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Using GIS to track the strength of the Socialist Party of America in Minnesota

My interest in the geography of the membership of American Socialist Party was brought about by David A. Shannon's The Socialist Party of America, in which the author detailed the complex ways in which location, ethnicity, and class background all intersected to create a party with an appeal that was surprisingly broad. On the one hand, it wasn't merely a party of the 'far left.' As John Reed famously joked, a full third of the party simply thought that Karl Marx was a man who wrote a good anti-trust bill. This was the party's right, whose adherents were often indistinguishable from progressives in the two major parties. On the left of the party were the type of men who naively petitioned the state department for permission to travel to Russia to serve as red guards or who took up arms in the Green Corn Rebellion upon America's entry into the first World War. What makes the situation even more confusing is that present stereotypes don't help us at all in comprehending the party's factions. Rural farmers were often to the left of urban workers, foreigners to the right of native-born Americans, and professionals, the wealthy, and even devout Christians could be found on both extremes of the party.

It was a baffling situation which certainly confused contemporaries. (Trotsky, for instance, remarked with some wonder that a convention of the party looked like a convention of dentists.) For us moderns, then, there's no shame in admitting that the demographics of the Socialist Party of America appear frustratingly paradoxical and obtuse. To make sense of the party's membership and geographical distribution I had to turn to a computer. Below you will find details of my effort to use a geographic information system to display and investigate the geography of the socialist movement's far left in early 20th-century Minnesota.

To determine the distribution of the far-left of the socialist party in Minnesota I consulted the News and Views section of the International Socialist Review, which contained letters from readers who often signed with their name and location as well. This section also printed notices about readers who had sent in the most subscriptions. The International Socialist Review was published from 1900 to 1918, but only with the replacement of editor A.M. Simons with Charles H. Kerr around 1910 did the publication become the de facto forum of the Socialist Party's left-wing. As it was, I examined issues from 1907 to 1918; I went back no further than 1907 because of the paucity of letters from Minnesota during the editorial reign of A.M. Simons. While the work of going through over 100 issues of International Socialist Review was time consuming, creating a list of cities whose residents had submitted letters or subscriptions to the magazine was easy. While some of these locations had names that were used by more than one town or township, and one had a name that did not appear on the 2010 map of town and city boundaries that I obtained from the Minnesota Geospatial Information Office, with a bit of research and reasoned guessing I eventually associated each letter with a town, and each town with a place on a map of Minnesota.

I then plotted on a map of Minnesota the location of cities whose residents' letters were published in the International Socialist Review. Alone, this map would be of limited application; a town with 100 residents who all wrote into International Socialist Review would be represented the same as a town with one reader who wrote in. This was an unfortunate necessity, however, as not enough detail accompanied most letters to allow me to pin down individual correspondents. However, what validity this approach had was proved, I think, when I turned to look at how other variables correlated with this distribution.

The first and most obvious thing to do was to compare these locations to the percentage of the vote in each county won by Eugene Debs 1912. Eugene Debs was the Socialist Party's candidate in 1912, and 1912 was the Party's best ever electoral showing. To do this I obtained presidential election results by Minnesota county for the 1912 election in Minnesota Votes: Election Returns by County for Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, and Governors, 1857-1977, a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society (and one which I discovered by its Library of Congress Subject Heading after many increasingly desperate keyword searches had failed).

(ETA:A kindly fellow named Joost who has an interest in Minnesota's interesting history has emailed me to point out that a Frenchman has a page that has a choropleth map showing Deb's percentage of the 1912 vote by county for the entire U.S. Joost notes that it's a good map and a good site with loads more maps, but that there's very little tabular data to accompany these maps. Still, we agree it's worth a look. Thanks, Joost!)

A choropleth map showing Minnesota
counties based on percentage of votes Debs got.
A choropleth map showing the percentage of the vote received by Eugene Debs, with the location of cities whose residents wrote letters to the International Socialist Review marked as green dots. (If you're wondering why the map's color scheme is so nice while my website's color scheme is so questionable, it's because I used Colorbrewer, a site offering "color advice for cartography," in creating the map.

As the above map shows, there is a clear correlation between contributing a letter or subscribing to the International Socialist Review and living in a county where Debs does quite well in 1912. That is, most cities mentioned in International Socialist Review are in the north of the state, where Debs got the highest proportion of votes. St. Louis County, in the Northeastern part of the state, is something of an exception; despite being the county with the most towns with residents featured in International Socialist Review, the county doesn't quite go for Debs like its neighbors. Undoubtedly this is because St. Louis County contains Duluth, a large city that must've been home to a diverse population, many of who didn't quite appreciate Deb's message as much the loggers and miners in the rest of the that part of the state.

Using the program's dissolve feature to divide Minnesota's counties somewhat arbitrarily (I couldn't find any widely agreed-upon standard for this) into regions simplifies things and shows without doubt that the state's northeastern region, home to its mines and lumber mills, was a stronghold of the party and its left.

