Alex Chambers: Worried about election season? Considering how to fight your political enemies? You could learn from Midwesterners in the 1980s, and just how to organize them.
Cory Haala: These organizers are going to the homes of these farmers, they're going to community meetings, and they saying "no, no, no, it's not an international conspiracy, here are the concrete steps you can do to save your family farm."
Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States, how Progressive Democrats once out organized the opposition. That's coming up after this.
Alex Chambers: It's campaign season, time to ratchet up your fear that that one presidential candidate is going to bring ruin, possibility even ruination, on your country. From here on out, the rhetoric about fighting the other side is only going to heat up. It will play out on TV and social media of course. You might also feel it on the home front, if you've got an uncle, say, who believes down to his soul in the rightness of your political enemy. So, what do we do about that? It's too late to get into a shouting match at the Thanksgiving table, and when was the last time that won someone over? You can probably find a whole forest's worth of web pages, explaining how to talk so your progressive uncle will listen. And I mean, please, go out and be curious about where your politically oppositional family members are coming from. Just realize you're probably not about to sway the election through those conversations.
Alex Chambers: But look, all is not lost. On this week's episode we're going to look back at an approach that actually changed Midwestern politics, if only temporarily. It's not about fighting your enemy, it's not exactly about being nice and gentle with them either. It's about surveying the landscape, the needs of the people around you and getting them together. The churches, the unions, the farmers, the citizens organizations, getting them all on the same page. Maybe they don't agree on everything, but they agree on enough. In getting the right candidate on the ballot, or just forcing the hand of the person in office. It's called... drum roll, I like that... organizing. And my guest today has some stories about how it happened not long before you were born, if you're under 30 at least. Some of us actually remember this stuff.
Alex Chambers: So, my guest tonight started the interview the standard way; "Would you introduce yourself." I said. And he said...
Cory Haala: You bet. My name is Cory Haala.
Alex Chambers: He's an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He studies...
Cory Haala: Midwestern history, specifically political organizing, activism, politics in the 1980s.
Alex Chambers: He's also a lifelong Minnesotan, so he thinks about the Midwest a lot, and for him, the Midwest isn't so much a specific region, defined by state borders that we're all probably going to want to argue about. Instead it's about people who feel like they're in this shared center of the country, where the power isn't.
Cory Haala: You have lots of folks pitching together in ways that are not uncommon to communities across the country, but who have evolved kind of a shared economic identity together over the couple of hundred years of the Middle West. West first, and then the Middle West and then the Midwest existing. Developing that kind of common shared kind of way of looking at yourself, your politics and the rest of the country.
Alex Chambers: I figured someone who spends his life studying politics and organizing must have had a political family. Right?
Cory Haala: No, it was not talked about and still, to this day, I don't know my mom's political leanings. It was just not discussed.
Alex Chambers: That's amazing.
Cory Haala: Yeah. I mean I can guess, right, and, you know, my dad was a public high school teacher, was active in the union, so, that one's a little easier to suss out. But it was not something terribly talked about within our household. I was politically aware, I think, growing up, and one of those moments for me was in 1998. I was eight-years-old and Minnesota that year elected a professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, to be our Governor. And that kind of set off for me this lifetime of just being fascinated by some of the political dynamics, the oddities, of the State.
Alex Chambers: So that's Cory. I was excited to talk to him, partly because early on in our emailing back and forth, he brought up this distinction between fighting... in this case it was fighting fascism... the distinction between fighting fascism and out-organizing it. Here's our conversation. I started by asking him to explain that distinction.
Cory Haala: So, first, it's not that we shouldn't take the fascist threats in society today seriously, right? That, you know, there are these movements of white supremacy, these movements of Christian nationalism, or things that are to be regarded with the utmost seriousness. One of the things that I take historically, though, as a means of approaching that kind of dynamic, is how, particularly in the 1980s, on what we'll get into as the populist left... or the progressive populist left, whatever you'd prefer... they were really concerned more with out-organizing it. So one of the dynamics would be, in the 1980s we'd talk about the farm crisis. Listeners might be familiar with Farm Aid, perhaps, at the University of Illinois in 1985. And part of where the Farm Aid money went was to funding some of these groups that were combating the fascist right, that were going out and talking to farmers who were on the verge of going bankrupt or being foreclosed upon, losing their home.
