — referred to nearly every progressive policy as “Bolsheviki.” This included policies that members of their own party proposed just five years earlier. 

With no home in the Republican Party, and no hope in the Democratic Party, progressives, farmers, and labor activists founded the Farmer-Labor Party. 

Some hated and feared the early Farmer-Labor movement, considering it too radical. Nevertheless, the party also proposed anti-immigrant policies and wasn’t particularly enlightened on matters of racial or gender equality. Nevertheless, the Farmer-Laborites quickly took over state politics in the 1930s and bargained for the pro-labor traditions the state would become known for. Later, it merged into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

The point in all this is that conventional wisdom when it comes to politics is demonstrably flawed. The past tells us how often things change and the conditions that tend to bring about change. History reveals whether or not people overcame the problems that caused suffering, or whether they reveled in them. 

We live through such conditions right now. If you look at what’s happening in terms of party politics you are missing the point entirely. Either we solve problems or we don’t. Party labels are just handbills collecting in the gutter. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Joe musich says

    I wonder if we have enough room in time and space to go two steps forward one step back anymore ? And yet we seem to be doing that again and again and again….

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