Is there room for left-wing populism in American politics?

A man holds a sign reading "Parity Now" at the 1985 Pierre Farm Crisis Rally.

I joined the podcast “The Same, but Worse” to answer a few questions with burning relevance to modern American politics: What is “progressive populism?” How did Midwesterners respond to the economic challenges of the Farm Crisis and deindustralization in the 1980s? And, of course, which states are in the Midwest?

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Barnstorming the Midwest: Iron Range, Biwabik Edition

While my last trip to the Iron Range was doubly-immersive, acclimatizing to both the politics and the culture of Minnesota’s Northeast, this one took on more of a “business trip” feel. This was both good, because I explored the deteriorating relationship between Perpich and the DFL, and frustrating, because it provided fewer outlets when things really got confusing.

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Rural Democrats? Don’t call it a comeback.

The 2016 elections, in addition to making what I am trying to get a PhD in about 100x more relevant than I ever could have done myself, have also led to a very, very obnoxious trend among national political outlets: a newfound fascination with rural or agriculturally-oriented Democratic interests, groups, and politicians.

Take, for example, the Washington Post‘s breathless exploration in November 2016 of “Why rural voters don’t vote Democratic anymore,” in which they suddenly rediscover Collin Peterson (DFL-MN7). In the article, Peterson notes that

Donald Trump owes his victory to rural voters who feel they’ve been abandoned by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly urban and liberal.

and that

We have become a party of assembling all these different groups, the women’s caucus and the black caucus and the Hispanic caucus and the lesbian-gay-transgender caucus and so forth, and that doesn’t relate to people out in rural America. The party’s become an urban party, and they don’t get rural America. They don’t get agriculture.

While not nearly offensive as the New York Times’ ridiculous exhortation to “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” it is incredible to finally read a profile of Peterson, who was first elected to Congress when I was one month old.

Now, just this morning, rural interests in the Democratic Party have caught Politico‘s eye. Looking ahead to Tammy Baldwin’s 2018 reelection defense, not only the media but, inexplicably, the Wisconsin Democratic Party itself appears caught off guard by the fact that there’s a rural interest it needs to pay attention to:

The Wisconsin Democratic Party has already hired five outreach coordinators specifically focused on rural counties, ahead of Baldwin’s first reelection run and the 2018 gubernatorial race in the state.

Amusingly, I spent a few hours over 2 days at the Midwestern History Assocation Conference and Agricultural History Society meeting in Grand Rapids talking about this exact thing! There is suddenly renewed interest among national commentators in the rural (and especially Midwestern) Democrat, yet U.S. Representatives like Tim Johnson (D-SD), Dave Obey (D-WI), Tim Penny (then*-DFL-MN), Kent Conrad (DNPL-ND), Neal Smith (D-Iowa), and others, along with U.S. Senators like Tom Daschle (D-SD), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and to a lesser extent Paul Wellstone (DFL-MN) made up a not-unsubstantial part of the Democratic Party from the Midwest during the 1980s, 90s, and 00s.

Suddenly, politicians and (more damningly) the Democratic Party is suddenly realizing it needs to pay attention to rural interests; that it’s not enough to let candidates go it alone. Hence a suddenly-renewed interest in national investment in rural Democrats.

We’ll see if this is enough to reverse two and a half decades of, at best, lukewarm attention to farm policy and rural interests among national Democrats — but publications from Politico to the Washington Post would do well to stop treating this issue or politicians like Collin Peterson (to say nothing of Tim Walz, a 2018 candidate for Minnesota governor) as oddities or bygone phenomena.

Now, there are issues here. Certainly no Democrat or activist would want to see the groups Peterson lists (women, African-Americans, LGBTQ+, to name a few) take a diminshed role in the party or be steamrolled by rural (read: white, Christian, heterosexual, etc) interests. Moreover, the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and historic role of NAFTA that Peterson notes are issues that the Democratic Party–and, looking ahead to a relevant 2018 gubernatorial race, the DFL (I might start doing that more often)–needs to address. As 2016 laid all too bare, there are a number of endemic weaknesses in the national and state Democratic parties that have weakened their ability to run effective and winning campaigns in rural areas. Moreover, issues of gerrymandering increase barriers to Democrats making inroads with rural interests because fewer of them fall in competitive districts (breaking both ways! Ron Kind, in Wisconsin’s rural/exurban 3rd District, didn’t get a Republican challenger in his 2016 reelection bid).

But let’s not pretend this is a new phenomenon which we have no recent historical frame of reference to understand. Don’t call it a comeback, rural Dems been here for years.

Down-Ballot Elections in the Midwest, 2016

The following are excerpts from a larger panel titled “The New Midwestern Politics? The 2016 Election and Beyond” at the 2017 Midwestern History Association Conference, hosted at Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus in Grand Rapids, MI, and hosted by the Ralph Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Feel free to contact me with questions about the maps, findings, or methodology.

