The Sanders Revolution: North Dakota as an Example of the Long Tail of Grass Roots Activism

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Yves here. I’ve been reluctant to use a metaphor by a colleague that I think is apt but is likely to be misconstrued. Goldwater represented the beginning of a concerted effort by the right wing to move the country in their direction. That impulse came into its full flower with the Reagan presidency.

The Sanders movement has enlisted vastly more grass roots support than Goldwater and his fellow travelers did in 1964. And this post illustrates how grass roots organizing, as opposed to elite manipulation of popular opinion, puts down much firmer and more durable political foundations.

By David Morris, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its initiative on The Public Good. He is the author of “New City States” and four other non-fiction books. Follow him on Twitter: @PublicMorris. Originally published on Alternet

On June 14, North Dakotans voted to overrule their government’s decision to allow corporate ownership of farms. That they had the power to do so was a result of a political revolution that occurred almost exactly a century before, a revolution that may hold lessons for those like Bernie Sanders’ supporters who seek to establish a bottom-up political movement in the face of hostile political parties today.

Here’s the story. In the early 1900s North Dakota was effectively an economic colony of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. A Saint Paul-based railroad tycoon controlled its freight prices. Minnesota companies owned many of the grain elevators that sat next to the rail lines and often cheated farmers by giving their wheat a lower grade than deserved. Since the flour mills were in Minneapolis, shipping costs reduced the price wheat farmers received. Minneapolis banks held farmers’ mortgages and their operating loans to farmers carried a higher interest than they charged at home.

Farmers, who represented a majority of the population, tried to free themselves from bondage by making the political system more responsive. In 1913 they gained an important victory when the legislature gave them the right, by petition, to initiate a law or constitutional amendment as well as to overturn a law passed by the legislature.

But this was a limited victory, for while the people could enable, they could not compel.

In 1914, for example, after a 30-year effort, voters authorized the legislature to build a state-owned grain elevator and mill. But in January 1915 a state legislative committee concluded it “would be a waste of the people’s money as well as a humiliating disappointment to the people of the state.” The legislature refused funding.

A few weeks later, two former candidates on the Socialist Party ticket, Arthur C. Townley and Albert Bowen, launched a new political organization, the Non Partisan League. The name conveyed their strategy: To rely more on program-based politics than party-based politics. According to the NPL its program intended to end the “utterly unendurable” situation in which “the people of this state have always been dependent on their existence on industries, banks, markets, storage and transportation facilities either existing altogether outside of the state or controlled by great private interests outside the state.”

The NPL’s platform contained concrete and specific measures: state ownership of elevators, flour mills, packing houses and cold storage plants; state inspection of grain grading and dockage; state hail insurance; rural credit banks operating at cost; exemption of farm improvements from taxation.

In his recent book, Insurgent Democracy, Michael Lansing explains, “Small-property holders anxious to use government to create a more equitable form of capitalism cannot be easily categorized in contemporary political term.” The NPL “reminded Americans that corporate capitalism was not the only way forward.” Supporters of the NPL wanted state sponsored market fairness but not state control. They wanted public options, not public monopolies.

In the language of our 2016 political campaigns, it would not be much of a stretch to characterize the NPL as a movement for an American-style decentralized, anti-corporate, democratic socialism.

The NPL was as one contemporary observer, Thorstein Veblen described it, “large, loose, animated and untidy, but sure of itself in its settled disallowance of the Vested Interests…”

The movement was membership-based. Members were kept informed through a regular newsletter. This was part of a massive popular education effort. Membership fees allowed the NPL to hire organizers and lecturers who traveled throughout the state. Townley, the founder and leader of the NPL, proved an entertaining and charismatic speaker. Sometimes thousands would gather to hear him speak. Speeches themselves were community affairs.

The goal was to convince farmers that collectively they could significantly influence the decisions that would affect their personal and business lives.

To gain power the NPL relied on a political tool born of the Progressive movement: the political primary. To make government more responsive and transparent, Progressives urged states to bypass political conventions, political bosses and backroom deals and adopt direct primaries. By 1916, 25 of the 48 U.S. states had adopted the primary as the vehicle for nominating political candidates.

The primary system gave people the power to elect candidates of their political party, but the key to the remarkable political revolution that swept through North Dakota was its adoption, in 1908, of an “open primary” law that allowed anyone to vote in a party’s primary even if unaffiliated with that party.

On March 29, 1916 the NPL took advantage of that law by convening its first convention. Attendees endorsed candidates who swore allegiance to its platform. These candidates ran in the June Republican primary, a primary targeted by the NPL because then (as now) the Republican Party dominated North Dakota.

