Minnesota professor on my book “Scandinavians in the State House”

Here is a review of my book on the political legacy of the Scandinavians in Minnesota. It is written by Paul C. Stone, long-time professor of history at the University of Minnesota, and was published in the spring issue of “Minnesota History.” 

Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics
Klas Bergman
(St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017, 312 p., Paper, $19.95.)

Roughly halfway into Klas Bergman’s comprehensive study of Nordic influence in the public life of Minnesota, the reader comes across a telling yet not surprising passage:

In a 1975 interview with Norwegian national radio, [Walter] Mondale was asked if his Norwegian ancestry influenced his political views: his answer was yes. He said he believed in education, good economic policies that create jobs, good health care, and protecting the environment, and some of this stems from those Norwegian roots. And in Minnesota, “while it is not necessary to be of Scandinavian background, I think Minnesotans feel very comfortable with leaders of Scandinavian background.”

Mondale’s answer is both a paragon of Scandinavian understatement and a telescopic view into a key component  of Minnesotan identity. To put it simply, one cannot contemplate, let alone discuss, the political history of the state without repeated reference to public figures of Scandinavian background. Many Americans, Europeans, and others view Minnesota as a Scandinavian outpost in the center of North America. This impression became full blown by the mid-1970s with Time magazine’s iconic August 1973 cover story on Minnesota, “the state that works,” featuring its handsome, young governor, Wendell Anderson, grinning and holding a fish (that may or may not have come out of a freezer).

Author Bergman, a native of Sweden who was educated in the United States and has spent much of his life in this country, has done an exceptionally good job of providing specifics to substantiate a general impression. Bergman boldly ventures into previously uncharted conceptual territory, methodically chronicling the tendencies, dispositions, and circumstances that led immigrants and their descendants from the Nordic nations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland into positions of public prominence and political authority in Minnesota.

Scandinavian immigration owed much to the favorable early portraits of the state painted by Swedish writer and traveler Fredrika Bremer and Swedish immigrant Hans Mattson, who served as a Union soldier and later headed the state bureau of immigration. Bremer, who was friend to Emerson and Thoreau, directly suggested after an 1850 visit that Minnesota would be an ideal new Scandinavia: Swedes would find familiar forests; Norwegians, waters; and Danes, lush pastures. Mattson was more practical in his booster approach: the growing state could benefit from the qualities Nordics would bring, including piety, thrift, and industriousness. Bergman notes that the newly formed Republican Party resonated with these immigrants. The party was against the expansion of slavery and for the individual quest for a better economic and cultural life. Bergman also notes, however, that many Scandinavians came to North America thoroughly radicalized and immediately fell into associations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party.

Among the meatier portions of the book are the descriptions of populism and Progressive tendencies at the turn of the twentieth century. Governors such as John Lind (1899–1901) attracted admiration for their seemingly natural ability to translate European social ideals into an American vocabulary of democratic possibilities. Bergman also provides a long- overdue reintroduction of John Albert Johnson, who was elected governor in 1904 as a Progressive Democrat. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Johnson was frequently spoken of as an ideal presidential candidate; he died early, however, succumbing to cancer in 1909 at the age of 48.

Another notable point that Bergman makes in detail: Scandinavians were not and are not of one nationality nor of one mind. The history of the Nordic countries from the Middle Ages until the high period of immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century is one of conflict and even warfare. Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes tended to be closer to one another in Minnesota than they were in the old countries. The reason largely had to do with a desire for Americanization.

Bergman concludes his encyclopedic study with a description of more recent immigrants to the North Star State. Hmong, Somalis, and Hispanics are examined in terms of neighborhoods, languages, and civic institutions. All such points of reference have clear predicates in Bergman’s earlier examination of the experiences of Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. If Scandinavians in the State House demonstrates one important point it is that common impres- sions become more impressive when seriously explored.

—Paul C. Stone

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Thank you, Bob

It was, indeed, a special moment this week, when the country of my birth awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature, for he has been a constant companion ever since my student days in California in the 1960s. It was special, it was even grand.

Now, I’ll leave that up to others, and they have been many, to go into the literary merits of Dylan’s songs and poetry, like the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the excellent book, “Bob Dylan in America,” who said to the Washington Post:

“We are honoring a great literary figure of our time…He has taken the lyric form, as old as Homer, and raised it to an entirely new level, a level that stands with the highest literature that the West has produced. Period.”

Like in “Mr Tambourine Man…”

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

It’s beautiful and I must have listened to Dylan sing it a thousand times without ever getting tired of it.  I could mention many others, “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Red River Shore,” and on and on…They have all been a constant joy in my life.  In fact, life would have been different without them.

Thank you Bob.

For Minnesota’s Wendell Anderson — “Tryggare kan ingen vara”

“Tryggare kan ingen vara,” the classic Swedish psalm called “Children of the Heavenly Father” in English, was sung in both languages earlier this week at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as the life of former Democratic Governor Wendell Anderson was celebrated. “Wendy,” as he was called, died on July 17, 83 years old. He was Sweden’s best friend in Minnesota — maybe in all of America.

