Floyd Olson: Radical Turned ‘Greatest Governor’

On this day 130 years ago: Floyd Bjørnstjerne Olson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to an immigrant working class family. He spent his early life working odd jobs that ended up pushing him into the arms of the Industrial Workers of the World, where he began being introduced to more radical ideas of politics, while perusing a law degree. He began getting involved in politics in an attempt to draft Robert M La Follette to run a Minor Party Bid in 1920, proving unsuccessful. Similarly unsuccessful was his attempt to run as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives. Around the same time his career began, another political movement would begin.

The Minnesota Farmer–Labor Party was started in 1918 as a vehicle to continue the momentum of the recently deceased People’s Party. The Party’s base, as the name suggested: was built around farmers and other manual laborers in the state. The Party was not too successful in it’s early years, usually attributed to them not finding a singular figure to unite the masses like Theodore Roosevelt or Eugene Debs. That all changed as Olson rose in prominence, particularly one case in 1923 when he attempted to prosecute the leaders of the Minnesota Citizens Alliance, a pro business group who attempted to kill a union leader. That persuaded the MFL to push for Olson to run for governor in the upcoming 1924 election. While Olson was not successful electorally, his oratory skills did manage to earn the party a couple of seats in Congress. That momentum ended up spreading across the state, growing the MFL into a viable alternative to the Democratic and Republican Parties in the state, especially by the beginning of the next decade, when Olson was able to earn 23% more than the dominant GOP.

Olson’s tenure was based on the idea of “cooperativism”, a term he coined as a way to deter the typical redbaiting of the era. He pushed for a Left-Populist platform: implementing a progressive income tax, creating a state run Social Security program, a minimum wage, protecting collective bargaining rights, among others. His one major legislative regret was being unable to make certain industries such as Electricity, iron mines, and grain elevators state owned enterprises. That can be partially blamed on the middle class turning away from his party as they went in a more radical direction, however support for Olson remained undeterred. Even to the point of people asking Olson to run an Minor Party bid for president to FDR’s left in 1936. While Olson turned down the bid and instead attempted to mount a bid for Senate, he passed away of stomach cancer on August 22nd of that year.

Olson has been wildly considered to be Minnesota’s “greatest governor”, if statues built to honor him are to be trusted. He ended up changing the direction of Minnesota’s politics by leading the Farmer-Labor Party into prominence, which would end up merging with the State Democratic Party in the 1940s. As that occurred, so to did a new direction for the figures of the newly made DFL, with many of their future figures espousing similar views to Olson.

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