In June 1916 the NPL effectively took over the Republican Party. In November 1916 NPL-endorsed candidates won every statewide office except one and gained a majority in the state Assembly, although not in the Senate. By that time the NPL boasted 40,000 members, an astonishing number given the state population of only 620,000.

In the succeeding legislative session the NPL was able to implement parts of its platform: a grain grading system, a nine-hour workday for women, regulation of railroad shipping rates and increased state aid to rural schools. But the Senate narrowly defeated the key to implementing NPL’s broad vision: a constitutional amendment to allow for state-owned businesses.

In 1918, the NPL gained a majority in the state Senate. That year North Dakotans voted on 10 constitutional amendments. They approved every one. One, endorsed by a resounding margin of 59-41 gave state, county and local governments permission “to engage in industry, enterprises or businesses.” Another allowed the state to guarantee $2 million in bonds and established voting requirements for future bonding. Another created state hail insurance.

Other amendments expanded the possibility of direct democracy by reducing the number of signatures required to put an initiative on the ballot, and by allowing constitutional amendments to be passed by a simple majority of the voters.

In June 1919, voters approved 6 of 7 legislatively referred statutes, including the establishment of a state bank, that latter by a vote of 56-44. The one ballot initiative North Dakotans rejected—giving the governor the authority to appoint every county school superintendent—was itself revealing. North Dakotans wanted a state that could stand up to big out-of-state corporations but they preferred local control to state control.

The Bank of North Dakota (BND) was the centerpiece of the NPL’s effort to take back control of their economy. It was intended to strengthen, not undercut local banks. It established no branches, nor did it accept independent deposits or accounts. The Bank “strongly recommended” that borrowers seek mortgages by working through local institutions. Banks across the state used the BND as a clearinghouse for various financial transactions.

Farmers immediately benefited as their interest rates on loans dropped to about 6 percent from the prevailing 8.7 percent.

In November 1920 voters strengthened the BND by narrowly approving an initiative requiring all state, county, township, municipal and school district funds be deposited there.

In March 1920 the NPL legislature referred to the people a constitutional amendment allowing them to petition for the recall of any elected officials.

That unprecedented extension of direct democracy proved its undoing, for in late 1918, at the peak of the NPL’s power, political opposition had coalesced into a new organization, the Independent Voters Association. As the NPL battled internal divisions and a growing unease that it had begun to pursue measures beyond its mandate, the IVA gained support.

The IVA used the political tools the NPL had created. In 1921 its members successfully petitioned for recall elections for the three state officers who constituted the membership of the Industrial Commission that oversaw state enterprises: the governor, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture. The IVA slate won by a whisker.

The IVA immediately set about to undo the NPL program by putting nine provisions on the ballot, including one to abolish the state Bank. Another intended to shrink the capacity of state government by reducing the amount of state bonded debt. Another would have undermined the open primary by requiring separate party ballots for primaries.

Every ballot measure lost, albeit by very narrow margins.

In November 1922, the IVA achieved what the NPL had four years before: Control of all three branches of state government.

The NPL’s abrupt disintegration resulted from a number of factors. In 1921, the price of wheat dropped about 60 percent. The resulting economic pain would have reduced the support for any sitting government. The Russian Revolution ushered in a nationwide Red Scare. The opposition labeled the NPL’s leaders communists and Bolsheviks and launched a new magazine called Red Flame. Townley himself was jailed under a Minnesota sedition law for opposing U.S. involvement in WWI. Meanwhile, internal divisions continued to beset the NPL.

The Legacy of the NPL

As the Nation magazine observed in 1923, “although the visible machinery largely melted away, a sentiment and a point of view had been established in the minds of hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers.”

Looking back in 1955, Robert L. Morian, author of the classic Political Prairie Fire, commented that the NPL helped to develop “some of the most independently minded electorates in the country.”

Those independently minded electorates and their anti-corporate, pro-cooperative and independent business sentiment continued to inform and often guide policymakers in the decades to come.

The North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association began operation in a modern facility in 1922. Today it consists of seven milling units, an elevator and flour mill and a packing warehouse to prepare bagged products for shipment. It is the largest flour mill in the U.S. and the only state-owned milling facility.

In 1932, North Dakotans voted 57 to 43 to ban corporations from owning or leasing farmland. In 1963, the legislature enacted a law that required pharmacies be owned by a state-registered pharmacist. The effect was to ban chains, except those operating at the time the law was passed. In 1980, North Dakotans voted to establish a State Housing Finance Agency to provide mortgages to low-income households.

