Monday, July 04, 2016

North Dakota Rejects Corporate Farms

North Dakota family farmer, circa 1924
Ordinarily you do not think of North Dakota in terms of progressive politics, or at least after some more obvious choices such as Vermont or Massachusetts.  But it does have its own publicly-owned state bank, something neither Vermont or Massachusetts can boast about.  Here is another North Dakotan progressive fact: its citizens voted again to ban corporate ownership of farms in the state.  US Person spelled that right, no corporate ownership!  The ban has been in place for eighty-four years, passed in the depths of the Greatest Depression. Only nine states prohibit or limit corporate ownership of farms.  The North Dakota legislature passed a measure in March to end the ban for dairy and pork operations, but a grass-roots campaign subjected the measure to a referendum. Seventy-five percent voted against the measure.

North Dakota has a history of populist politics as do many rural mid-western states.  The region was the epicenter of the Populist reform movement at the end of the 19th century, culminating in the adoption of the radical "Omaha Platform" of the People's Party on July 4, 1892¹.  The Peoples' Party sought a "middle road" between the business-dominated Republicans and the southern-dominated Democrats.  Their intention was to "fight it straight" by opposing both major parties.  Unfortunately for America this original domestic revolution was undermined by free-silverites.  Bimetalism was incorrectly viewed by many cash-strapped agrarians as the panacea that would free them from the gold chains of eastern bankers who controlled credit. The Populists were co-opted by the Democrats under the fusion banner of the "boy orator of the Platte", William Jennings Bryant.

Bryant was no Populist, but he was shrewd enough to embrace free-silver support backed by mining interests.  He promised the Democratic convention of 1896 that the plutocrats would not "crucify man on a cross of gold."  He was wrong; William McKinley was elected in the midst of another depression after an expensive campaign largely funded by corporations. America still suffers that crucifixion a century later in the form of mounting debt and declining real wages.  Another reality is possible: in Populist leader L.L. Polk's eloquent words, the people could "link their hands and hearts together and march to the ballot box and take possession of the government, restore it to the principles of our fathers, and run it in the interests of the people."  In the 21st century, this is the revolution still required.

1. Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota, a respected orator in a party full of powerful orators thanks to its heritage of the Farmer's Alliance speakers bureau, told the gathered thousands in his keynote address, "This continent is the last great camping ground of the human race.  If liberty fails here, it fails forever.  Every oppressed nation in the world is looking upon this convention to discover whether....the stars and stripes shall float across the country steadily rising....or if it shall float a solemn mockery above a land cursed as Europe is cursed--the middle class driven off the land, while concentrated in the hands of the few is the wealth provided by the toiler." The essence of the third party movement as Donnelly said in his platform preamble was to "restrain the extortions of aggregated capital", and "restore the government of the republic to the hands of the plain people."  He warned against the distractions of "sham battles" so as to loose sight of "the sacrifice of our homes and children upon the altar of Mammon."  To which the notorious scofflaw US Person cries from the uni-sex latrine, "Amen",   American socialism?  You betcha!

2. The 1986 Republican presidential campaign run by Ohio industrialist Mark Hannah set precedent for modern American political campaigns that are still followed to this day.  Hannah organized this nation's first national mass advertising campaign aimed at the minds of American people.  It sought to shape the way they thought about political power, who should have it and why.  It was hugely successful.  The nation's new business concentrations headquartered in New York financed the expensive effort, the most expensive in US political history up to then.  Standard Oil chipped in $250,000, a figure matched by the "banker's banker" JP Morgan.  James J. Hill, the railroad magnate was also deeply involved in the campaign, as was the New York Life insurance president.  Collectively these representatives of corporate America managed to turn the Republican's outmoded "bloody shirt" rhetoric into the very definition of patriotism.  The flag became an omnipresent icon of McKinley's hard money crusade.  Three quarters of million paraded beneath it down New York's streets on a national "flag day" organized to support McKinley's candidacy. Democrats became so frustrated by the tactic they began tearing up flags to the delight of their opponents. Bryant and the silverites became agents of anarchy in his campaign terms, contrasted to McKinley as the "advance agent of prosperity".  The Democratic Party was charged with being too friendly to "foreigners, immigrants and anarchists"; this charge hurled by the most exclusive, white Protestant, business party that ever metamorphosed from abolitionist origins in American history.  All of this mesmerizing agitprop was accomplished before TV and radio!  Sound eerily familiar in the 21st century?  It does because Mark Hannah invented it over one hundred years ago. That triumph of the corporate state over Jeffersonian notions of democracy circumscribed the permissible dialogue of reform since then; you have Hillary Clinton as the prime example of what that long-ago triumph has wrought.