Nonpartisan leader of February 18, 1917. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Large corporations with a huge corrupting political influence are exploiting regular people. Bankers and traders on an exchange are selling phantom commodities to make huge profits to the detriment of the working class. A left-leaning group turns to politics to address these grievances, and the Chamber of Commerce and the mainstream attack it as “socialist,” unpatriotic and the tool of big labor. This is not modern times but the 1910s in the rise of the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota.

The NPL was one of the most powerful political organizations in American history and the speed of its rise to power was unprecedented. The organization was formed in 1915 by two men sitting around a kitchen table. By 1918, it had taken complete control of the government of North Dakota and enacted much of its platform. Its success and failures hold a wealth of lessons for anyone interested in political organizations.

Arthur Townley was the founder and driving force behind the NPL. He understood that the establishment media at the time were favorable to the status quo. Townley knew that to maintain a strong political organization, he had to speak directly to his members. An effective political organization needs to counteract the inevitable spin and propaganda from political forces aligned against it. That is why establishing its own newspaper was one of the NPL’s first actions. From “Political Prairie Fire” by Robert Morlan:

In laying the plans for the Nonpartisan League, the power of the press had not been overlooked, for Townley knew full well that the organization could be held together only if continuous information and stimulation reached the members through a publication devoted solely to that purpose. It had originally been planned to start the Nonpartisan Leader in December of 1915, and the members had been so informed. In August, however, it had become obvious that the opposition press was succeeding in causing doubts in the minds of many members; also it dawned on the leaders that most of the postdated checks were dated in October and that if the members heard no more of the organization before then, payment would be stopped on a great many. They therefore decided to start the paper as soon as possible. [...]

The Leader, in general a moderately well-edited paper with a breezy conversational style, served three principal purposes—it provided a channel of direct news and information, a means by which the leaders might guide the actions of the members, and a method of combating the tide of bitter opposition which almost instantly arose.

The need for a political movement to have its own independent news source and a way to speak directly to its supporters is a lesson modern progressives have learned and are relearning. Progressive blogs and e-mail lists can do this even better than any independent paper could do at the turn of the last century. The Internet has allowed contemporary progressive bloggers and organizations to work around the mainstream media. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the Internet has made the task much easier. No doubt Townley would have easily grasped the political potential of digital communication.

It is a good thing that the NPL quickly set up its own paper, because the establishment media almost instantly attacked the new group. Without the “Leader” it is likely the continued smears and distortions would have eroded the organization’s support.

[A]lmost at once the great majority of both city dailies and rural weeklies, led by the Grand Forks Herald and the Fargo Courier-News, commenced a campaign of violent opposition. It was based principally on the grounds that the League was promoting socialism and that the leaders were “carpetbaggers” bent on driving the state into financial ruin and filling their own pockets with the farmers’ money.