Hundreds had gathered in the church, founded by Swedish immigrants, to a service dedicated to all things Swedish. Political Minnesota, both former and present leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans, filled the front pews – a former Democratic U.S. Vice President, two former Republican governors, a U.S. Senator, legislators, members of Congress, and many, many political friends.

Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton called “Wendy” one of the state’s “greatest governors,” someone straight out of central casting, tall and handsome, and with a last name ending in “son” – the “quintessential” Minnesota governor. “Well done, very well done, rest in peace,” Dayton concluded. Former long-term majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, Roger Moe, called “Wendy’s” years as governor, with an emphasis on education and the environment, as the “most productive” in Minnesota history. “What a legacy he leaves,” Moe said. “Thank you for all you did for all of us.”

Wendell Anderson, Minnesota’s governor from 1971 to 1977, loved Sweden. He once wrote, “I am a Swede who happens now to live in America.” Born into a working class family in St Paul, Anderson became a star hockey player, first at the University of Minnesota and then as a member of the U.S. national team that won the silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics. All his grandparents were Swedish Americans; three of them were born in Sweden. He had been to Sweden 40 times and, he once told me, was even thinking about getting a “stuga” so he could spend his summers there. After law school, only 37 years old, he became the state’s youngest governor ever, winning 13 of 14 Swedish counties and nine of eleven Norwegian, three of four Finnish, and both of the most Danish counties in Minnesota. In 1974, riding high, he was reelected in a landslide, capturing all of Minnesota’s 87 counties. By then, the young governor had landed in the national spotlight as he followed up on his campaign promise through the Omnibus Tax Bill that raised 588 million dollars in new taxes for increased state support for public education. The bill was a fundamental reform of school finance, equalizing school funding between rich and poor districts, and became known as the “Minnesota Miracle” – the high tide of liberalism in Minnesota – despite both the State Senate and House being controlled by the Republicans.

On August 13, 1973, Wendell Anderson landed on the cover of Time Magazine with the headline, “The Good Life in Minnesota,” and the state was described as “the state that works.” Wendell Anderson on TIME's coverBut his decision in late 1976 to resign and assume the seat in the U.S. Senate that Walter Mondale vacated upon his election as U.S. Vice President proved politically fatal. He lost the election to a full Senate term in 1978 to a Republican. A Republican also captured the second Senate seat and his successor as governor, Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich, lost his bid for a full term to a third Republican. The decade that had started with the “Minnesota Miracle” ended with the “Minnesota Massacre.” Wendell Anderson’s political career was over. He was never again elected to political office. He practiced law and served as a regent of the University of Minnesota. In 1975, he was selected Swedish American of the Year and he also served as Sweden’s honorary consul in Minnesota.

A Swedish flag, blue and yellow napkins, and coffee and cookies, greeted the attendants in the church basement after the memorial service. The prominent mingled with the less prominent in typical low-key Minnesota fashion before they all went their separate ways. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and his old friend and law firm colleague, former Minnesota Attorney General, Warren Spannaus, lingered, and as the two political war horses walked out of the church by themselves in the afternoon heat, Mondale took off his jacket and swung it over one shoulder. They crossed the busy street with the help of two traffic cops and walked slowly up the block as cars buzzed by. At the corner, a woman, waiting for a bus, greeted the two before they turned into a side street where they had parked, apparently unable to find parking in the church parking lot. They climbed in and Spannaus drove off, with the former Vice President of the United States as passenger in the front seat.

That’s Minnesota, too.

 

 

Nordic pragmatism as a recipe for success

The Nordic countries, those up there at the top of Europe often called Scandinavia — Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway — came out on top of all the countries in the world in the Fragile States Index for 2014 published the other day.

Finland came out at the very top, the only country described as “very sustainable,” with Sweden, Denmark and Norway as the top three “sustainable” countries of the world, with Iceland, the fifth Nordic, in eighth place, and with the United States on twentieth place, part of a lower group of “stable” nations.

What do these five nations in northern Europe have in common? They are democracies with clean governments and a highly educated population. They value stability, common sense and results.

Maybe this can explain, at least in part, the unusual “December Accord” — even for Scandinavia — last Saturday, when six of the eight political parties in the Swedish parliament came together and cancelled a snap election scheduled for March and instead worked out a deal under which the minority government of Social Democrats and Greens, only three months old, will be able to govern, albeit on the basis of a budget hammered out by the four opposition parties.

The accord has not been well received by a number of different reasons, both on the left and on the right. But it did avoid a dreaded snap election, a seldom used ingredient in Swedish politics — 1958 was the last time that happened. The next Parliamentary election will now be the ordinary election in 2018.

The “December Accord” also served to continue to hold the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats on the far right at arms length, not including them in any deal, keeping them out of any government, and preventing them from dictating the composition and policies of the Swedish government.

As so many times before in the modern era, the Swedish politicians came together in a serious political crisis, “came to their senses,” as the leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter put it the other day. It was pragmatism for the good of the country, to achieve stability, get results, avoid chaos.  Here is the latest main editorial for those who can read Swedish!

Maybe this overarching pragmatism is the secret behind the success of those small Nordic countries, and a recipe for success for others? Maybe there is even something that those fighting forces in the U.S. Congress can learn from all this? Maybe, as I said.