In recent years several of these laws protecting independent farmers and businesses have come under attack by big corporations. After several attempts by Big Pharmacy failed to convince the legislature to repeal the Pharmacy Ownership Law, Walmart spent $9.3 million to finance a ballot initiative. In November 2014, the initiative lost by a vote of 59-41.

In 2015, big corporations did convince the legislature to overturn the 1932 anti-corporate farming law.

This June, North Dakotans voted to reinstate the old law by a resounding margin of 76-24.

Today the economic structure of North Dakota reflects its focus on independent and cooperative businesses. The Pharmacy Ownership law, for example, has markedly benefited North Dakota. A report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) found that on every key measure of pharmacy care, including quality and the price of drugs, North Dakota’s independent pharmacies outperform those of neighboring states and the U.S. as a whole. Unsurprisingly North Dakota also has more pharmacies per capita than other states. Its rural residents are more likely to have a nearby pharmacist.

North Dakota’s banking system reflects a similar community-based structure. An analysis by ILSR found that, on a per capita basis, the state boasts almost six times as many locally owned financial institutions as the rest of the nation (89 small and mid-sized community banks and 38 credit unions). These control 83 percent of the deposits of the state. North Dakota’s community banks have given 400 percent more small business loans than the national average. Student loan rates are among the lowest in the country.

As Stacy Mitchell, director of ILSR’s Community-Scaled Economy Initiativeobserves, “While the publicly owned BND might well be characterized as a socialist institution, it has had the effect of enabling North Dakota’s local banks to be very successful capitalists.” In recent years, local banks in North Dakota have earned a return on capital nearly twice that of the nation’s largest 20 banks.

In the last two decades, the BND has generated almost $1 billion in “profit” and returned almost half of that to the state’s general fund.

Recall that in 1919, voters had approved the Bank of North Dakota by the very slim margin of 51-49. A switch of 2,000 votes would have killed the bank in its infancy. Today no party would dare propose its destruction.

North Dakota’s impressive 21st-century telecommunications infrastructure is also a testament to its historic focus on local and independent ownership. The state ranks 47th in population density. That means it has one of the highest costs per household for installing state-of-the-art, high-speed fiber networks. Nevertheless it boasts the highest percentage of people with access to such networks in the country. Why? One reason is its abundance of rural cooperatives and small telecom companies, 41 providers in all, including 17 cooperatives.

North Dakota is also home to the Dakota Carrier Network. Owned by 15 independent rural telecommunications companies, the DCN crisscrosses the state with more 1,400 miles of fiber backbone. In the last five years, independently owned companies have invested more than $100 million per year to bring fiber to the home. They now serve more than 164,000 customers in 250 communities.

What Should Bernie’s Brethren Do?

Certainly the road to political power faces many more obstacles now than the NPL faced a century ago. North Dakota was a largely agricultural state. The key to NPL’s organizing effort was access to a car and gas money, not an easy get in those days, but much easier than the amount of money now needed to mount a political campaign.

Most new movements will be unable to take advantage of the open primary. After the NPL gained power in more than half a dozen states, the existing parties fought back. Nevertheless, 11 states still have pure open primaries; about a dozen more have hybrid systems.

Recently the courts have not been sympathetic to the open primary. Not long ago the Supreme Court invented a new “right of association” and bestowed that right on political parties. In 2000, for example, by a 7-2 vote, the Court overturned a California form of open primary approved by the voters by a 60-40 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia objected that the California law “forces political parties to associate with—to have their nominees, and hence their positions, determined by—those who, at best, have refused to affiliate with the party, and, at worst, have expressly affiliated with a rival.”

After the California decision the voters of Washington, by a similar 60-40 vote, adopted an open primary system similar to California’s but with a key difference: The candidate would have to declare a “party preference” that would appear next to his or her name on the ballot. In 2008, the Supreme Court, again by a 7-2 vote, this time upheld that law, a ruling that might allow for a variant of the NPL strategy.

Before we develop a strategy for winning office, we need to take a page from the NPL playbook and develop a platform, one consisting of specific, concrete policies, not a laundry list of all desirable policies.

Bernie Sanders and his followers are currently working to write a platform for the Democratic Party convention. That is important and useful, but that platform by its nature will have a national focus and speak to the exercise of power by the federal government. We also need platforms that focus on states and cities and counties and school districts and offer concrete measures they have the authority to enact.

Those platforms will provide the basis for endorsing candidates, regardless of their political affiliation or whether they run in a closed or open primary state. In those states that permit, we may be able to enact various planks of the platform through initiative and referendum. At this point, 27 states have initiative and 24 have referendum. Nineteen allow constitutional amendments by initiative.