Cory Haala: And were reading, or having things circulated through, by these kind of dangerous, racist, anti-semitic demagogues who are writing these things, talking about the Rothschilds, and about Jewish bankers and what have you. And these organizers on the left, particularly in Iowa, are going to the homes of these farmers, they're going to community meetings and they're saying no, no, no, it's not an international conspiracy. In fact, here are the concrete steps you can do to save your family farm. And it's not by listening to these racist demagogues who are going to have you declaring you're a sovereign citizen, or something like that. Instead, it's by taking these concrete steps that the State provides for mediation. Go through these steps as a means of trying to save your farm. It's legal, it's not going to get you into shootouts with the authorities, and an added bonus of it was it's also not going to lead you to espouse, or to buy into, this kind of anti-semitic propaganda and this anti-semitic demagoguery.
Alex Chambers: Two things come out of that for me. One is that it was maybe more effective. And then the other, I think, interesting distinction there is that it's actually asking people to engage with, and trust in, the democratic processes, and in their local governments and legislators. Which I think is almost the exact opposite of what the Right often talks about, as about mistrusting government.
Cory Haala: No, that's absolutely right. And these are advocates... farm advocates in some cases they're called... and just a whole host of groups in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, what have you, where these groups are saying exactly that. They're saying: here is the pamphlet from the Department of Agriculture that you can use, and here are the actual steps you can follow. Here is the Iowa farm foreclosure mediation program. Follow these steps, fill out these forms, go to this meeting, or meet with this lender, or this mediator, to talk about it. Not saying, hey, show up at court with a gun, or show up at the Sheriff's Office, or worse even, the bank, with a gun, and do something drastic. But instead, here is a legal kind of approach that gives you, the individual, control over the situation again, right? Rather than feel like control's been taken away and wrested and sent to the US DA's offices in Washington, that it's been sent to whatever shadowy bank or cabal. No, in fact, you, the individual, have the power to make change here.
Cory Haala: And it was really something that succeeded in turning around a lot of the fortunes of the left in the Midwest and building, temporarily, a real political coalition that looked like it had some legs.
Alex Chambers: And that coalition was one that you described as progressive populists.
Cory Haala: It's both what I call them and what they called themselves. One of the things that I found, doing research for my book project, was a reading list, a bibliography that Iowa Senator, Tom Harkin, used himself. He read these books by noted historians, things that I read in grad school. He was reading them and giving them to other congressmen and saying, "Read these books and you'll understand what economic populism is, what economic democracy is."
Alex Chambers: It's almost impossible to imagine that happening in Congress at this point. Like, reading history books and saying, "We're going to get our strategy from actual history and historians."
Cory Haala: And it was exactly that. I mean, they were using history to make history. That was exactly what their goal was, to say, "Hey, here are the examples that we have from populism and here's how we can update them and apply them to the problems of the 1980s." They did that in part by pairing it with another historic movement that sprung out of the upper Midwest, in particular, and states that, loosely, we talk about as being North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But knowing that one of the earlier progressive insurgencies in the country was in Wisconsin, with a politician named Robert La Follette, or Fighting Bob La Follette, who talked about raising taxes and raising regulations on railroads, on passing income taxes, on having secret ballots, on workmen's compensation laws. Really trying to cure democracy with more democracy. Giving people, individuals, control over their own systems and their own conditions.
Cory Haala: It was something that took hold more so than anywhere else in the country, in North Dakota. The game that I like to play with my students all the time is, when this lesson comes up, asking them to identify the most socialist state in America. It's a little ahistorical, but they go through all the, you know, California, Illinois, New York, whatever, and finally I'm just going to tell you. North Dakota. And it's because a group called the Non-Partisan League, not a political party ever by itself, but a kind of third party-ish movement, took over state government and created a state owned bank. They directly took over that resource and they made it work for the people, and the State Bank of North Dakota still exists today.
Cory Haala: So that was the kind of movement that this Left was trying to revive in the 1980s, and they were doing it explicitly by reading those stories. They were going back and watching a documentary about the non-partisan league that came out in 1978. Watched it and said, hey, we should do that to save all these family farms, right? We should do that to make sure that workers are getting a fair deal, that when plants close they have to give adequate notice and unions have to receive their just compensation. Taking all those lessons and applying them in grassroots strategies, in national legislation. It's a really fun story to follow and a really interesting story of people power in American politics.
Alex Chambers: Let's get into that story. You talk about it through three layers in your book. There's the actual grassroots organizations and there's the state level politicians and kind of how they're both being supported by the grassroots activists, but also then maybe how they're being propelled forward. And then, of course, you address how it works out on the national level. Can you tell me a story of one of those organizations?