Steadily lower voter turnout is the sad fact in all democracies

“The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 years!”

That was the headline in New York Times’ main editorial today, as the paper lamented the fact that only 36.3 percent of the American voters bothered to vote in the midterm election on November 4.

In no state did the voter turnout exceed 60 percent, with Maine coming closest at 59.3 percent, followed by Wisconsin 56.9, Alaska 55.3, Colorado, 53, Oregon 52, Minnesota 51.3, and Iowa 50.6 percent.

Indiana had the lowest turnout with only 28 percent, with New York, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah all also under 30 percent.

“Lower voter turnout since World War II is a trend in all democracies,” says Sören Holmberg, election expert and political science professor at the University in Gothenburg, Sweden. “It seems that democratic decision making no longer is as important for people as it used to be in our globalized world.”

Voter turnout in countries like Sweden, 83.3 percent in the parliamentary election in September this year, is still much higher than in the United States, but turnout in Sweden used to be even higher, over 90 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. Holmberg points to a steadily lower voter turnout in the elections to the European Parliament, only an average of 42.5 percent earlier this year, to England where turnout for parliamentary elections has gone down from over 80 percent after World War II to slightly over 60 percent, to France also from around 80 percent after the war to below 60 percent today.

Even in Australia and Belgium, where voting is obligatory, has voter turnout decreased, although turnout is still around 90 percent.

The United States has special problems, like gerrymandering. Uncompetitive districts lowers voter turnout, and incumbents are re-elected at an average rate of over 90 percent, says Holmberg.

Lower voter turnout favors the Republicans. So instead of making voting as easy as possible for everyone, as I think should be the goal of every democracy, the Republicans have continued to try to make it more difficult. That is an especially sad fact in the American democracy.

“Welcome to Sweden:” Oj, oj, oj…that was really embarrassing!

“Oj, oj, oj,” as the Swedes say…oh, boy! That was embarrassing. No, it was more than embarrassing, it was really, really bad.

I am talking about the new TV-series “Welcome to Sweden” that premiered last night on NBC. I knew nothing about it beforehand, and I didn’t know that it had been produced by Swedish television channel TV4, and then bought by NBC.  Shame on TV4 for taking the easy way out and playing on all the clichés about Sweden and Swedes: stupid accents, drunkenness and drinking songs, naked men in the sauna.

It was all supposed to be funny, and intelligently joking about nations and people and their traditions is certainly fair game, and can be funny. But “Welcome to Sweden” was not funny, not at all. I suppose it could have been if the acting had been good. But it was atrocious, and it was especially sad to see splendid actress Lena Olin lending herself to this superficial spectacle,  which, on top of everything, was brutally interrupted time and time again by commercials during its 30 minutes.

I haven’t read any reviews by the Swedish media when it premiered there in March. Maybe they liked it, and maybe I have missed something? No, come to think of it, I don’t think I have. I just hope that the coming segments will prove to be better than this disastrous start.

A Scandinavian ski fest in the City of Lakes

Under Lake Street BridgeIt just didn’t get any more Scandinavian here in Minnesota than during this weekend in Minneapolis, at the City of Lake Loppet Festival – the urban cross country ski festival — with perfect winter weather, clear blue skies, a warming sun, deep snow, and with over 10,000 cross country skiers of all ages on perfectly groomed trails racing through the city, from park to park, from lake to lake, to the welcoming finish line at Lake Calhoun.

There, among all the spectators, former long-time Minneapolis mayor R.T Rybak and one of the founders of this over decade old tradition applauded the arrivals, whether they had just completed 10 kilometers or a marathon at 42 kilometers. Rybak, himself, started off the Luminary Loppet (by the way, “Loppet” is Swedish and means the race) on Saturday night on trails lightened by hundreds, if not thousands, of ice lanterns. The Luminary Loppet was sold out — 7,000 participants — one of 21 events, which included dog sledding, a snow sculpture contest, ice-bike racing, and more.

All funds from all the racing fees go to the non-profit Loppet Foundation’s youth activities, encouraging skiing and other outdoor activities among, so far, 6,500 children in the North Minneapolis schools.The Loppet Foundation

Luminary LoppetThe night was cold and all the stars were out night during the Luminary Loppet with ice lanterns showing the way as the thousands of skiers went around the lake, stopping now and then to taste the hot chocolate distributed by hundreds of volunteers by the warming bonfires on the frozen  Lake of the Isles.

It was all pretty special, especially for a Swede who grew up skiing in the old country and whose father lived and loved this sport more than anything — the best form of exercise in the world, he used to say.

Finish Line in City of Lakes LoppetI remember going with him to Swedish cross country championships and the World Championships in Falun way back in 1954, when it was minus 20 (Celsius) and a skier named Vladimir Kusin from the Soviet Union won two gold medals. My father skied until he was almost 90 years old, and my older brother successfully finished the classic 90 kilometer long Vasaloppet in Mora in Dalarna, the mecca of Swedish cross country skiing.

They would have loved this past weekend in Minneapolis just as much as I did. I only regret I didn’t bring my skis. Next year, maybe!