The Nonpartisan League’s tenure in power was brief, but its policies, the public institutions it built and perhaps most importantly, the public sentiment it nurtured and brought to maturity, endure to this day. It is a true example of a political revolution from the bottom up.

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  1. voteforno6

    It’s good to see something about the great state of North Dakota. They’ve always been a bit conservative there, but more in their demeanor than their politics. The author is certainly right about the need to work on local issues. With their focus on Presidential elections, the Democrats have been decimated at the state level. With the decentralized nature of the Sanders campaign, there certainly is hope that it could spawn countless movements at the local level, and develop new leaders outside of the existing corrupt political system. In the case of North Dakota, it would be nice to see this movement bring forth another Quentin Burdick.

  2. Pirmann

    No, sorry. This is no more a revolution than McCain/Palin were maverick-y.

    Bernie needed to take the gloves off and really go after -H>, but he didn’t. He had a great opportunity to say “I cannot in good conscience vote for the embodiment of the political/corporate establishment”, but he didn’t.

    As a 74 year old, he had nothing to lose by blasting away at the establishment with both barrels. But he didn’t. He’s basically come out and said “I’m with Her”.

    Even the Republicans have done better. Those who are not with Trump have either offered a tepid endorsement, refrained from comment, or in some cases endorsed -H> because doing so better aligns with their beliefs. Which is what revolutionaries do… stick to their beliefs.

    Being the runner up in the primaries and endorsing the winner does not make you a revolutionary. It makes you Marco Rubio.

    1. ChiGal

      We are all entitled to our own opinions here I realize but I am sooo tired of all the toxic Bernie bashing by some among the NC commentariat. Do something constructive with your anger?

      1. Archie

        There isn’t a lot of Bernie bashing here. It’s more a lament for what might have been. At least that’s the way I feel and I think that is what Permann is saying as well. But thanks for the chastisement anyway.

        1. Archie

          Adding that it seems utterly implausible that another century long incremental revolution would benefit my great, great grandchildren even the slightest. Hell, I’m not sure that 50% of the earth’s population will even survive the next 25 years, given the direction we’re going.

        2. ChiGal

          Sorry, didn’t mean to come off as a school marm. But really, who is chastising whom:

          Bernie Sanders = Marco Rubio??

          I am a hospice social worker and quite familiar with lamentation, which doesn’t drip with contempt

          1. Pirmann

            I don’t think folks gave him their “$27” so that he could go to the polls and vote for -H>. When you invest in a revolution, you want to SEE a revolution.

            The Republicans are doing a better job of endorsing/voting their conscience than is Bernie. Which should tell you all you need to know.

            1. ChiGal

              Ah, forgive me, you are an investor – I didn’t realize. Naturally you feel entitled to a “revolution” for your $27.

              Sorry, this strikes me as hopelessly knee-jerk and naive.

              Yves has many times explained how impossible a third-party run at this point would be, as well as that it should be no surprise that Bernie does what he said he would do: support the Dem nominee.

              1. jrs

                this is why I tend NOT to give money to things like that. It would just make me angry.

            2. Patricia

              The money I gave the Sanders’ campaign has been one of my better investments. I didn’t buy his personal vote.

              I’d love to see Sanders strike out on his own after the convention, because that’s what I’d do if I could. But I’m not him and he has priorities/life about which I know nearly nothing. He looked profoundly exhausted when leaving the Dem meeting where he was boo’ed. It is remotely possible that he has limits. Demanding that someone be more than human is a symptom of an authoritarian.

              Fact is that we don’t own Sanders and he doesn’t own us.

              As to revolution, maybe you need to watch one of those re-enactments at Gettysburg. In real life, revolutions aren’t watched, they’re joined or fought against. Moreover they are years in the making. A good history book is in order.

              Last, the Repubs are not a monolith; neither are the Dems.

              Look, it’s hard to know what to do with the anger but don’t make it worse.

              1. Pirmann

                As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t need to strike out on his own. He could have just, as many Republicans have done, kept quiet about his vote, indicated he was not voting for -H>, or indicated that given the choices he may not vote at all.

                As to demanding that he be more than human, I view these hopeful articles as doing that moreso than I am. I’m on here saying that Bernie is both human and a typical partisan politician, and we shouldn’t expect anything otherwise on the go forward.

                Also, I’m not angry.

                1. John Zelnicker

                  Part of the deal that Bernie made in order to run as a Democrat was that he would support $hillary in the general election if she were nominated. He is only keeping his word. I am sure you are not recommending that he break his promise.

          2. Archie

            Where did the Marco Rubio comparison come from? You criticized Pirmann for toxically bashing Bernie and instructed to do something constructive with his/her anger. That’s clearly a chastisement, imo.