Cory Haala: That was a great summary of the book. If you want to write my introduction I'd be grateful for that. These are grassroots movements where oftentimes they were single issue, or they were just based on some kind of consumer, or some kind of average person problem. One of these groups is called Minnesota Citizens Organized Acting Together, what's called Minnesota COACT. And Minnesota COACT originally had started on the east end of Duluth in the 1970s and was opposed to kind of slum clearance and freeway building, and it morphed over time. First it was fighting utility rates and trying to help senior citizens keep their heat and keep their lights on, and by the early 1980s it evolved into this kind of catch-all grassroots movement that glommed onto farm crisis kinds of organizing and started fighting for saving the family farm.
Alex Chambers: So just to back up a little, it was already, from the beginning, it was basically like a community organizing group? Like, the goal was to bring regular people into politics basically? To give them a way to interface with the people in power and gain power themselves?
Cory Haala: Absolutely. To put all those voices together in such a way that would actually make some sort of a difference. And then it was successful, first in Duluth and then built into a bigger movement that, by the early 1980s, is hosting mass action kinds of things. In 1984, they go to a bank in Paynesville, Minnesota, Central Minnesota. Just small, you know, a few thousand people, a farm community. And they stage a sit-in at a bank, and just because the bank was going to foreclose on a couple of farmers in the area. They staged the sit-in and the bank eventually renegotiates, and they gain prominence. Farmers around the area begin to see, hey, there's strength in numbers, the State is having to pay attention to us. And by 1985 they're part of this movement that drives 15,000 people and tractors and everything else to the State capital of Minnesota.
Alex Chambers: Okay, I want to just stick with that for another second, because I think it's a really important distinction that a lot of us... now especially when we're so distracted in social media, by feeling like that is kind of where politics are happening because so many people are talking there... that this group, Minnesota COACT, part of the way it worked was, it was bringing people together so that their voices were aligned on a particular issue. Like, bringing bodies together too in the case of the bank sit-in. At the time, it was just a few thousand people. Presumably it built from like, you know, ten people and then 25 and 50 and 100, working on maybe other issues. I feel like that's what so interesting and important to me about what you're showing us, is that it involves regular people getting together.
Cory Haala: And regular people from the rural Midwest, and from the urban Midwest as well, right? One of the things that's so cool about this movement is that we have been focusing on it as a farm crisis movement, but we've been talking about senior citizens and their utility rates. We've been talking about slum clearance and urban residents in, first, Duluth, later in Minneapolis as well. Talking about these things not as identity issues, but talking about them as class. And there are these small chapters of COACT, just in these corners of Minnesota. They're up in Brainerd, Minnesota, 12-13,000 people, they're down in Southeastern Minnesota, down near Winona, in these kind of pockets around the State, where they're giving average people from the area a chance to talk about these issues. But saying, hey, at the State level as well, here's what we're doing for you. That you're not alone in this, despite how isolating something like family farming can be.
Cory Haala: That you have your community organizations that you might belong to, whether it's a church, whether it's the Elks Lodge, or whatever it might be, right? You have this organization, this institution, but here's one that's having political success, that's fighting and winning political battles on your behalf. What are those issues? Tell us what they are and we will amplify them, we are trained, we know how to do this and we want to help you, personally, because we have that expertise that can go the extra mile.
Alex Chambers: You said it was reminding people that they're not alone in this and that it's not just an intellectual understanding of not being alone, but it actually brings people into a community with other people as well. And they're realizing they're sharing the same problem and that also they can do something about it.
Cory Haala: Well, I mean, what could be more Midwestern, right, than the classic church supper or something like that, you know, when everybody brings a hot dish? Again, there's the Minnesotan in me coming out. Everybody brings their hot dish to the event, or they would provide whatever it was that they had. And one of the cool places, where that idea of pitching in goes even farther, is COACT does this in Minnesota, and a similar group in Iowa takes an action where farmers, who are producing and really over-producing... part of why we're in the farm crisis in the 80s is overproduction... whether it's grain, whether it's milk, whether it's pork, producing too much, and aren't getting a fair price for it. And one of the ways they call attention to that is in Minnesota. This starts in Southern Minnesota, farm country. They drive to a Sabathani Community Center, a predominantly black community center in Minneapolis, and they have kind of a consciousness raising event there.
