Originaly published February 27th in High Plains Reader
by C.S. Hagen
BISMARCK – In the most collective state in the union socialism is a dirty word, and top elected politicians are already using “Wolverine”-style fear tactics to rally the far-right troops two years before the 2020 Presidential election.
Many say the McCarthyism, or “McCarthywasm,” a moniker once offered by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, dog whistling is the GOP’s next war cry.
Similarities to the 1984 movie “Red Dawn,” starring Patrick Swayze, cannot be dismissed. The cult hit movie portrays small town high school students resisting a communist, or Soviet invasion after the United States isolates itself from the rest of the world. Today, after President Donald Trump has increasingly pulled America away from international relationships, Governor Doug Burgum, U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, and the state’s only Congressman Kelly Armstrong, are all claiming that North Dakota faces a socialist invasion and that it must be resisted.
Around the time that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, announced his second campaign for the White House and after democratic socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled the Green New Deal, the attacks came against the state’s Democratic-NPL Party linked to an opinion piece by conservative blogger Rob Port.
“Socialism has no place in North Dakota,” Burgum posted to his Burgum for ND Twitter account on February 18, the same day President Donald Trump made his State of the Union address condemning the “new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
“Socialism flies in the face of ND values & individual liberty,” Armstrong posted to Facebook the following day. “We should be alarmed that Democrats in ND are continuing down the path of radicalism in embracing a doctrine responsible for pain and suffering of millions throughout history. This has to stop.”
“POTUS said it right,” Cramer tweeted on his official government Twitter account on February 16, four days after Donald Trump Jr. tried to disparage “loser socialist teachers” during a rally in El Paso, Texas. “We must commit to never becoming a socialist country. It’s time to reject the politics of extremism and resistance.”
Two days later and more than a month after his previous tweet on a personal Twitter account, Cramer also retweeted Port’s blog, saying: “As @realDonaldTrump said, we must never let our country become a socialist nation. This has to stop. We can’t let Democrats successfully pull North Dakota toward this harmful liberal agenda.”
The problem with the state’s top elected officials’ assessments is that North Dakota is already – and has been for nearly 100 years – the most socialist state in the union. The political trio fails to understand the differences between communism, socialism, democratic socialism, and capitalism, according to historians.
North Dakota has three state-run institutions that have saved the state multiple times during emergencies since 1919: the State Bank of North Dakota, the state-owned North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association, and the governor-appointed Milk Marketing Board, established in 1967 to stabilize milk prices. North Dakota also has an 87-year-old anti-corporate farming law, which seeks to help family farms against competitive threats from predatory corporations.
Bank of North Dakota – wet plate by Shane Balkowitsch
Merriam-Webster describes the differences between communism and socialism distinctly.
“Communism referred to an economic and political theory that advocated the abolition of private property… and it was often used interchangeably with the word socialism by 19th–century writers. In the modern era, ‘pure’ socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments… in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.”
A new word classifying social democrats may be needed because too many people in America today either do not truly know what a socialist is, or are confused between the terms, Dr. Tom Isern, a historian, a conservative Republican, and a distinguished professor of history at North Dakota State University, said.
“Do you really know what a socialist is?” Isern said he would like to ask those calling out the Democratic-NPL as socialists. “I think they are all getting it wrong. This is stuff we learned in high school civics. My generation may have learned civics from a high school coach. We probably did. We move around how we feel about these things, but the definitions are pretty clear: at the core the definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production. There is no quibbling about that for anyone who is at all literate.”
University of North Dakota professor emeritus Curt Stofferahn, who taught rural sociology and has done extensive research on corporate farming, said that North Dakota is the most socialist state in the country.
“There are socialisms,” Stofferahn said. “There is state socialism where the state owns the means of production, and if that’s the case we have state socialism.” He pointed to the State Bank of North Dakota as an example.
“And then we have social democracy where state regulates the economy for the common good,” Stofferahn said. An example of social democracy would be the Milk Marketing Board, or North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, or government programs that subsidize farmers’ losses during a trade war.
“The irony is we offer crop insurance for farmers, but we’re reluctant to offer insurance for people,” Stofferahn said.
Using social ownership programs as a means of production is the definition of a co-op, which this state has more per capita than any other state in America, Stofferahn said.
Prairie Roots Food Co-op, the Dakota Resource Council, Prairie Public Radio – supported by listeners and members, the North Dakota Rural Local Exchange Carriers, even the liquor store Happy Harry’s, now owned and managed by the employees, are all examples of cooperatives, a central theme in socialist societies.