            And I do not hold any contempt for you. The only thing I have contempt for is the continued belief, in spite of a wall of evidence to the contrary, that the Democrat party can be reformed.

            I have applauded Bernie on many occasions on this board for using the D’s to gain a pulpit for his policies. That has been done and we all knew that he was never going to be allowed to win the primary. Gaining concessions on the party platform is weak tea, at best. I’m going to guess that I am a lot older than you, so maybe that plays into our perception of the current state of affairs. I just don’t think a slow, gradual approach to changing the status quo is useful at all. This is the time for the nuclear option, which is to loudly and pointedly direct everyone who is listening to the obvious corruption and duplicity which is the Democrat party. Call on all the disenfranchised to look for or form a new independent political movement that represents the people’s interest. He does not have to lead that new movement, but he IS the current leader, so he must ignite the revolution he has been calling for.

            If he would do that, all of his supporters would truly have a direction for their anger and a clear call to action that could well make a significant difference. But that is my opinion, ymmv.

            1. ChiGal

              The reference to Rubio was in Pirmann’s original post!

              And therein lay the contempt.

              I am 58.

              1. Archie

                Sorry, missed that at the end of his/her comment. You are younger (I’m 70) but not enough to make a big difference in outlooks. Maybe I’m just angrier than you? Whatever, all I ever wanted from the Bernie candidacy was the destruction of the Dem party. There are ample statements I have made to this end on multiple threads on this site. I still think it is the greatest service he can give this country. There is no chance to create an egalitarian society within the construct of the Democrat Party. Just because it once championed egalitarian policies doesn’t mean that it can, or will, do so in the future. That is my lament on the Bernie candidacy.

                1. ChiGal

                  Oh, I’m pretty angry, just not at Bernie. I don’t believe he can single-handedly dismantle the Ds. And it’s so much more than the Ds, it’s the privatization and corporatization of both parties, the media, education, health care, on and on it goes.

                  But it was Pirmann’s tone that I found unhelpful. Your heartfelt lament I share.

      2. Pirmann

        To fail to call things out is to “go along to get along”, then a year later, hindsight shows that there was never the start of a revolution after all.

        I could halfway understand if he was 25 with his whole career ahead of him, but he’s 74. I think most of us thought he’d speak his mind and just retire if the whole thing didn’t work out, but instead he went the sellout route. And at 74 with nothing to lose. So yes, I’m going to call him out on it. He’s setting a poor example for the younger generation of actual would-be revolutionaries.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I agree.

      And I speak as someone who was a Sanders campaign volunteer. Truth be told, there was little for us to do except phone bank and knock on doors. With the emphasis being on phone banking.

      Sorry, Bernie 2016, but you can’t phone bank your way out of a media blackout, DNClinton cronyism, and massive voter suppression. Ditto for door knocking. Other tools were needed, and the campaign just wasn’t receptive to them.

      1. Fool

        Pirmann, the crux of the campaign was “our political revolution”; it wasn’t meant to be solely about Bernie. He was realistic about his chances — very very small — and is seeking to leverage his enormous traction to anchor the political spectrum towards the left (that is, to the interests of the people). Politics is a negotiation, which means there’s always a lot to lose if you truly set out to have lasting influence (even if you’re 74).

        1. Pirmann

          But at 74, “losing it all” (aka, retiring from the Senate with full pension and bennies) should be much easier and more conceivable than doing so at 25 or 30, no?

          1. Fool

            True, but I’d like to think that what was at stake in Sanders’s calculus was not what he personally had to lose :-/

          2. different clue

            I believe I have read that Sen. Sanders has/will put a “hold” on the TTP bill once it reaches the Senate. If he had retired from the Senate, he could not do that. And not one other Senator would do that.

            1. Jack Parsons

              A hold is not binding- the Senate bosses can ignore it. The Senator with the hold always has to have enough firepower to burn the bosses if they ignore the hold.

    3. DarkMatters

      I was also concerned. I always wondered why he dismissed the “damn emails” at the beginning? Bernie should have brought that issue to the fore and kept it on a low burner; at least it might have been politically more difficult for the FBI to dismiss the episode as gross incompetence rather than criminal activity. Issues are important, but the email issue shouldn’t have been swept aside. Trump is saying loud and clear why how such behavior impacts performance: respect for law, and hazard of blackmail. I wondered how far Bernie would go once in office. Not a gentleman’s sport.

      1. Fool

        Agreed that it shouldn’t be swept aside. But it wasn’t Sanders’s issue. Do you really think it would have changed anything?

