Commentary: Explaining Minnesota’s radical political nature

The Scandinavian and German populations that settled in this region were heavily influenced by European socialism.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey greets Attorney General Keith Ellison. (Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

(Intellectual Takeout) — As recent events have caused the eyes of the nation and the world to focus on Minnesota, a question I’ve wondered about has resurfaced: Why is Minnesota so politically radical?

That Minnesota’s politics are radical is seen in a simple survey of the state’s prominent politicians. Both of Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are decidedly left-of-center Democrats. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz can be seen on TV inciting Black Lives Matter (BLM) crowds and rioters in situations that would seem to call for restoring civil peace.

Keith Ellison, the state’s Attorney General, is an enthusiastic backer of Antifa and a convert to a black nationalist form of Islam. Ellison was an outspoken fan of Mark Bray’s The Anti-Fascist Handbook. With its call for revolutionary violence, Minnesota’s chief law enforcement official has glowingly displayed Bray’s book as his preferred reading material.

And let’s not forget Ilhan Omar, the radical leftist congresswoman from Minneapolis, who expresses support for Islamicists. Omar personifies what the French call “islamo-gauchistes,” political figures who blend Western cultural radicalism with effusive sympathy for Muslim Fundamentalists.

One may be tempted to attribute this political radicalism to the black population in Minnesota, which votes heavily for the left and which is quite visible in and around the Twin Cities. But since there were only 382,612 black residents in the Gopher State in 2018 out of a total population of 5.61 million, this variable doesn’t explain the situation fully. By comparison, neighboring Wisconsin had very similar numbers, with 389,652 blacks out of a total state population of 5.81 million in the same year. We might also note that since blacks have a much younger median age than whites, they may be less likely to belong to Minnesota’s voting population.

Most of the state’s radicalism, then, is a white phenomenon, and the explanation for this carries us back into Minnesota’s political and cultural history, where Northern European Protestants have long perpetuated this radical tradition. The Scandinavian and (to a lesser extent) German populations that settled in this region were heavily influenced by European socialism. The creation of a social welfare state in Sweden in the 1920s, which aimed at reconstructing social relationships as well as redistributing income, made a favorable impression on Minnesotans.

Norway also influenced the state, with 1960s Minnesota Gov. Karl F. Rolvaag, who was of Norwegian descent, touring that country after World War II to learn about its socialist state and economy.

Allan C. Carlson, who has written extensively on Scandinavian culture in the Midwest, seems to suggest that most of the settlers in the area were religiously and socially traditional. But Minnesota’s Swedes and Norwegians may have been the exception. The degree and persistence of their left-leaning politics made them different from even those Germans and Scandinavians who landed in Wisconsin, including German immigrants who went there as radical refugees from the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

The National Farmer Labor Party, founded in Minnesota in 1918, became a powerful advocate for social measures for both agricultural and industrial workers. In 1944 this party merged with the Democratic Party at the national level, without abandoning its own reform energies — or affinity for Scandinavian social democracy.

“Minnesota was settled largely by churchgoing Scandinavians and Germans, who were ‘moralistic and public regarding,’ and tended to agree with the notion that government had a role to play when it’s in the best interest of everyone,” retired Carleton College professor Steven Schier wrote last year in a Star Tribune article, “Why Is Minnesota More Liberal Than Its Neighboring States?” “That ethos has persisted in the state’s consistently high voter turnout over the years, and it has frequently benefited left-leaning candidates in elections.”

This may explain why Minnesota continues to vote for candidates like Ellison, Walz, and Omar. Minnesota’s politics may further be explained by a characteristic of ethnicities with radical leftist tendencies in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, namely, the ease with which they fit into larger ethnic communities. This is also seen in Minnesota with Somalis, and may have been equally true for Scandinavians in nonurban Minnesota, such as radicalized Finns from the Iron Range, from whence came Gus Hall, the last head of the American Communist Party.

Unlike the onetime situation in Europe where Christian churches and Marxists once fought for the souls of their towns’ residents, ethnic groups have generally accepted their own radicals. Thus, leftist Scandinavians in Minnesota may have attended the same churches as the less radical ones, intermarried with them, and then indoctrinated the next generation. In contrast to a European society in which the forces of revolution and order battled each other even within the same families, ethnic groups in America have accepted their co-ethnic radicals, providing they pose no threat to their in-group.

As a graduate student at Yale in the mid-1960s I noted with bemusement that every Nordic-looking classmate from the “land of Paul Bunyan” gravitated toward the campus left. These leftists were not alienated hippies, but members in good standing of the communities in which they grew up.


Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.