There are electric co-ops and wholesale trade cooperatives, beet sugar manufacturing, transportation cooperatives, hospitals and railroads that are owned collectively, all of whom helped contribute to the state’s business volume of $5.6 billion in 2010, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office.
A total of 322 businesses hiring approximately 8,000 people with a total salary of $1.1 billion were registered in the state in 2010, according to the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office. In 2010, the co-ops paid a total of $342 million in taxes, monies that paid the current governor’s $128,735 annual salary, or legislators with their $177 per diem when in session.
“That’s democratic socialism,” Stofferahn said. “That ship has sailed in North Dakota, because we’re the most democratic socialist state in the country.”
Democratic Socialism: a moral economy
Tom Isern describes himself as the “last conservative Republican in North Dakota,” and oftentimes finds himself agreeing with friends across the political aisle, he said.
State institutions such as the State Bank of North Dakota, the state-owned North Dakota Mill and Elevator Association, and the Milk Marketing Board, didn’t arise from radical ideology of the early 19th and 20th centuries, but from a belief in strong and stable communities, Isern said.
“The dog whistling about socialism is exactly what echoes a century ago when the Republican Party was being taken over by the Nonpartisan League,” Isern said. “They denounced it. They said ‘You want socialism?’ There were socialist organizers in the Nonpartisan League, no doubt, but at the heart of the Nonpartisan League are Norwegian farmers. They believed in self-help cooperative communitarianism, what we historians like to call the moral economy.
“Do your best, make some money, and then help your community. That’s all right out of the Norwegian Lutheran playbook of the 19th century, and it runs mainstream through the Nonpartisan League.”
The product behind North Dakota’s socialist organizations may be technically socialism, but motivation behind the decisions is what is important.
“You can debate how socialist those things are in their motivation and that’s a real distinction… but I would characterize those are the most socialist institutions in America in their function,” Isern said. “And they work. The Bank of North Dakota is still your best student loan provider in the United States.”
Isern is also a believer in the welfare state.
“I’m what Kennedy called a Red Tory, and not on the basis of rights but on the basis of public good,” Isern said. “These things work. They’re good for the country. Let’s do them. It’s in the interest of our country to have a healthy population, and it seems like the right thing to do. Not that it’s a right; it’s a public good.
“These things that were government initiatives or government give-a-ways, you might even say, they are all done for a reason other than strictly materialist, for the good of the country. You can come at this from the point of view of riots and demands or the point of view of ‘Hey what’s the right thing to do?’ Rights instead of riots, and for the good of the country.”
Isern pointed to the The Flynn Effect, a long term study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which examined IQ score of men born between 1962 and 1991, finding that men born between 1962 and 1975 have increased scores, but those born after 1975 have steadily decreasing scores.
“The inescapable truth is we’re getting dumber,” Isern said. “We’re not as smart as we were a generation ago. We were elevating ourselves, and now we’re losing. It corresponds with the period of defunding of public education, the demonization of public education. It’s perfect correspondence. And one of the things we’ve gotten dumber about is civics.”
People on both sides of the political pendulum easily accuse others of socialism, fascism, and despotism, and yet rarely do they truly understand the meanings behind the words, Isern said.
“Now, the political activists on both sides, at this point, they’re throwing out the term socialist, some saying it’s good, some saying it’s evil, and they both don’t know what a socialist is.”
History students have been declining since the 1970s, Curt Stofferahn said, and the nation is suffering because history should never be forgotten.
“There’s a lack of our civic understanding today,” Stofferahn said. “It shows that we’re so unaware of our history and the civic foundations of our society that we make these extraordinary assertions about socialism without knowing what socialism is. They lump it all together without thinking there is a difference, but I don’t think they know, or I don’t think they care, I don’t know which it is.”
Stofferahn has seen the Tweets and posts by the state’s top elected politicians, and believes they are constructing a false narrative out of thin air, all while the “Republican-dominated, anti-socialist legislature passes a bill to honor the 100th anniversary” of the State Bank of North Dakota.
“This is happening across North Dakota, this is happening across… this is the Republican strategy to call out socialism, to brand out anything they don’t like as socialism,” Stofferahn said. “This is the national strategy and not unique to North Dakota, but it’s nothing new. This is what they’ve done for the last 80 years. The problem is people like Social Security, people like Medicare, people like Medicare for all. It befuddles me.”
Democratic Socialism is not Marxism, the 19th century philosophy originated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that believed in worldwide revolution leading the proletariat revolting against the ruling bourgeoisie. Democratic socialists believe the economy and society should be run democratically, primarily meeting public needs instead of making profits for the one percent.
