the radical, progressive midwest -- 11/29/16

Today's selection -- from What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In America, many of the Midwestern states that now reliably vote for Republican candidates -- places like Kansas and Nebraska -- were once bastions of progressive liberalism:

"Certain parts of the Midwest were once so reliably leftist that the historian Walter Prescott Webb, in his classic 1931 history of the region, pointed to its persistent radicalism as one of the 'Mys­teries of the Great Plains.' Today the mystery is only heightened; it seems inconceivable that the Midwest was ever thought of as a 'radical' place. ... Readers in the thirties, on the other hand, would have known instantly what Webb was talking about, since so many of the great political upheavals of their part of the twen­tieth century were launched from the territory west of the Ohio River.

"The region as they knew it was what gave the country Socialists like Eugene Debs, fiery progressives like Robert La Follette, and practical unionists like Walter Reuther; it spawned the anarchist IWW and the coldly calculating UAW; and it was periodically convulsed in gargantuan and often bloody industrial disputes. They might even have known that there were once Socialist newspapers in Kansas and Socialist voters in Oklahoma and Socialist mayors in Milwaukee, and that there were radical farmers across the region forever enlisting in militant agrarian organizations with names like the Farmers' Alliance, or the Farmer-Labor Party, or the Non-Partisan League, or the Farm Holiday Association. And they would surely have been aware that Social Security, the basic element of the liberal welfare state, was largely a product of the midwestern mind.

United States presidential election, 1896

"Almost all of these associations have evaporated today. That the region's character has been altered so thoroughly -- that so much of the Midwest now regards the welfare state as an alien imposition; that we have trouble even believing there was a time when progressives were described with adjectives like fiery, rather than snooty or bossy or wimpy -- has to stand as one of the great reversals of American history.

"So when the electoral map of 2000 is compared to that of 1896 -- the year of the showdown between the 'great com­moner,' William Jennings Bryan, and the voice of business, William McKinley -- a remarkable inversion is indeed evident.

"Bryan was a Nebraskan, a leftist, and a fundamentalist Christ­ian, an almost unimaginable combination today, and in 1896 he swept most of the country outside the Northeast and upper Mid­west, which stood rock-solid for industrial capitalism."


Thomas Frank


What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America


Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2004 by Thomas Frank


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