        1. DarkMatters

          But Sanders could have integrated the em issue with his criticisms of taking bribes, I mean contributions, from banks, into the larger issue of overall integrity. I also think that more publicity of the em issue would have made it more awkward to diminish; that would have been a positive in itself. But like yourself, I’m skeptical that there would have been a strong enough reaction to impact the FBI’s conclusion; but nothing ventured, noting gained.

          I guess we’ll learn more about the effectiveness of slinging this particular color of mud from Trump’s campaign.

        2. Pirmann

          I absolutely do. I think many of the populist genre of voter that registered Republican to vote for Trump may have registered Dem and voted for Bernie instead had he campaigned harder on the “Crooked -H>” related issues from day one and throughout.

    4. Skip Intro

      If Bernie had not stuck to issues, he would have been sucked into personality politics and become just another barking monkey on stage. I don’t think he would have attracted the popular support he did without his purity of focus. People see through the mudslinging. Your reinterpreting his statements to give your attacks plausibility is also transparent.

    5. Pelham

      Sadly, I fear you’re basically right. Sanders might also have benefited by not throwing away what could have been his main source of leverage by pledging not to run as a third-party candidate.

  3. Arizona Slim

    Warning to Firefox users: Do NOT download the emergency update that appears in the popup. (Said popup just appeared while I was reading this page.) It’s malware.

    1. Anne

      Oh, thanks for the head’s up on that; I’ve been getting that dire warning for a couple days now, on the computer at home, and I’ve ignored it.

      Now to let the rest of my family know!

  4. Code Name D

    Before we develop a strategy for winning office, we need to take a page from the NPL playbook and develop a platform, one consisting of specific, concrete policies, not a laundry list of all desirable policies.

    Not quite. You got to love these writers who think stating the obvious some how qualifies as profound advice. Of course you need specific policies to run on. But how do you get these policies? How are they maintained, posted, and communicated to the electorate? How do you weigh a voting record as being compliant with that plank? There are a million unanswered details that are needed to meet the mechanic if of this simple sage advice.

    There are many challenges that must be met, and unfortunately Morris fails at the very first one – practicality. What I call the “Reformer’s Paradox” the tendency to believe that a corrupt system can be made to reform itself. Both Morris and Sanders seem to think that if they could just rewrite some of the Democratic Party planks, than this is a viable first step to change, which is precisely why they will not be able to change the planks beyond the empty rhetoric that it already is. If anything, Sanders continued participation launders the institutional credibility.

    The mere fact that the primary system itself was rigged means something. Bernie didn’t lose because he just fell short; he lost because he COULD NOT WIN! And thus no amount of herculean effort would have prevailed.

    While policy initiatives is important, one must also pay attention to game-plan, with the goal ultimately bringing these initiatives into law, and then defending these laws once passed. This means learning how to navigate and using the system presented to us, and especially learning how to adapt to an increasingly corrupt system.

    And these are not easy questions. The first and foremost being the question of if the Democratic Party even CAN be reformed, let alone giving any thought to the means by which it may be reformed. As near as I can tell, Sanders never even bothered to ask the question. And one must also keep in mind the Reformer’s Paradox; that any attempt to reform the system using the given rules is doomed to fail.

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that the Democratic Party can not be saved. Clinton already wealds far to much influence over the system. And should she become president, will likely enact counter-reforms to make the next Sanders even less likely, including appointing even more Super Delegates from her cult of sycophantic loyalists.

    I would advise Sanders that instead of endorsing Clinton, he should resign his Democratic Party affiliation, and begin working on building a viable third party. He would start his own, or see if he can start with what already exist within the Green Party. (Keep in mind I am not recommending he make an independent run for the office.)

    An independent political party would give Sanders the political space as well as the resources to carry out Morris “profound” advice. But this is only the start of what must be done.

    What also must be done is abandoning traditional “bottoms up” grass roots activism. A meaningful political revolution must have a top-down leadership’s structure. Morris himself even admits this, all be it unwittingly. He says the movement needs “concrete policies” not a list of “desires.” I agree. But grass roots activism can only produce desires. While a fair starting point, a leadership is needed to take desires and form them into something more practical and concrete.

    But the grassroots also needs leadership to help it form ideas. Take issues related to global warming for example. Solutions here shouldn’t be based off of “desires” from the grassroots, but heavily informed from the scientific community. The grassroots would then be informed of the reality at hand.

    1. Archie

      +1000 He still has the options open to him to breakaway. And he needs to do it immediately, imo. I notice that $hillary added “debt free” college to her stump speech yesterday. She is already trying to outflank Bernie on some of his own issues.