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Introducing: Barnstorming the Midwest

At the urging of my wonderful colleague and deskmate, Marquette MA graduate and MA Student of the Year Emily Dattilo, I am going to do my best this summer to keep something of a travelblog(ue?) as I barnstorm (get it) the Midwest filling out the first legs of my research for my dissertation-in-progress, “Midwestern Liberalism in the Age of Reagan, 1978-1992.” Here are what I think are quick-and-dirty FAQs on this research/blogging project:

Why are you blogging and not focusing on writing your dissertation?
That’s a very good question (did Fr. Avella put you up to this). I am working on, in the words of my incomparable first adviser, Dr. Tom Jablonsky, writing a few pages every day that I can put toward my dissertation. Those are in the form of notes in my Notepad collection, but this helps me organize my thoughts as I’d say them to both academic and general audiences.

What is this research?
Mostly it involves going through the papers of elected officials, political parties, and grassroots advocacy groups. Those various figures/organizations donate their papers to local archives, often state or university archives, which usually accession (sort and catalog) them and make them findable and easily navigable for scholars. I’m incredibly indebted to people I’ve already met who have done this, like Ruby Wilson at South Dakota State, Michael Seminara at the University of South Dakota, Katie Jean Davey at the Minnesota Historical Society, and dozens of other archivists around the Upper Midwest.

To actually do the work, I sit down, pull out my trusty Google Nexus 6 (hi, Google! I’d love a sponsorship!), connect to the wifi, open up Google Drive, and scan pictures. It’s like taking a picture, but it’s a PDF and I can crop/edit the PDF before saving it in the location of my choosing.

How are you funding these trips?
I was incredibly fortunate to receive two generous research fellowships: a Legacy Fellowship from the Minnesota Historical Society, and a fellowship from the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Those are both on projects specific to, respectively, DFL politics (especially around Rudy Perpich) in 1980s Minnesota, and female candidates’ experiences running for election in Minnesota (Joan Growe for US Senate, 1984), Wisconsin (Vel Phillips for Secretary of State, 1978), and Iowa (Roxanne Conlin for governor, 1982). The funding I receive there allows me to concentrate almost exclusively on those three states but also to work from time to time off my savings in the Dakotas as well.

What cities do you plan to visit?
Looking at my current schedule, this summer I will travel for research to (in chronological order) Pierre, Madison, Ames, Bloomington (IN), Iowa City, Grand Rapids (MI), Iowa City, Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City, Ames, St. Paul, more St. Paul, some more St. Paul, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Brookings, St. Paul, Grand Forks, Winnipeg [OK, so this one’s for a CFL game], Bismarck, Stevens Point, Green Bay, St. Paul again.

And then you’re done with the dissertation research?
Oh no, just through the first round of figuring out what’s out there, what I can readily get and digest, and where I’ll need to visit and revisit as I hurtle toward finishing my dissertation by my target of December 2019. I do, however, tentatively spend this spring as a Teaching Fellow at Marquette University, teaching two survey courses of HIST 1101: Intro to American History. I’ll also–thanks to a generous travel reimbursement from the Marquette Department of History–be heading this fall to Atlanta, Boulder, and Boston for the papers of Democratic president Jimmy Carter, Democratic hopeful Gary Hart, and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.

So what will you blog about?
Two things. First, I want to explain what papers I’m looking through, what I’m looking for, and what I find. I’m not sure about ownership and publishing for non-dissertation purposes, so I will talk (to quote Michael Scott) in general specifics for much of it, but I want to at least begin framing out the house that will eventually be my dissertation.

Second, I hope to explore the culture and scenery of each city. You know what this means: amateur photography and overly-snobbish, ill-informed craft beer reviews. I’ll be camping a little bit, bringing my bike lots of places, and always taking recommendations along the way. Part of being a Midwestern historian-in-training means learning more about the culture of these five (six? we’ll have to talk about this) states, and I’m excited to explore places I’ve been and places I’ve never thought about going: from the Cutover to the Driftless Area, Bismarck to Milwaukee, the Missouri River to Lake Superior.

My plan right now is to break each post up into two sections, one on research and one on culture. Hopefully the former will at least approach the length of the latter!

Didn’t you say you were going to be publishing a lot of maps about party control of state legislatures on your blog too, though?
I’m getting really sick of you, Bold Headings.

Alright, so on the whole, there you have it. I’m barnstorming the Midwest starting this week in Pierre, and I hope to have posts and reviews up within a week of visiting each location! Please always feel free to contact me with travel tips, research questions/ideas, blog topics, and opportunities to meet up and say hi!

The Midwest and the Election of 2016

Because – and believe me, only because – I study the Midwest for fun and (hopefully) profit/employment, I wanted to note its role in last night’s historic election.

First, I think it’s important to note that I do not want this election to change how I write my dissertation. While I know that’s virtually impossible on the micro-level, I remain confident in my preliminary findings that a new, distinctly Midwestern flavor of liberalism emerged between 1978 and 1992. Russ Feingold’s defeat by Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s flip to red for the first time since 1984, and even the jarringly close results in Minnesota do little to change the fact that a regional brand of progressive populism drove Midwestern Democrats like Tom Daschle, Tom Harkin, Paul Wellstone, and yes, Russ Feingold into the Senate.

Instead, I just want to share a couple things I find really, really interesting from this election and maaaaybe hint at why the period from 1992-2016 will be a fun one for historians of Clintonism to look back on and flesh out.

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