Roosevelt, Obama and Minnesota Farmers
Though he had an R next to his name, in most causes, President Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive, recognizing that large corporations and special interests had too much power, and that many of our nation’s problems resulted from the business class’s recklessness.
Comparisons with then and now are valid. We see it in Occupy's frustrations. Conservative policy seeks to support the corporate class; progressives seem too splintered to be effective; and third party movements rarely generate enough power to deliver change.
That didn’t stop President Barack Obama from delivering a populist, Roosevelt-style message last month in Osawatomie, Kansas, the same location where the Rough Rider highlighted workers and farmers’ struggles a century earlier.
While a New Yorker, TR had strong ties to the Midwest, agriculture and the outdoors in general. His time in the Dakotas and ranching background gave him a deep understanding of agrarian populism, and farmers supported and encouraged his efforts to regulate the trusts.
Roosevelt was one of the first national leaders to join Texas and Georgia agrarian leaders organizing the National Farmers Union (NFU) in 1902. A century after its founding, NFU local president Lee Swenson of South Dakota and Dave Frederickson, now Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner, asked me to finish writing and editing* a centennial history of the farm organization before its 2002 annual meeting.**
Here are nuggets of historical information gleaned from the archives kept at the University of Colorado:
After the Civil War, single parties came to dominate many states. To advance farm issues in Congress, there had to be a coalition that would work across the aisle. NFU was created as a nonpartisan organization with the expressed intent of working with anyone or any group that would support family farm enterprises, cooperative business development and the organization’s efforts to educate and share information with member farm families. Teddy Roosevelt was a prime example of NFU’s willingness to work with anyone on farm and rural interests.
When NFU expanded into northern states, most were one-party conservative strongholds that had more progressive-leaning rump groups like North Dakota’s NonPartisan League, Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor movement and Wisconsin’s Progressives. Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska had radical splinter groups that would later become the Farm Holiday Movement during the Great Depression and inspire the American Agriculture Movement during the Farm Financial Crisis of the 1980s.
These factions would later become political parties in their own right in the Upper Midwest, and would later merge with previously small Democratic parties to form hybrids like Minnesota’s DFL and North Dakota’s D-NPL.
Historical quirks don’t stop there. William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president, solidifying big business and conservative leaders’ close ties. Roosevelt challenged Taft’s party re-nomination in 1912, as did Wisconsin’s Robert LaFollete, in the nation’s first presidential primaries. To some extent, the two progressives split their factions’ votes. Power retained by party bosses pushed aside Roosevelt and LaFollete delegates at the GOP national convention, much like the silencing of moderate Minnesota policymakers within conservative circles in choosing leaders these days.
Taft was re-nominated and finished third in the 1912 general election. Roosevelt ran as a third-party progressive, or Bull Moose candidate, and came in second. Woodrow Wilson won the general election.
Partly in retaliation to those Roosevelt ties and with some irony, President Wilson and his agriculture secretary, David Franklin Houston, went to great lengths to promote the new American Farm Bureau Federation as a counterweight to Farmers Union and its progressive friends North and South.
In writing NFU’s history, my coauthors and I made the point that NFU’s worst relations with the Agriculture Department came with Democrat Houston and Republican Ezra Taft Benson (1953-1960) serving as secretaries. What changed were the frustrations and political alignments of their times.
Farmers Union and the Farm Bureau have remained consistent over time with progressive and conservative leanings on public policies, but they compromise and work together when farm and rural issues are clearly defined.
Obama and America now face the same power trust threats to democracy and economic stability that confronted Teddy Roosevelt. Whatever success Obama might have will probably depend on how populist streaks within the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street protestors, and the largely disenfranchised, Roosevelt-like progressive Republicans respond this election year.
*Milton Hakel, a former Minnesota journalist, died after being tasked with writing NFU history. Bob Denman, a native Texan who worked as a commodities writer in Washington for what is now Bloomberg News, took over but then changed jobs and was constantly on the road for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
**“Connecting America’s Farmers with America’s Future: The National Farmers Union 1902-2002” was delivered to the NFU convention that winter in Fort Worth, Texas. It quickly sold out.