      1. Patricia

        Re “debt free”, what is that? Debt itself is outside discussion. Will some few students in some few schools have loans paid back by some third party?

        For some reason, Hillary&Co still feel the need to not outright lie, but go big for parsing. Maybe it’s her Methodism peeking through.

      2. Arizona Slim

        Debt-free college is NOT the same thing as tuition-free. Don’t be fooled by the Clintonian parsing of Bernie’s original proposal.

        1. Archie

          I’m not fooled but many (most) will see it as Bernie having moved her to the left. Not every Bernie supporter is avowedly anti-Clinton. The sleight of hand is directed at those voters.

    2. Patricia

      CodeNameD, you’re still using the meritocratic framework. Desire is not all that is on the ground, although without it there will be no movement. There is also need, for eg, which is very clarifying.

      Plus, grass-roots is also knowledgeable about this/that. Knowledge is brought to equals. There are many kinds of knowledge, environmental science among them. The power is carried by the lessons/information/theories, not by the teachers. Professionals who’ve done well in this economy are invited to a level playing field. Dismantling meritocracy is hard for everyone but it must be done if we are interested in saving planet and living in healthier society.

      From among a mutually educated/focused grass-roots, some are chosen as ‘voices’, others as organizers, etc. These are leaders in service, functioning from behind/beneath the group.

      IMO, this is the first lesson that Sanders offers (‘not me, us’), plus pointing us in a direction (as does this excellent post). He has not been a cowardly person, but has far more patience than I have. Likely he intends to return to the senate to continue the path to which he has already given decades. I suspect he plans that we will do our jobs, which he can support from there.

      Sanders did far more than anyone has done for a very long time. I am not going to despise him for not proceeding as I would have done. So far, he’s been careful not to be a sheepdog, making only personal statements about voting. As I see it, feeling pressure to vote like him is the internal residue of authoritarian thinking, of which meritocracy is the liberal form.

      1. Code Name D

        > CodeNameD, you’re still using the meritocratic framework.

        And what should I be using instead?

        > Knowledge is brought to equals.

        No! Knowledge is shared by those who have it, to those who do not. Knowledge is not some sort of emergent property produced by stoners in-tune with the universe.

        It is earned through careful research, observation, reason, and the strict adherence to the facts. Not every one has the education, training, discipline, and resources to carry out and conduct such research, and no one has the ability to know all things.

        Climatologists understand global warming, economists understand the economy, teachers understand education, and so forth. We can only overcome our challenges by working together, with the weak leaning upon the powers of the strong in each area because we are each strong in one thing, and weak in all others.

        > There are many kinds of knowledge, environmental science among them. The power is carried by the lessons/information/theories, not by the teachers.

        You will find I have little tolerance for wowo. Knowledge is just information one understands to be true. Power is the energy to make work happen, nothing more.

        > Professionals who’ve done well in this economy are invited to a level playing field. Dismantling meritocracy is hard for everyone but it must be done if we are interested in saving planet and living in healthier society.

        Man has just pulled itself out of the world of myth and superstition. And you want to send us back.

        > Sanders did far more than anyone has done for a very long time. I am not going to despise him for not proceeding as I would have done. So far, he’s been careful not to be a sheepdog, making only personal statements about voting. As I see it, feeling pressure to vote like him is the internal residue of authoritarian thinking, of which meritocracy is the liberal form.

        What ever.

        I don’t despise Sanders, but I do not worship him either. There is an old saying that one learns more from failure than from success. And while Sanders has failed to win the presidency, his effort has revealed a great deal about how the Democratic Party works as well as insights into a better understanding of corporate and social media functioning. In fact, I think we are better for his failed bid for the presidency than if he had managed to actually win it.

        But only if we are honest in confronting failure and critiquing them with integrity and humility. Any thing less is of no use to Sanders.

        There has been close to 60 years worth of grassroots activism to call upon, and virtually nothing to show for it. All we have ARE desires, but no means to carry them out into the real world. By definition, a grassroots organization can not see, can not move as one, and can only have desires and feelings.

        And then Sanders comes along and proves what one man can do to unite and mobilize the masses. And why so many are so desperate to have Sanders stand up to Clinton, should he fall, there is no one else – and the “movement” he started fades back into formless desires.

        This is why I say he should build a new political party. This will build an organization that will produce many leaders like Sanders to continue building and organizing. When I say we need leadership, I do not mean that we need one man, and certainly not some authoritarian. Rather we need some agency that has the ability to make decisions and commit to them, decisions that are often risky, and must be made with haste and under pressure, and on occasion to defy the will of the masses who operate less from wisdom and more from a heard mentality.

