I’ve just found my favorite election of all time: the 1936 Congressional contest in Minnesota’s Eight District. This election provides us with an example of how democratic government ideally should work, and offers us guidelines for election reform.
In 1934, legislative stalemate blocked redistricting, and all Congressional candidates ran at large. Minnesota effectively had a three-party system at that time, with the leftist Farmer-Labor Party fighting the Republicans for control of the state and the Democrats bringing up the rear (and sometimes threatening to disappear entirely.)
The ninth and last Congressional slot was claimed by Francis Shoemaker, a leftist muckraker and scandalmonger who looked like a tough-guy detective in a noir movie. In the 1929 Congressional election he had done well in defeat, even though he had been indicted and briefly jailed on charges of libeling a local banker as a “Robber of Widows and Orphans” (which the banker probably was). In 1930, after the election, Shoemaker was finally convicted of libel and given a suspended sentence, but because of his defiant attitude in his newspaper account of the trial the suspension was revoked, and he spent a year in Leavenworth.
For the rest of his career he bragged about his time in prison, while continuing to slander opponents and to physically assault critics and various others. (He was arrested for assault twice during his single Congressional term; neither attack was politically motivated). He was an undistinguished Congressman, and after one term he left the House to challenge Minnesota’s mealy-mouthed Farmer-Labor Senator Shipstead. He threw a scare into Shipstead at the FLP convention, but was soundly defeated in the primary.
In 1936 Shoemaker was back in action despite various legal problems, some of them rising from his support of the Trotskyist Teamsters Local 574 in the bloody 1934 trucker’s strike. (He succeeded in pissing off the Trotskyists as much as he did their opponents). He decided to challenge Republican Congressman Pittinger in the Eighth District. Whether or not Shoemaker had been an effective Congressman, and despite the fact that he was opposed by the Farmer Labor Party leadership, he was a fearsome, no-holds-barred campaigner and Pittinger dreaded the thought of having to run against him. Through an intermediary Pittinger donated money to Shoemaker’s primary opponent, John Bernard, who defeated Shoemaker but also defeated Pittinger and became the district’s Congressman .
Bernard (a Corsican immigrant miner and fireman with a fondness for the poetry of Lamartine, Musset, and Racine) was probably a Communist Party member. This period, specifically in Minnesota, was the high point of Communist influence in America, and Bernard was one of the very few Communists ever elected to national office. He distinguished himself as the only Congressman in any party to oppose Roosevelt’s weaselly pro-Fascist neutrality policy in the Spanish Civil War, a stand which gained him the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church and others, and he was defeated in his run for re-election.
Trivia: one of the other Communist Congressmen, Vito Marcantonio, began his career in the Republican Party. More trivia: Bob Dylan was born in Bernard’s Communist district only five years after Bernard left office.
The Moral of the Story
(Is Emerson Really Serious About This?)
I’m more serious than you are, buddy. Look at your own Congressman. How well is he responding to the present economic crisis? Better than Bernard and Shoemaker would have? Almost certainly the answer is “No!”
We’re headed into The Second Great Depression. Almost no one in our present political establishment has any clue as to what’s happening or what to do about it. Most of them are bought and paid for, and the vast majority are jellified lackeys who are incapable of any initiative on a topic more substantial than earmarks and constituent service.
Our political elite is offering us two choices. Obama, Summers, and the machine Democrats propose that we give finance almost everything it asks for, wait for things somehow to get better, and start thinking about squeezing the money out of Social Security and “entitlements” somewhere down the line. Meanwhile the Republicans and Blue Dogs are hoping for Obama to fail so that they can take over and institute “Hooverist” austerity measures immediately. (These are really Mellonist measures: Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate…. purge the rottenness.)
You’re asking yourself: “Does Emerson really believe that a Communist or a thuggish populist demagogue would better serve the American people than the Congressman I actually do have?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m willing to bet 10-to-1 that your Congressman is effectively worthless.
Neither Bernard nor Shoemaker would put up with any of the Obama / Blue Dog / Republican bullshit. Either of them would have the good sense to scream bloody murder about what they saw happening. But your own Congressman will almost certainly do nothing much at all about all this.
You should be working to bounce him from Congress, but I doubt that you are.
I’m serious and you aren’t.
(Part II will explain the institutional reasons why Minnesota’s political system was healthy in 1936, in contrast to America’s present toxic system.)
“From Leavenworth to Congress”, Frederick L. Johnson, Minnesota History, Spring, 1989.
“The One Man Who Voted ‘Nay'”, Barbara Stuhler, Minnesota History, Fall, 1972.