Instead of pouring billions into foreign wars, invest the monies into healthcare, education, helping the homeless, and security at home, Democratic Socialists believe.
Zac Echola, an elected member to the national Democratic Socialists of America, and the treasurer for the local Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America, said more people than ever before have been showing up to their meetings, and the group may have to switch venues.
He described the local group not as a party, but as activists, fighting for renters being strong-armed by landlords, for awareness on Medicare for All, to one of his most pressing goals: ending homelessness in Fargo/Moorhead.
“Red River Valley Democratic Socialists of America are hugely active, we have more people coming to our meetings than the party people do,” Echola said. “They don’t just come and get lectured at, it is an empowering experience.”
The local DSA chapter’s goal is no longer to depend on elected representatives doing what they promised during political campaigns, but to initiate change at a grassroots level.
“We help ourselves, we do these things ourselves, which is ultimately what democratic socialism is.”
Echola noticed the political trios tweets and posts, and chuckled, he said.
“I don’t feel threatened by it,” Echola said. “Personally, I think it’s great they’re talking about socialism and that they’re talking about socialism in incredibly stupid terms that anybody with half a brain could see through.”
What worries Echola about such propaganda is the fanaticism that could follow.
“It gives me the opportunity to speak about some of the things that are popular in our program,” Echola said. “I do understand that we do live in a deeply red state and people hear socialism and they think … this collapsing ‘hellscape,’ well first of all it’s already happening in our country. We already have this massive homeless population. Mad Max is already here. But I think people rightfully can get worried under that kind of rhetoric that fanatics on the right wing, one that are armed, and two they are willing to shoot people.”
Lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson, a self-described white nationalist with the U.S. Coast Guard, was arrested last week after caught stockpiling weapons and keeping a hit list of targets including prominent journalists and Democratic lawmakers, including Democratic Socialists of America members.
“Yes, I think it’s worrisome but it’s also stupid,” Echola said. “They got it so wildly wrong and nobody believes them. Not a single one of them had an original idea.”
Echola also looked back to history when the Nonpartisan League began in North Dakota.
“It was all very locally controlled,” Echola said. “Almost all of North Dakota was controlled by outside interests, which sounds really familiar. Our natural resources today are suddenly controlled by people from very far away, people who have very different interests than the people in our communities.”
To counter the governor’s Tweet, Cramer’s posts, and Armstrong’s tirade about socialism, Echola had a simple message.
“Socialism is going to win. That’s it.”
“Goat that can’t be got” Photograph by Sabrina Hornung
According to the Democratic Socialists of America’s webpage, they do not want to create an “all-powerful government bureaucracy,” but neither do they want the nation to be controlled by corporations seeking profits. They want an end to privatizing profits and socializing losses.
Increasing inequality can be a side effect of capitalism, which results in corporate socialism or corporate welfare, times when the government steps in with golden parachutes for failing businesses.
“We have corporate socialism for the rich and we have capitalism for the poor,” Stofferahn said of the current climate in North Dakota.
“It’s ruthless. Capitalism for the poor is cutthroat for the poor. We’re back to the days of the robber barons of the 1930s and the 1920s. The public is starting to say ‘we’ve had enough.’ The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting poorer and we will soon see retaliation coming about here. I’m hoping this is the beginning of it, even Trump supporters, they identify with the fact that there is increasing concentration of wealth… but they think Trump can solve all their problems.”
Trump supporters look to the President as a kind of savior. Some evangelists say he’s even appointed by God and can do no wrong. During the week following Bernie Sanders’ announcement to run for the 2020 White House the senator has been persistent on one message: “No candidate, not even the best candidate you could possibly imagine, is capable of taking on Donald Trump, the political establishment, and the billionaire class of this country alone.
“There is only one way to do that. There is only one way we’re going to create a government that will truly work for all of us and not just the one percent of this country.
“And that is all of us… together. Not me. Us.”
At least a dozen candidates have already announced their challenges to Trump including: senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeg, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castros, former Maryland Representative John Delaney, and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg have hinted at making a run.
In 2016, Sanders ran on the platform for Medicare for All, free college education, and a $15 minimum wage.
Sanders raised more than $6 million from 225,000 people during the first 24 hours of his presidential campaign, according to his campaign reports. The average donation was $27. Less than one week after his announcement to run for President, more than one million volunteers signed up to support him.
Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin responsible for the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s, died at 48 years of acute hepatitis and “causes unknown” after years of addiction to heroin and alcohol.
Congressman Kelly Armstrong