A choropleth showing five
Minnesota regions depending on how many votes Debs got.
A choropleth map showing the percentage of the vote received by Eugene Debs in Minnesota's different regions, once again with the location of cities whose residents wrote letters to the International Socialist Review marked as green dots.

But being that it was 1912, Debs wasn't the only candidate laying claim to the heritage of Marx. The Socialist Labor Party, the minuscule and eccentric second party of American socialism, ran Arthur E. Reimer as its candidate. Reimer mostly did well in the same places as Debs, as you can see, though there are a few big differences.

A choropleth map showing
Minnesota counties depending on how many votes Reimer got.
A choropleth map showing the percentage of the vote received by Reimer, with the location of cities whose residents wrote letters to the International Socialist Review marked as green dots.

The most obvious difference between Reimer and Debs's campaigns is that in the counties where Reimer did his best he still got far fewer votes than Debs. But looking just at Reimer's votes tells us a few things. His appeal was lower, but more uniform geographically. He did as well in the Twin Cities area as he did in the Iron Range, which Debs couldn't claim. Likewise, Reimer did as well in the southern and western parts of the state as he did in the north. Even though Debs garnered 10 or more times the votes in most counties and even beat Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft and the rest in Beltrami and Lake counties, his appeal was mostly limited to the northern portion of the state. Minnesota's farmers don't seem to have been especially radical, possibly because farming was more lucrative in Minnesota than in Oklahoma or Kansas (which had a long history of voting for third parties whose parties and candidates promised agricultural reform, e.g., James Weaver in 1892.)

Once I conclusively determined that the northern part of the state was a hotbed for socialism -- and that the more agricultural south wasn't -- I turned to look at some of the factors that might have shed some more light on this dichotomy. Using data downloaded from the excellent National Historic Geographic Information Systems website, I made a few more choropleth maps.

The first of these maps shows the percentage of the population per county that was foreign-born. The data offered by the National Historic Geographic Information Systems website was very specific in that it listed population per country based on a great number of countries of origin; it even divided native-born Americans into those whose parents were born here or abroad. That's very useful and interesting, but for my purposes I simply combined all foreign-born residents into one column and determined the ratio of these folks to native-born Americans.

A choropleth map using shading
to illustrate counties with the most foreign-born residents.
A choropleth map showing the percentage of the population born outside of the United States, with the location of cities whose residents wrote letters to the International Socialist Review marked as green dots.

There is an obvious correlation between counties with lots of immigrants, voting for Debs or Reimer, and submitting letters and subscriptions to the International Socialist Review. As noted at the outset, the correlation between foreign birth and radicalism didn't always hold true. (Especially for states like Kansas and Oklahoma.) In the case of Minnesota, however, it does. Northern Minnesota was, of course, settled by many Finns. Across the country, Finns, Latvians (known then as Letts) and other emigres from the Russian empire were usually among the most radical of Americans. Unfortunately, mapping the ratio of Finns to others per county turned out to be impossible because Finns were counted in the broad category of others in the data I used.

Of course, it's hard to say whether Minnesota's immigrants were already radicalized in Europe or if they became radicalized because of their experiences as workers. In fact, it proved difficult to use the data at hand to move beyond the 'common knowledge' that Northern Minnesota was a working class area, with lots of folks employed in mining and logging. The 1910 census data provided by the National Historic Geographic Information Systems site lacked any useful occupational breakdowns, so I decided to map the ratio of farm homes to non-farm homes in order to get a very rough picture of what parts of the state were peopled by farmers and what parts of the state were peopled by workers.

A choropleth map showing ratio of
farm-homes to non-farm homes.
A choropleth map showing the ratio of farm-homes to non-farm homes. As always, the locations of cities whose residents wrote letters to the International Socialist Review are marked with green dots.

If counties with few farm homes could be said to be working class counties, then clearly Debs's strength was greatest among workers -- or at least in working class countries. But hold on! A glance at the map showing Deb's vote percentage by county shows that some resolutely "red" counties were also had a large proportion of farm homes -- as great a proportion of them as the southern and western parts of the state that showed little interest in Debs's campaign. The one visible difference, of course, is that in Northern Minnesota immigrants made up a large percentage of the population in "farming counties," whereas native-born Americans dominated the farming counties of the south. This suggests that foreign birth, and not just class, was behind the radicalism of northern Minnesota. (Unfortunately, it wasn't possible for me to compare the prosperity of farmers in the north with the prosperity of farmers in the south, though the results might be suggestive.)


It's true that any number of books could in just a few sentences point out that northern Minnesota was radical, working class, and heavily settled by immigrants. Another sentence or two could tie these factors together.

Why, then, spend hours and hours creating maps like I did? Well, for one, GIS makes this data accessible. For one thing, a single glance at any of these maps tells an important story. The choropleth map of Debs's 1912 votes, for instance, is far more striking than any table or sentence. What's more, while the maps I've made mostly confirm the account you'll find in many books -- which in and of itself is an important function -- the maps you make may shed new light on a subject.