Cory Haala: And then, together, they drive up to the Iron Range of Minnesota... a very blue-collar mining kind of region of Minnesota, lots of iron ore, steel work... and they bring food to miners and steel workers who are out of work. And what could be in Minnesota, right, when you talk with the democratic farmer labor party, right, I think we've checked all our boxes there. They're doing it, not in saying like, "okay", you know, "check that box, check that." You know, "farmers are here, great, labor is here, great." They're doing it and saying we're all sharing this kind of struggle, this hardship, in 1980s, in Ronald Reagan's America. Let's talk about our problems together. Here's what we can offer you to help. You unions offer the men, the muscle, the organizing, some of the political savvy. Let's all go and fix this problem together.
Cory Haala: Again, trying to bridge what we talk about today as the rural urban divides, right? Quite literally bridging some of those gaps with these caravans and with these speaker series, this consciousness raising, as a means of building that kind of collective shared identity. Rolling up their sleeves and actually pitching in to fix things.
Alex Chambers: It's time for a break. When we come back we'll hear about a rumpled professor who became a very poplar politician, like, a senator, through the life changing magic of showing up. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers, and we're listening to a conversation I had with historian, Cory Haala about how progressive populists in the Midwest out-organized the competition and put a lot of Democrats into office. How did they figure out their strategy? By reading history books. It could happen again, is all I'm saying. Okay, so one of the people who made it to the US Senate was a political science professor who had never held public office before, Paul Wellstone. Here is Cory.
Cory Haala: If you were to picture the quintessential rumpled professor, he was that, but he was also a collegiate wrestler at North Carolina. There was one day I was doing research at Carlton, on some of his papers and I stumbled across some old photos of him, and it is him doing a running club at Carlton and three other guys with their shirts off going for a run. I felt really bad about myself as a college professor. This dude was fit, he was in shape. He taught in jeans and a flannel shirt buttoned down was the vibe that he had. And he wasn't somebody who was the most imposing. You wouldn't look at him on a campaign trail and say, that's the guy. He's a shorter man. He's Jewish, which was something not completely unheard of in Minnesota politics, but was something outside the mainstream of a protestant leaning Scandinavian or German kind of state.
Cory Haala: You have this rumbled, curly-haired Jewish professor who is going into farmer's meetings, going into Union halls and rolling up his sleeves and talking with people. And they believed him, and they counted him as one of them because he talked so earnestly and understood and empathized with those individual people.
Alex Chambers: And how did he then move from being a rumpled professor, to ultimately being a Senator?
Cory Haala: It was by getting involved with those kinds of grassroots organizations, and there are about ten different ones operating in Minnesota in the '80s, that we talk about as being on this progressive left. And Wellstone shows up at all their meetings. I'll be in the papers of a group that meets in St Paul, and Wellstone's there on October of 1981. And another one meeting in Southern Minnesota Farmer's in January of '82, and Paul Wellstone came and talked to us today. And then we're up in Brainerd, in North Central Minnesota, and Paul Wellstone addressed the group in May of '82. How the hell did this guy get around to all this stuff and teach his classes, and be beloved by students? He did, and he cared and also saw the utility in organizing all those different groups and saying, here's how we take political power. Here's how we win all that.
Cory Haala: He'd actually weighted in, he ran for State Auditor in 1982, despite admitting himself he could not read charts. He had a sight learning disability that made some of that chart and math reading tough. But when he runs for that office in 1982 he actually says that Minnesota should adopt a state bank, just like North Dakota has. He grabbed that history and tradition and applied it to state problems. This was not actually the job of the State Auditor. He was running and talking about a nuclear freeze, talking about the farm crisis, and I'm looking, your job is to audit people and make sure the budgets balance.
Cory Haala: And he lost, but he also built this name recognition that when he finally ran for Senate in 1990 he overcame low name recognition. He overcame low favorability ratings and built a coalition and a movement of people who believed, truly, that he could get it done.
Alex Chambers: So, I actually didn't know this, and it was his first office?
Cory Haala: It was his first elected office. He had also run for the State Auditor, but that was it. He had been involved in party politics for a while but that was it for him.
Alex Chambers: There's one more detail about his campaign side of things that I want to hear about before we get into some other things about him, and the bigger work, which is the bus. We have got to hear about the bus.
Cory Haala: He, and some of his colleagues and friends at Carlton, who supported him in 1989, as he was preparing and announcing that he was running for Senate, said we are going to need a way to get around. We are going to need a symbol of this campaign, and we don't have any money to do it. So, they found a cheap bus in the area, they scouted out, did their research, did their homework, tore out some of the fixtures inside and retrofitted it and made it a bus that could travel the state, had a platform on the back, like the old Truman whistle stop tours. They drove that bus around the state and drove it into the ground multiple times. It was not an uncommon thing to see that bus broken down on a highway. They paint this bus up green and drive it around the state of Minnesota, and it becomes a symbol of this underdog, scrappy campaign, that people can identify with too. When you see a guy broken down on the side of the road the Wellstone gang was like, is this going to look like a metaphor for the campaign, we are broken down?
