Klas Bergman’s Scandinavians in the State House examines the power and influence of Scandinavians on Minnesota politics throughout its history. It begins by looking at the forces that pushed and pulled Scandinavians to America and to Minnesota. Many were drawn by the hope of opportunity but many were also driven out because of repression for radical, pro-labor political views. I know my grandparents came because of repression. While it was legal in Sweden to leave the Church of Sweden for another faith, it was not legal to be an atheist which my grandmother was. Bergman looks at how the cooperative and democratic traditions these immigrants brought helped them quickly move into politics and he focuses on four early Scandinavian governors who exemplify different perspectives on moving from immigrant to elected politician.

Bergman spends a lot of time exploring the many organizations the Scandinavians founded, many of which are active to this day. He also looks at the differences. Norwegians, for example, were more conservative, while Swedes and Finns were more radical, in part because many of them were pushed to America because of their activism and radicalism back in Sweden and Finland. They were severely repressed, imprisoned on trumped up charges. For example, in 1917 Sigrid Stenberg, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act. The evidence was a telegram that read, “Send Allarm” which was translated by the  prosecution as “Send All Arm” (weapons). Stenberg wrote for the Swedish language paper, the Allarm (Alarm).

The First World War brought the creation of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, which made manifest Republican Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist’s belief that “there are during this war but two parties, one composed of loyalists, the other of disloyalists.” The Commission was used by the Citizens Alliance (a business organization) to dismantle labor organizing. The leader was Joseph McGee who used the Commission to attack, German, Jews, and Finns. One Finn and three African Americans were lynched, possibly incited by McGee’s rhetoric. When the war was over, the Commission was disbanded, but not before it had severely weakened the Nonpartisan League, a radical organization uniting farmers and labor that eventually became the Farmer Labor party

One interesting element of the history is the vibrancy of the many parties in Minnesota. The Republicans were dominant for many years, but the Farmer Labor party was a strong challenger and won often enough. The Democratic party was a distant third until the second half of the 20th century when it merged with the Farmer Labor party and became the DFL we know today which became the dominant party in the state until 1978 when Wendell Anderson single-handedly infuriated the whole state by resigning, with Perpich then appointing him to the Senate. In 1978, there was a rout and Republicans took the Senate, Governorship and even my home district where that nonentity Arlan Stangeland beat Collin Peterson, appointed to replace Bob Berglund. It smelled of errant ambition and backroom deals and Minnesotans punished it harshly.

Bergman also looks at the influx of Somalis to Minnesota and how their experience in some ways is similar to the Swedes. The area that used to be known as Snoose Boulevard is now called Little Mogadishu and Somalis have won representation on the City Council and in Congress. Minnesota has the largest community of Hmong and Somalis in the United States in part because it has been very welcoming and supportive with institutions such as Lutheran Social Services that used to support and foster immigrants from Scandinavia now doing the same for new immigrants from Africa and Asia.

The final chapter asks whether the unique communitarian and open government that Scandinavians fostered in Minnesota can survive in the hyper-polarized politics of today. It’s worrisome that the only Republicans who opposed a Tea Party proposed moratorium on new refugee settlement were long-retired Republicans from the Independent Republican era. The Minnesota Republican party has long held itself aloof from the national party, but no longer.

I found this book interesting but I am a Swedish-American and a politics junkie. My grandparents and uncle immigrated and were very active and interested in politics. Some of the politicians, like Monday and Roger Moe were personal friends of my parents. And with all those reasons I was eager to read, I still felt distracted and dismayed from time to time by the diligence Bergman brought to including what felt like every newspaper and organization. There were times like it felt like I was reading “the begats” and I just had to push myself through it.

However, the rest of it is very interesting. I think it is clear that Minnesota is a uniquely liberal state with a strong social safety net, more cooperatives than anywhere else in the country and a fabulous education system. Many people credit that to its homogeneity, but there are many homogeneous, overwhelmingly white states that are punishingly ungenerous with their people. I think the contributions of Scandinavian radicals is critical to Minnesota’s difference, but Bergman’s case would be stronger if he considered this alternative explanation. I also think he takes a “Minnesota Nice” optimism in looking at the future of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America and their ability to replicate how Scandinavians took control of the political power. He does not give sufficient attention, I think, to the racism that will do anything to avoid ceding power. If and when they achieve significant numbers, the welcome mat may be put away.

Still, it’s an interesting history that I hope many people will read. It’s a fascinating history, though when it gets to “the begats”, you might do what many do while reading the Bible, and just skip ahead.

Scandinavians in the State House will be published June 1st. I received an e-galley for review from the publisher through Edelweiss.

Advertisements