North Dakota Populist Seeks Economic Democracy For 13 years Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has made populism work for the people. By Al Watkins Washington, D.C. Nearly one hundred years ago, down-and-out tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and impoverished land owners in Central Texas ignited the populist movement in America. Within months, the brushfires of populism spread east through the old Confederacy and north across the Great Plains, all the way to North Dakota. Their message was simple and direct: the merchants, bankers, railroads, and grain dealers in short, the monied interests were using their economic power to exploit and impoverish the farmers and working people of America, the real producers of wealth and prosperity. Their remedies were also simple and direct. Instead of simply trying to regulate the concentrated economic power that had consolidatd its stranglehold during the Gilded Age, populists demanded major structural reforms that would return economic power and political democracy to the working people. To accomplish this, they called on the federal government to establish subtreasuries in every county that would offer 2% loans to farmers and their marketing cooperatives, thereby shattering the monopolistic power of banks and merchants. In 1896, the populist movement was defeated partly through vote fraud but mostly by the perfidy of the Democratic party which substituted “free silver” for the populist’s demand for a government-run banking system. With the exception of an occasional and isolated flare-up, the populist movement lay dormant until today when latter-day populists like Jim Hightower and Byron Dorgan, a first-term Congressman from North Dakota, set themselves the task of reigniting that movement and spreading the message that democracy is being extinguished by the tyranny of concentrated wealth and economic power. Hightower is out to prove that the populist message can find fertile ground to grow and flourish in Texas. But in North Dakota, Byron Dorgan has demonstrated populism’s appeal for more than 13 years, first as the nation’s only elected tax commissioner and since 1981, as that state’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Normally, tax collectors would rank one notch above morticians on a list of people you would least like to do business with. In North Dakota, that wasn’t the case. Dorgan racked up victories of 67% and 80% in his two elections as tax commissioner and he did it by insisting that everyone pay taxes, especially the . big multinationals doing business in North Dakota. When the corporations balked or used accounting gimmicks to prove they hadn’t made any profits in North Dakota, he hauled them into court and collected millions in back taxes from the likes of U.S. Steel, IBM, ITT, Western Electric, and ColgatePalmolive. With the state treasury flush with funds, Dorgan prodded the legislature to rebate some of the surplus in the form of lower sales taxes on food and medicine. And in 1980, he fought for and won, by more than a two to one margin, a ballot measure raising North Dakota’s oil and gas severance tax. Dorgan’s success as tax commissioner helped him buck the conservative tide sweeping North Dakota and the country in 1980 and propelled him into Congress, where he is the only freshman Democrat to have captured a seat previously held by a Republican. As a member of Congress, Dorgan immediately received prominent national attention for his criticisms of the Federal Reserve System and tax codes. Dorgan is also critical of certain aspects of New Deal Democratic party ideology which, he believes, focuses too much on spending programs instead of questioning concentrated economic power and promoting economic democracy. Observer readers may not agree with all of Dorgan’s comments, but he is certainly asking the right questions and trying to refocus the political debate on many crucial issues that have been ignored for so long. If he succeeds, and his ideas take root in Texas. then this second wave of populism, like the first, will likely claim Texas and North Dakota as two of its strongest bastions. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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