Cory Haala: Instead, no, Minnesotans could identify with, we have had car trouble too. It sucks to be stranded on the side of the road today, when it's 14 degrees outside. It made him more of an every man. It made him more likable. And it became a symbol that you saw in everything, including some of his campaign ads, which are available on You Tube and I would recommend your listeners to go look them up. One of them is called 'Fast Paced Paul'.
Paul Wellstone: Hi, I'm Paul Wellstone and I'm running for the United States Senate for Minnesota. Unlike my opponent I don't have $6 million so I'm going to have to talk fast.
Cory Haala: And he's running between scenes, one after the next.
Paul Wellstone: This is my wife, Shelia, and our children. This is my house in Northfield where I've lived for 21 years. My son, David, farms, and I've worked with Minnesota farmers for years. We must stop the poisoning of the air and the land and the water.
Paul Wellstone: I'll lead the fight for national health care.
Paul Wellstone: I've been a teacher for 24 years.
Narrator: Paul Wellstone won't slow down after he's elected.
Cory Haala: In the end he boards his bus and the bus drives off and it's just this brilliant example of saying all the things that they wanted to say. Saying all the different people he was going to fight for in this really short and really memorable kind of clip. It's one that, again, 'Fast Paced Paul', I encourage everybody to look it up. It's phenomenal.
Alex Chambers: So, his success was also because of these outside groups. These grassroots organizations.
Cory Haala: Absolutely and it was almost to the point that he didn't have to ask. When Wellstone was running for office co-act was behind him. He had a primary, those canvassers, as much as they can, they still have to remain separate from the candidate, but they support him. Groups in Iowa come out for Tom Harkin. The Wisconsin complement to co-act is a group called The Wisconsin Action Coalition. They come out in support of a guy who was one of their own. In Indiana, Congressman up in Northern Indiana, Jim Jontz, ran with the support of The Citizen's Action Coalition. Again, there's the same kind of name and all these groups share these conferences or these meetings they would go to every year and talk about some of these problems.
Alex Chambers: Jontz had served on the CAC Board in Indiana and was passionate about it, and then when he runs you have these people who are naturally motivated to come out and do that hard campaign work. To go knock on doors, to go shake hands, to go kiss babies, whatever it is, because they earnestly believe in this cause, and they earnestly believe that this person, this candidate is going to help them fight for and win this cause. And they kept succeeded. The '80s are a time of widespread Democrat wins in places that today are complete afterthoughts to the Democratic and the left coalition in America.
Alex Chambers: So, maybe they were feeling hopeful about that. How did that go?
Cory Haala: Well they certainly felt hopeful about it and they felt like they were doing the right things to get noticed nationally. The farm crisis, perhaps the most famous thing to come out of it is the ongoing Farm Aid concert, that's organized in 1985 and it's Willie Nelson, it's Neil Young, it's John Mellencamp for all the Indianians out there. One organizer in Southern Minnesota, a woman named Bobbi Polzine gets up on the stage at Farm Aid and reads a letter, gives a speech at Farm Aid 1985, the first one. They really believed they could transform farm policy in America.
Cory Haala: They were proposing these kinds of farm policy plans that were written in part by some of these activists and were introduced in Congress by men like Tom Harkin from Iowa, who is talking with these farm coalitions and who's then introducing that legislation in the Senate, and trying to win passage of these laws that would have fundamentally transformed family farming and transformed other kinds of small producer economic issues across the region.
Alex Chambers: Would have?
Cory Haala: Would have. It's not a happy ending to the story and it actually gets worse, right, we were not going to increase price supports, in fact in 1985 they slash price supports in the 1985 Farm Bill. This kicks off a cycle where by the 1990s price supports disappear entirely from American agriculture. What's funny is, this is part of an era with Bill Clinton, where Democrats don't have to sign these laws, they don't have to play ball. But the coalitions that get worked out in the Senate, in particular, to pass Freedom to Farm involves Southern Democrats and the Republican Party, appealing to environmental Democrats, and particularly those are found on the coasts. In particular one of the big names that I discuss in a different book chapter is Pat Leahy, the recently retired Senator from Vermont.