        It’s hard work, where one fails more often than they succeed. But I will take that over wowo any time.

        1. Patricia

          “What should I be using instead?” An egalitarian framework, without which we don’t have democratic society.

          ‘Wowo’ and myth…huh? Maybe using the word value rather than power will make it clearer….so if, as you say, “knowledge is just information one understands to be true’, then your human value isn’t raised by ownership of some part of it. The value is in the knowledge. Your human value remains the same before/after you gained knowledge via “careful research, observation, reason, and the strict adherence to the facts.”

          Nor does weakness place a human on a relative value scale.

          I think the structure of a representative republic too easily allows for emergence of meritocracy. It’s become so entrenched in our thinking that it is unquestionable. Honesty, integrity and humility would be well-applied here.

          I completely agree re new party, but that’s our hard work to do, not Bernie’s. I will be interested to see what he does after the convention.

  5. crittermom

    Thank you, Yves, for a great article. I had absolutely no idea about any of it so found it extremely educational–& perhaps even a bit inspirational, during such a depressing election year.
    As someone who had little interest in history or politics (yes, shame on me) until recently, I thank you & NC for opening my eyes & igniting my desire to learn more at 64 yrs young.

  6. Jim Haygood

    What puzzled me was how North Dakota farms (especially inherited farms) could be owned by an LLC with multiple stockholders. Otherwise, heirs would be forced to establish a partnership, and change it every time ownership shares changed.

    But NoDak has an app for that:

    A farm limited liability company is a legal entity that may be established under North Dakota laws by one or more individuals, but not to exceed fifteen members. Members must be related individuals or one of the following:

    A trust for the benefit of an individual or a class of individuals who are related to every member of the limited liability company within specified degrees of kinship.

    An estate of a decedent who was related to every member of the limited liability company within specified degrees of kinship.

    Downside is, this law limits the market if heirs want to sell a farm.

    Preserved farms in the northeast U.S. sell at a discount to unencumbered land, because there just aren’t enough farmers to go around, even if they had the money (many don’t).

    “Free money” from the state for preserving farms seemed like a great deal in the 1990s. Now the hangover has set in. Some folks are stuck with land forever deeded to farm use, but no one to buy and farm it.

  7. Epistrophy

    Policy based campaigns require an educated and rational electorate. No doubt this was the case during the early 1900’s, but today?

    1. Patricia

      Apparently, educated wasn’t the case back then either.

      From post: “Members were kept informed through a regular newsletter. This was part of a massive popular education effort. Membership fees allowed the NPL to hire organizers and lecturers who traveled throughout the state. Townley, the founder and leader of the NPL, proved an entertaining and charismatic speaker. Sometimes thousands would gather to hear him speak. Speeches themselves were community affairs.”

  8. DarkMatters

    Thanks for this post. It’s shown me many valuable examples from a part of our history that’s now swept under the rug because it contradicts so much of “conventional wisdom”. Three specific points: a) There’s a lot of data here that shows that a government by the people is necessary to form a bulwark against private power, and moreover, that it can be a positive and constructive institution as well. b) Social cooperation can be as creative a force as capitalist enterprise. c) Political battles for democracy are never final: victories must be protected, and recovered when lost. I found the notion of “public options” appealing, since those institutions provide a test bed to see experimentally just when private enterprise can outperform governmental cooperation. That kind of approach might be a way to allow both systems to coexist and keep them healthier in the bargain.

  9. Tim


    I think Brexit was an inflection point on the trend towards one world government back to more localized control.

    World trade drove the one world gov thing, but the local’s will strive to find a way for local control to co-exist with world trade without being so disadvantaged, and this ND case study, proves that is absolutely possible and we should strive to achieve the maximum amount of community governmental power possible.

    Per this example it would appear that in 1920 the optimum state government jurisdiction was around 1 million. Maybe today in the information age, about 10 million would be about optimal.

  10. Pelham

    “Before we develop a strategy for winning office, we need to take a page from the NPL playbook and develop a platform, one consisting of specific, concrete policies, not a laundry list of all desirable policies.”

    This is a particularly attractive idea. How about forming a movement laser-focused on, say, 3 or 4 economic issues that affect everyone — and that’s it? Any candidate endorsed by the movement could take any other position, right or left, on any other issue.

    In effect, Sanders has established the model. Although he’s personally progressive on a wide range of issues, his campaign has consistently pounded away on just a few topics.

    I fear, however, that the movement growing out of the Sanders campaign will quickly marginalize itself by trying to adopt all at once every multi-culti, identity-driven policy possible, thus alienating the vast former middle class that it needs to thrive.

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