Minnesotans who proudly claim ancestors from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark or Finland — and that includes me — will bust their buttons reading Swedish-American journalist Klas Bergman’s new book, “Scandinavians in the State House.” It tells how people who arrived as immigrants from Nordic nations, mostly in the decades after the Civil War, were running this state by the 1890s and did so through most of the 20th century.
Remarkable? Imagine that the emerging leaders in the race for governor next year were a Hmong-American who moved to Minnesota in the 1970s and a Somali-American who came in the 1980s. That would be akin to the rise of Norwegian-born Knute Nelson and Swedish-born John Lind, both of whom were elected to Congress in the 1880s and governor in the 1890s.
A fresh dose of familial pride is always in season. But Bergman’s book is especially apropos in the wake of the election of a president more overtly hostile to immigration than any since — maybe? — Warren G. Harding.
In 2015 — a political eon ago — I predicted that Donald Trump would not do well in Minnesota. The Republican presidential candidate’s hostility to immigration would not sell in a state amply populated with people whose family stories include passage through Ellis Island, I opined.
My crystal ball was working, but not as well as I thought. President Trump came within 45,000 votes of claiming the 10 electoral votes of a state where 100 years ago, 70 percent of the population was either foreign-born or had at least one parent who was.
The election got me wondering whether Minnesota today is as welcoming to newcomers as it once was — and whether a welcoming spirit among those already here mattered to the success story Bergman relates.
“Absolutely it did,” the author affirmed at his recent book launch at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. “The Scandinavians found political brethren in the Yankees” who launched Minnesota as a state in the 1850s.
Scandinavians arrived familiar with democracy and eager to participate. That was especially so for Norwegians, whose homeland was under Sweden’s thumb in the 19th century and emigrated in part for the sake of political freedom. They shared Yankee opposition to slavery and enthusiasm for education and entrepreneurship. That put them in sync with the Republican Party, for which they voted en masse until the dawn of the 20th century.
And — it must be acknowledged — Scandinavians and New Englanders shared the same religion and race.
All of that commonality eased the way for Minnesota’s New England pioneers to include Scandinavian newcomers in their town meetings and civic assemblies. A similar welcome was extended to the Irish, who in St. Paul and other spots also punched above their collective weight politically.
But the welcome did not reach as fully to the state’s most numerous immigrant cohort in the early 20th century — Germans. Bergman noted that Germans were divided into Protestant and Catholic factions, were less experienced in the ways of democracy, and were mystified by Yankee/Scandinavian zeal for Prohibition.
By 1917, World War I was taking a toll, too. Antipathy for German-Americans produced some of the most shameful episodes in state government annals, the suppression of free speech and assembly at the hands of the 1917-18 Commission of Public Safety.
Minnesota’s immigrant acceptance story — then and now — is not entirely covered with glory.
“It’s not completely open arms,” Bergman conceded about the state he visited often during four years of book research. “But Minnesota still can be regarded as a very welcoming state, particularly to refugees.”
He paid particular attention to the lot of Somali-Americans — partly because the Minneapolis neighborhood that’s sometimes called Little Mogadishu includes the street known 100 years ago as Snoose Boulevard. Somali-Americans may not be ready to run one of their own for governor. But, as Bergman noted, Rep. Ilhan Omar sits in the Minnesota House and Abdi Warsame on the Minneapolis City Council. The much-missed Hussein Samatar served on the city’s library and school boards before his death in 2013.
Bergman says those politicians are emblematic of an abiding acceptance of immigrants — not as much because of who they are, as may have been the case in the 19th century, as because of who the descendants of Scandinavian immigrants have become.
“Minnesotans are not really worried about new immigrants” in the way that other Americans appear to be, Bergman said. “I detected no fear. Minnesotans are pretty self-assured people. They are proud of what this state has accomplished. The attitude is, ‘We know who we are. We are moving forward. People are welcome here. There are certain rules to follow, but do that, and you’ll be fine here.’ ”
It’s that spirit — and not the national origin of the people who articulate it — that will give Minnesota a 21st-century advantage. In this century, societies that can incorporate immigrants successfully will have a competitive edge. They’ll benefit from fresh ideas, entrepreneurial energy and multicultural savvy in a global economy.
Minnesota’s identity may have been shaped by a harmonious blend of Yankee and Scandinavian values. But this state’s identity is now its own. “We should not say that Minnesota is the new Scandinavia. It’s got its own strong political tradition and culture,” Bergman said.
Acceptance of immigrants is a part of Minnesota’s tradition that could be sorely tested during the Trump years. But it’s a part to which Minnesotans should hold fast. “Scandinavians in the State House” makes that case well.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.