Cory Haala: Leahy is one of these Democrats who makes a deal, basically, to pass the 1996 Freedom To Farm Bill, that strips price supports out and really leaves farmers twisting in the free market winds. Those are processes that repeat for things, particularly like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite labor, steelworkers, auto-manufacturers screaming in the Upper Midwest, on the picket lines, screaming that we don't want this, this is going to ruin us, and see more jobs fly out of the country. NAFTA passes anyway. These are things that despite their best efforts and organizing a lot of progressives, a lot of farmers who have been joining these movements feel sold out. They feel like they've been trying to change the system, they've been stumping for more progressive candidates, trying to build this kind of multi-racial, this economic democracy and over and over again they just bash their head up against this wall of whether it's conservatism in some cases, but a Democratic Party that isn't comfortable moving that far left, or moving that far left on economic issues in particular. T's really where that movement sees it's spark, sees it's engine run out of gas. It's really where that movement sees it's spark, sees it's engine run out of gas.
Alex Chambers: A couple of bigger picture questions then. It does feel sad, that's not a question. That's just a response, I just want to acknowledge that.
Cory Haala: No, it is, and it's so tough to see particularly some of these activists and advocates who fought for whatever their cause was, to see that their way of life is no longer viable. It's tough to look at family farmers who had had the 160 or the 300 acres in the beautiful rolling hills of Southern Wisconsin or Western Minnesota and now they have to own 1,000 acres to be profitable as a farmer today. In the '70s, in Indiana, it was 800 to 1,000 acres you needed to farm sustainably; today it's 2,000 to 3,000 acres. You have to get bigger, you're going to get out, and it's a story of bigness, it's a story of a lot of those corporate or those larger forces beyond peoples control, leaving some of these places behind. Or leaving some of these people's dreams to die, when help just doesn't come.
Cory Haala: As those people quit, as they find it's not viable or possible, you start to see that political coalition breaking down, and it was a harbinger of the 1994, the Newt Gingrich Conservative Revolution. We don't want this big government, we don't want all these identities that we're having to deal with, because of all of this progressive organizing on LGBTQ rights, whether it's on women's rights, it's easier to say those are the people who are bogging us down, who are wasting taxpayers resources, wasting money. Getting people to fight against one another for a smaller and smaller piece of that pie is part of what drives a wedge in and ultimately scatters a lot of these movements. Now I try to, in the conclusion to my book, not be quite so pessimistic and negative. That's not to say this one simple trick will win you elections, God knows I'd get paid a lot more if I had one simple trick, but it lives on, in particular some of the traditions and imagery and rhetoric that exist in the region. There are still people in these small, local towns that are celebrating that heritage and seeking to use it constructively to make people's lives demonstrably better. There is a legacy out there that can be used like Paul Wellstone's was, after he tragically died just days before he was going up for a third term in the Senate, in October 2002. Some of his old campaign workers founded what was called at the time The Wellstone Action Foundation, that trained grassroots activists in how to win elections.
Cory Haala: So, you have people who are trying to use those legacies constructively and that's what I suggest ultimately should be a takeaway from this era of American history. People using history to make history, and it can be done again, but it requires an attention to how it was done in the first place.
Alex Chambers: It's nice that you have that moment where people were already using history to make history, in the '70s and '80s, looking back to Bob La Follette and those earlier period, and that is one of the more hopeful takeaways, that this has already been done and it can be done again, like you said.
Cory Haala: Absolutely. And better people than me will be the ones to do it. It's been an honor to recapture and tell some of these stories, and fun to hear all the intersections to the reminiscences or whatever folks, when I'm doing research, whether it's in Bismarck, North Dakota, or Chisholm, Minnesota, or Carbondale, Illinois, wherever it might have been, you tell somebody what you're doing and they'll say, "Oh my God, yeah, my dad was a farmer in the '80s who had to quit, but he worked in town but he never stopped voting Democrat." That's really interesting because these are places that we don't think about, or write off in our minds as being Trump country, or as being this lost space, or lost to whatever the left cause is. But there's a memory of those things and it takes creative problem solving that, again, is probably beyond my pay grade, but to use the historical examples here and to talk about how it was done once I think offers some really creative ideas and solutions for future generations.
Alex Chambers: It's time for another break. When we come back Cory Haala talks about how learning this history, hearing these stories has helped him understand some of the anger voters feel today. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Inner States. Alex Chambers.
