Sunday, August 10, 2008 By Aaron Brown
Same now as it ever was
By Aaron J. Brown
Most people know the political tradition here on the Iron Range: Independent, but generally Democratic, and heavily influenced by the past and present labor movement.
Sadly, it’s almost impossible to talk about politics and history without some people raising their partisan hackles, sharpened so harshly by the cable news sensibility of our times. Try to suspend partisan bias for a moment.
The Iron Range political tradition grew out of the historic struggle between unskilled immigrant workers and the mining and logging companies that prospered using their labor. Interestingly, the Iron Range of the early 1900s up until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was, like the rest of Minnesota then, solidly Republican. Most immigrants couldn’t vote and those who could, along with skilled native laborers, businesspeople and the editors of papers like the Mesaba Ore all voted alike. The tradition of that time was to preserve the mining companies, and everyone’s jobs and family, by voting the way the mining companies recommended – for pro-business candidates who would discourage unions and preserve commerce above all else.
That’s why our region went overwhelmingly for GOP corporate favorite Warren Harding in 1920, a man who, according to the recent book, “The Teapot Dome Scandal” by Laton McCartney, was recruited by corporate interests to remain clueless about corruption in his administration once elected so that his appointees could conduct favors for the oil industry. (I’ll let you construct your own modern parallels on that one). After Harding’s fatal heart attack in 1923, Minnesota went Republican again in 1924 for “Silent” Cal Coolidge, who once visited Hibbing and remarked that the Hull Rust mine pit was an “awfully big hole,” and yet again for Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928.
History allows us the hindsight to say that the voters of Minnesota and the Iron Range should have seen the economic collapse of the Great Depression coming and the corruption that marred this time in American politics. But the greater problem of that time was not partisan (indeed, plenty of corrupt Democrats participated in the process, too). No, I wouldn’t write this if it were simply a notable observation from history. Today’s headlines may be delivered to our e-mail inboxes, heralded across a network lightning fast network of computers, but they tell a starkly similar story.
For instance, last week we heard reports about Wal-Mart, a company that, like the mining companies of the early 20th century, opposes unions in its workforce. Wal-Mart recently issued a recommendation to its managers to “discourage” the passage of a law making it easier to form labor unions. Some of the reports quoted managers who heard veiled language implying that employees should be specifically discouraged against voting for presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama, who supports the pro-labor law. Wal-Mart issued statements correcting that it does not tell employees how to vote, but its opposition to unions remains clear. Similar interests are spending millions trying to discourage union formation by spreading misleading political ads in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race.
The parallels between the stories of mining camps of the 1920s and the folks who clock in at our local Wal-Mart or other big box stores are amazing. No, they’re not obvious. There’s a big difference between the kind of work done by 1916 miners and 2008 Wal-Mart cashiers. But the role these jobs play are the same: they are the jobs done by people starting out, raising young families, especially by those who weren’t promised any favors at birth.
Important in all this is how today’s partisan labels are equally irrelevant to the hard truth of how the world really operates. This isn’t a Democrat vs. Republican thing; it’s a powerful vs. powerless thing. The structure of our society is rapidly becoming more similar to the 1920s: a few rich, powerful people at the top, a relatively small group of hangers-on who support the upper crust, then a vast collection of people living paycheck to paycheck in the middle, and finally a huge, undocumented mass of people living below the poverty line.
And yet here we are, arguing about drilling for oil and how the estate tax hurts the “little guy who happens to be a millionaire.” The ghost of Warren Harding has risen. How will we vote this time?
America, and especially the Iron Range, prospers only when the middle class is growing, poverty is subsiding, and when most citizens regard such events as universally good. In this, the interests of hungry, up-and-coming citizens willing to work their way up must be reconciled with those of the powerful companies who rely on their toil.
It is the same now as it ever was.