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Midwestern Uprising: The New Populists

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Few people in this era, even the political junkies who pore over the red and blue political maps and know all the swing states, are aware that at one time in American history the rural Midwest was the center of progressive economic revolt. States like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas in the late 1800s and early 1900s were dominated by firebrand populists who created state banks like the one that still serves North Dakota well; fought for nationalizing the railroads and phone companies; and demanded a shorter workday and a progressive income tax. William Jennings Bryan, who was outspent by McKinley by probably 10-1 and yet only lost the 1896 presidential race by a margin of 51 percent to 47 percent, used rhetoric like this in his classic Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic convention:

"When you come before us and tell us that we shall disturb your business interests, we reply that you have disturbed our business interests by your action. We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world.

"We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen. Ah. my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose--those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature's heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds--out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead--are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.

"It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came...

"There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it."


And rural Midwestern and Western populism didn't die in the 1890s. The Non-Partisan League of North Dakota passed strong progressive measures such as the state bank law into the 1920s. George Norris of Nebraska was a close ally of FDR, helping him with rural electrification, Social Security, labor law reform, the rest of the New Deal agenda. George McGovern built an enduring Democratic party political organization in South Dakota that not only elected a strong progressive like him but other populist Democrats like Jim Abourezk, Tom Daschle, and Tim Johnson. Fred Harris, a Senator from Oklahoma, ran for President on the most populist progressive economic platform since Bryan himself. Mike Mansfield of Montana was the Senate Majority Leader in the 1960s and '70s who helped LBJ pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Clean Air and Water Acts, the bills establishing OSHA and the EPA, Legal Services, and Head Start. More recently, Montana has elected populists like Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester -- multiple times. Byron Dorgan, the Senate leader in the fight against deregulating the financial industry in the last two decades, was from North Dakota, and his protégé Heidi Heitkamp won a Senate race there in 2012.

The paragraph above doesn't include the many progressive populist candidates who have won big statewide races in the last couple of decades from the classic swing states of the Midwest like Tom Harkin from Iowa, Paul Wellstone and Al Franken from Minnesota, Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin, and Sherrod Brown from Ohio. The paragraph above only mentions those states that are now some of the reddest of the red in terms of Presidential politics, states not on or barely on the radar screen of conventional wisdom oriented Democrats. However, the populism of the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of those states' current citizens never died. The embers are still burning, and the right candidates and right conditions can stir the fire once more -- and those embers are being stirred right now.

I was born and raised in Nebraska, and have done a lot of political organizing back home; my wife is from a farm family in the most Republican part of Missouri; and I spent eight years doing a great deal of small town organizing while living in Iowa. The voters in rural areas are very suspicious of big government; hate government deficits and waste; and believe that east- and west-coast liberals don't share their values -- hunting and guns, hard work, going to church, and traditional family life. Culturally, they feel like they are very different from their perceptions of the national Democratic party. But they like higher minimum wages -- a lot more people than usual in these low wage rural states are making minimum wage. With a much older than average population, they also like Social Security and Medicare a lot, with a great many needing those programs to make it. And they don't like the overwhelming size, wealth, and power of the biggest corporations -- they see the way that these companies' kind of power has been changing their loves for the worst, from Wall Street crashing the economy and getting bailouts to Walmart shutting down the formerly healthy small town businesses on Main Street.

The tough economic times are reviving that small town populism of old, and so are good organizers. Check out this great article in the New York Times Magazine about how a remarkable young organizer in small town Nebraska named Jane Kleeb is building a movement of farmers and ranchers that is challenging the KXL pipeline. While the battle is not over, the success she has already had in keeping this pipeline from being built is nothing short of remarkable given the expectations when the fight over the pipeline started a few years back. People like Jane (who is a good friend) are building a movement that I believe will be around for many years to come.

Populist Democratic politicians are emerging in these states as well. (Full disclosure here: I have been involved in helping Rick Weiland run for Senate, and am friends with the two Nebraska candidates.) Weiland is a small businessman running in South Dakota on an anti-big money platform, and he is running a classic populist campaign, visiting every town in the state already and going back for another time around, and even channeling Johnny Cash on the campaign trail. Both of the Democratic candidates who are running for Nebraska's Governor and Senate seats are strong populists eagerly taking on big oil and agribusiness interests. Chuck Hassebrook, the Governor candidate, and Dave Domina, the Senate candidate, have biographies perfectly crafted for a populist movement narrative: Chuck has run a small farm and business advocacy group for most of his life, while Dave has been a lawyer who has successfully spent his career successfully taking on big energy and agribusiness companies on behalf of small farmers and businesspeople (he is Jane Kleeb's lawyer on the pipeline).

None of these races are going to be easy wins in the fall. But all three have more of a chance for victory than the conventional wisdom suggests, with deeply flawed Republican candidates and the kind of campaigns that will gain more traction in rural areas than most Democrats could.

Rural progressive populism never died, it just got buried by too many years of Democrats spending too much time romancing big donors and then not delivering the goods enough of the time for working people in those states. But the embers are being stirred up once again, and if a full-fledged prairie fire against big money starts to spread, the establishment politicians in both parties better watch out.