Alex Chambers: A lot of what historian Cory Haala did to learn about progressive organizing in the 80's and 90's was drive from archive to archive across the upper Midwest, but as he traveled around he also talked with actual people who remembered this period, some former politicians, and lots of people who had been involved on the ground. It really brought home for him how much movements like this touched people's lives, and he shared a few good stories with me, but before we got to that I asked him how his research has helped him understand the moment we're in right now.
Cory Haala: Its helped me understand some of the anger, in all honesty. Its helped me understand some of the frustration that folks feel forgotten, and that doesn't excuse turning towards antisemitism, it doesn't excuse turning toward racism, but it at least gives you a framework for hate. In fact, here's what dialog can do. I was just contacted by a group recently who is knocking on every door in Western Wisconsin to talk about corporate hog farms that are potentially polluting waterways. Do people on Main Street, Ellsworth, Wisconsin care about that? Well they should. So, this research has helped me find ways to understand, but also to put people in conversation with one another to help provide examples, and to see, and hear from parts of the world and parts of the country that probably I never would have gone to. It's been informative to sit across from a Minister turned organizer in South Dakota at a church luncheon, he just called me up, and said "Hey, I'll be in town if you wanna come talk, come talk."
Cory Haala: I'm eating ham sandwiches and Jell-O in a church hall, and he's telling me "Oh yeah, I drove my station wagon 40,000 miles that summer, and talked to 20,000 farmers, or something." And, you know that it didn't necessarily end well for those folks, but you also know that they've been contacted before, and they have a memory of that. It's amazing what the power of human contact, and the power of face to face conversation has done in American politics, and who's to say could do again?
Alex Chambers: I'm interested to hear your research, I was picturing it mostly being archival, but it sounds like you were also traveling around, and talking with people.
Cory Haala: The conversations happened a little more organically. A lot of times I would hit stopping points in an archive where I'd looked through all the farm activist newsletters from 1982 to 1988, and would just start Googling people to be honest. I'd start Googling that Minister, and find he runs a congregation outside Watertown, South Dakota, and I called him up. He answers his phone because he's not a millennial like me, and says "Oh okay, well why do you wanna talk to me?" I said "Because it would be interesting."
Cory Haala: In 1985, South Dakota's entire Legislature flew to Washington DC to advocate for farm legislation, for help basically but because it cost money to send them to Washington, a farmer called Ronald Larson contacted a radio station in Watertown, South Dakota, and told the DJ David Law "If everybody gave a buck we could send the whole Legislature to Washington." Then people from all over the country started mailing dollar bills or a check made out for a few bucks into this radio station. Money arrived from a convent in Kentucky, and Tip O'Neill, who's still Speaker of the House, he mails them a dollar. Over $10,000 was raised to send the Legislature of South Dakota to Washington DC. I contacted the DJ, and he says "Yeah, come down to Watertown we'll sit in the studio, and chat for a little bit." In our meeting, he pulls out two old photo albums of the entire Legislature going to Washington, and then says "Oh yeah, and I think the widow of that farmer is still living up in Aberdeen."
Cory Haala: I phone Renee Larson, and she says "Yeah, if you wanna come up tonight around six O'clock," so I get in my car, and drive two hours further up US-14 to Aberdeen. She pulls out a whole storage tote of stuff, and starts flipping through. There was a campaign sign from when her husband ran for the State Senate. There was buttons. There are letters that he'd received from all these different people saying "Thank you so much for doing this, I've been farming for this long," one of them is an 85 year old woman, and I'm quoting almost verbatim here, who writes, "I'd like to see Reagan crawl a mile on his knees for a bite of steak."
Alex Chambers: [LAUGHS]
Cory Haala: This old angry woman whose had enough, whose fed up in the middle of the farm crisis, and it was so powerful, and so cool to be sitting there in Renee's kitchen, and she's showing me all the stuff from her husband being the catalyst to send an entire Legislature to Washington.
Cory Haala: These stories have been so much fun to do, and just taking a chance because there are folks who want to talk about this era, and their reminiscences. One day, I emailed the office of the retired North Dakota Senator, Byron Dorgan to set up a meeting, and he was, like, "Yeah, we'll call you this date at this time," and I just paced around my kitchen taking notes when he called me, and started telling me stories about the 1980's.
