The people who benefit from the status quo will fight tooth and nail against movements to reform it. Any grassroots movement that tries to put the power back in the hands of regular people will inevitably be attacked by those who profit from having the power. As we have seen with the Nonpartisan League, its enemies smeared it, tried to subvert its message and stole its techniques.

[This is part five in a series on lessons to be learned from the history of the Nonpartisan League. If you missed the previous four, here is part one, here is part two, here is part three, and here is part four.]

Smears

Just like progressive reform movements during the New Deal in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Great Society in the ‘60s and today, the enemies of NPL attacked the movement as “socialism.” From “Political Prairie Fire” by Robert Morlan:

On the Square—A Magazine for Farm and Home made its appearance in May, containing a few articles on farm problems and a fiction story, but confining itself for the most part to bitter denunciations of the League and discussions of the disloyalty of its leaders. Its purpose was clearly stated in a brief editorial: “In each issue of this magazine we are going to fight Socialism, half-baked Socialism, and the Socialism of the National Nonpartisan League—for all of them are the real enemies of the nation and its institutions.”

All types of smears hit the organization and its leadership. A. C. Townley was attacked for the previous failure of his farm. The NPL was accused of misappropriating funds, even though an independent audit found its books in order. The League was accused of being disloyal, socialist, un-American, anti-Christian, a tool of labor unions and “free lovers.”

Astroturf

Another tactic used against the NPL was the early-20th-century equivalent of Astroturf, such as attempts to steal the NPL mantle as fighting for the regular farmers. Efforts were made to recruit “regular farmers” to compete with farmer candidates selected by the NPL. Extremely wealthy businessmen started organizations to appear similar to the Nonpartisan League, trying to hijack NPL credibility and the widespread demand for reform.

Apparently not wanting in ideas, the anti-League forces in early June came up with a new wrinkle. “Leagues” having proven more than a little successful, there blossomed forth on June 5 the “North Dakota Good Government League,” the purpose of which was announced to be the presenting to the people of the state “accurate information concerning the propaganda that is being fostered by the North Dakota Farmers’ Nonpartisan Political League.” The founders, it was said, were “substantial farmers and businessmen” who were not yet ready to turn the state over to the “carpetbaggers. [...]

Though the League valiantly strove to discover just who constituted the membership, the only names disclosed were those of Morton Page, a land speculator, mortgage dealer, and insurance broker, frequently called the richest man in North Dakota, as president, H. G. Carpenter, secretary of the Insurance Federation of North Dakota, as vice president, and Norman Black, former editor of the Herald, as executive secretary.

Change the Rules

Fearing they could not stop a broad movement, the status quo powers worked to shut down the democratic avenues the Nonpartisan League used to win elections. In many places, the enemies of the NPL eliminated or restricted the new direct primary system. The establishment Democrats and Republicans often worked in a bipartisan manner to try to stop the NPL. Fearing the NPL, their enemies rewrote the rules to maintain power.

In Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, and Kansas the primaries were actually abolished, if only temporarily in some cases, but similar bills were narrowly defeated in Minnesota and Colorado. In South Dakota the primary system was amended to make “infiltration” virtually impossible.

Copy Your Methods

Eventually the anti-League forces in North Dakota were most effective when they adopted most of the League’s methods. They created a counter-organization, also with dues paying and its own independent paper, that supported Republican and Democratic candidates with little regard for traditional party loyalty.

The anti-League forces in North Dakota, meanwhile, had taken a leaf from the League’s book, and were in the process of developing the Independent Voters’ Association, generally known simply as the I.V.A., presumably to be based on strong local organization and paid memberships. Originally set up to combat the proposed constitutional amendments in 1918, it quickly became the core of the opposition to the League, thus further obliterating the already badly faded party lines in North Dakota. There were local and county units in addition to the state organization. Regular memberships sold for $10 and included a two-year subscription to the Independent [...]The I.V.A.’s chief strength was always in the cities and villages, and it never had complete coverage of the state, but it steadily grew and for several years was one party in what came to be essentially a new two-party alignment.

In the end the I.V.A. won by embracing the methods and co-opting the messaging behind much of the NPL platform. It won elections after claiming to look out for real farmers and wanting only to give the League programs a “fair trial.” The I.V.A. was dedicated to destroying the League’s programs, but when it eventually took power, it ended up leaving many of the League’s popular reforms in place. That is why to this day, North Dakota is the only state with its own state-run bank and flour mill.

Status Quo Will Fight Reform

Those who benefit from the status quo will fight any reform tooth and nail. They will use baseless smears, attempt to hijack the movement, try to change the rules and even copy the methods of a successful reform movement. Never underestimate the lengths people will go to if they benefit from the way things are.

The one positive note is that when progressive reforms finally do get put into place, they quickly become part of the new status quo and as a result become hard to uproot. Whether it is the Bank of North Dakota, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator or programs like Medicare and Social Security, conservative movements have bitterly fought many changes, but their opposition weakens or fades away after the reforms are established.