Scandinavian-Americans and the American Liberal Political Heritage

By Larson, Bruce L. | Scandinavian Review, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Scandinavian-Americans and the American Liberal Political Heritage


Larson, Bruce L., Scandinavian Review


It has been one hundred years since that day in 1883 when Knute Nelson, an immigrant from the region near Voss, Norway, assumed office as Republican governor of Minnesota, to become the first Scandinavian-American governor in the United States. Thereafter, Scandinavian-Americans increasingly held public office and took leadership roles in state and national politics. During the great tide of European immigration, lasting from the 1850s to World War I, Norwegians and Swedes, who seemed more inclined to run for public office, were most numerous among the newcomers.

Political Party Trends and the Liberal Tradition

In this process Scandinavian-American politicians have contributed substantially to the American political heritage. They have been elected variously as Republicans, Democrats, Populists, Farmer-Laborites, and even Socialists. These party trends often coincided with the political history and voting patterns of the states in which they settled. Thus elected Scandinavian-Americans in North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas tended to be Republicans; in Washington, New Mexico, and Texas they tended to be Democrats; while in Minnesota and Wisconsin they were in both major parties.

From the late 19th century through much of the 20th century-- particularly in the Upper Midwest-Scandinavian-Americans have been a driving force in proposing and carrying out measures for reform. Often motivated by agrarian discontent, many Scandinavians turned to third party politics such as the Populists, the La Follette movement in Wisconsin, the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota and other farm states, and the Farmer-Labor party in Minnesota, which replaced the Democrats as the second major party in the state during the 1920s and 1930s. During the Progressive Era and the general reform climate in America during the early 1900s, Republicans and Democrats alike espoused social and economic change.

In the more recent past, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the present, Scandinavian-Americans have demonstrated especially strong leadership on the American liberal political front. The most successful ScandinavianAmericans in this liberal vein are two Minnesotans of halfNorwegian descent, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale, both of whom were Democratic presidential nominees (1968 and 1984) and served as Vice President of the United States (1965-1969 and 1977-1981). Californian Earl Warren, a liberal Republican with Swedish/Norwegian roots, served for ten years as a reform-minded governor and had presidential ambitions. Ultimately he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the United States Supreme Court, where he presided as Chief Justice for sixteen years (1953-1969). The Warren Court had a major influence on civil rights and education.

What then is the liberal tradition in American politics? The term "liberal" by definition includes meanings ranging from personal freedom and democracy to progressive reform and open-mindedness to ideas. In 19th century England, for example, the Liberal party in many respects was conservative. Later in America, however, a liberal does not necessarily mean a "leftist" in politics, but rather someone who is not adherent to a specific philosophy or movement. Modern American liberalism emerged with the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and continued under the later Democratic administrations of Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Roosevelt's definitions bear mention here:

The liberal party is a party which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them . . . The conservative party in government honestly and conscientiously believes the contrary . . . It believes that, in the long run, individual initiative and private philanthropy can take care of all situations.

Thus "liberal" was identified with such domestic issues as education, the environment, labor, civil rights, the Peace Corps, social welfare, health care, and Social Security. …

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