Cory Haala: I was driving back from Iowa where I had terrible cell reception at the time, and spoke to Bobby Anderson who became Lieutenant Governor of Iowa in 1982. At that time they had split elections for Governor, and Lieutenant Governor, so Terry Brandt, a Republican, wins the governorship, but Bobby Anderson wins the Lieutenant Governorship. He calls me at five-thirty on a Thursday afternoon as I'm driving back from an archive in Des Moines, and I just hit the first exit that I see, park on the off ramp there, pull a notebook out of my back seat, and start taking notes. I had cell service which was rare, I didn't want to jinx it, and I needed to take notes. The guy talked to me for about 40 minutes, I put the phone on speaker, and text home to say "Sorry, I'm going to be late for dinner tonight, I'm doing an interview on the side of interstate 35 right now."
Alex Chambers: And, what did you get from those kinds of conversations or from that conversation?
Cory Haala: You get a sense of the consciousness that they had of their movements, of not only the inside, the back room politicking, Senator Dorgan was great for that, Bobby Anderson was as well. You know, how this politician was a jerk, or he didn't ever want to deal with people. You'd also hear from them talking about how they worked or saw the hurt on people's faces, or I went to these groups, and farmers were angry there, and they had to navigate how to talk to these farmers, and say we're going to try to make things better, but also not to get yourself menaced or run out of town. The need for the feel and touch of personal campaigning and politicking really stood out in those stories.
Cory Haala: Half of these folks are guys and gals who don't have archival collections that are out there or open to the public yet, and so it's pushing them too, like, hey write this stuff down. People care, we want to hear about those things. Whether you're elected as a senator from a state, whether you went to farm rallies in 1984-85, whether you went to strikes in Austin, Minnesota, or environmental advocacy events in Indiana in the 1980s. A local archive, contact the local university, and see if they have an archive that is collecting, or that's accepting donations. Odds are they would be thrilled to have them because these are historical stories.
Cory Haala: I can't keep running cars into the ground chasing down all these stories, I've put more than enough miles on more than enough cars, but there are people who can digitize, and make those stories so accessible, and public for the world. These are stories that we need to have, and need to hear, tell 'em, find somebody who can listen, or who can record that story, or write it down. It was a really inspiring part of my research that pushed me through some tough times. These are stories worth telling, it's fun to go and find those, and empowering to see what can be done with them too.
Alex Chambers: I mean that's what I was thinking about, was that it's through these stories that we're able to see some of the ways that these things can happen. As we've been talking this whole time, we really do need to have these stories of people struggling for economic justice in order to remind us of the ways that is possible. The fact that they had power in the first place I think is a really key takeaway.
Cory Haala: That they had power, that it doesn't just center as well on what happens in Congress, that not just Washington. Care about what happens in your state Legislature. Care about what happens in your local races, we've seen it with school boards especially lately. These local political conversations are so vital, and having these activist organizations, but strong political figures too, had impacts down the ballot, and had impacts in American politics, and could do it again. I'm definitely an historian not political scientist, so I look forward very badly, but who's to say that it can't happen again?
Alex Chambers: Okay, I've got one more story from Cory that I think really shows the legacies of these movements and leaders.
Cory Haala: I volunteer in a project at my high school that I went to in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, and a young student asked what I did one day. It was a sophomore high school, and I wasn't there to talk about my research, the student asks "oh so you know Paul Wellstone?" I replied "I mean I know of him." He says, "well my grandpa changed his name to Wellstone." And, I look at this, like, buddy. He says, "no, well my grandpa had emigrated from Vietnam, and there were issues of citizenship in 2000, and he called Wellstone's office, and they figured it out, and they helped him navigate the citizenship process, and out of gratitude he changed his name to Wellstone Win." I looked it up, and oh my God, sure as hell this kid at Simley High School had a grandpa named "Wellstone Win", and that's probably a sign that I was doing the right thing.
Cory Haala: The story went into the conclusion of the book because that was just such a story of, oh man, talk about legacy moving on, this history, this historical memory, and I couldn't think of a better example if I tried.
Alex Chambers: Cory Haala, Cory is a historian of the Midwest, specifically political organizing in the 1980s. You can expect his book about this research in early 2025.
Alex Chambers: That's it for the show today, you've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear let us know at wifu.org/innerstates. You can follow us on Instagram or Facebook, and if you think someone else should hear the show, go ahead, and rate it whenever you listen to podcasts. And, while you're at it, tell us what you think. Okay, it's almost time for your quick moment of slow radio. First, the credits.
Alex Chambers: The Inner States team is me, Alex Chambers, with Jillian Blackburn, and Avi Forrest. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar, and we have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Special thanks this week to Cory Haala. Alright, time for the found sound. Heads up, this one's subtle, so listen closely.
Alex Chambers: That was water on a misty morning dripping off a mossy rock. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks as always for listening.