When I was roaming about the Northern Plains last month, I was struck once again by the apparent contradiction between the sturdy, self-sufficient character of the people and their tradition of populist, “progressive”, and even marginally radical politics. For every Joe McCarthy there were a hundred George McGoverns. And yet this seems like the part of the country most naturally suited to conservatism -- an area where strength, durability, and stoicism are necessary for survival, and where there is little patience with slacking, sloth, and parasitism. So what’s going on? Why this apparent contradiction?
I have gradually come to see that, in order to understand any given social trend, movement, or political force, one has to start with, first, geography -- the actual “lay of the land” of an area, its soil, its crops, its flora and fauna -- and, second, with the racial, ethnic, and religious background of the people. It doesn’t only matter where they are, but also where they came from culturally. There are reasons why Transcendentalism and Unitarianism rose up in New England, for example -- or Fundamentalism in the South -- or Protestant Utopianism in upstate New York. In each case, we see the outcome of pre-existing cultural tendencies -- attitudes and philosophy -- combined with national, local, economic, political, and even physical events. And each is worth a separate study… and many have been done. And, I daresay, not a few have been done on the Northern Plains -- but I’m not going after scholarly work here so much as speculation.
To begin with, what we think of as the “American” tradition of democracy, with its philosophical background and strong implication of individualism, is a better description of the tendencies of Anglo-Saxons (in both the Old World and this one) than of the other various groups that settled here. And the upper Midwest is much more a cultural product of Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia than of the British Isles. Throw in some Central Europeans and Russians if you like; the situation doesn’t change. And it’s not as if people there don’t “care” about democracy and about “American” values; it’s just that those concerns are not as deeply rooted in their thinking -- their culture -- as they are elsewhere. The attitude toward forms of government, I suspect, is at once more casual and more practical than it would be among the more idealistic and utopian: What works is good, what doesn’t work “needs fixed”, and no one worries too much about what the Constitution says, or implies. There is, in fact, an immediacy about life in those parts -- when the hot, dry winds sweep across the prairie… or blizzards in winter… no one spends a whole lot of time debating principles of limited government. They’re all in the same boat, and it’s “first things first”. Compared to which, the relatively benign landscape and climate of New England and the mid-Atlantic region allowed time for such speculations.
So while I am not accusing the Northern Plains people of political indifferentism, I am speculating that they are, in some senses, less “idealistic”, less dogmatic, less fanatical about these things. And this, I submit, is at least in part a product of cultural heritage -- which tends to be high on the pragmatism scale and not as high on the ideational scale.
But then you have another factor -- alluded to above -- which is inherent in the geography -- the need to cope, on a more or less non-stop basis, with the vagaries of weather… to remain steadfast in the face of physical adversity (temperature extremes, wind, floods, drought, prairie fire, diseases of crops and livestock, etc.)… and to deal with the logistical challenges of transporting the products of labor across vast distances. And these factors do not necessarily foster an attitude of radical self-sufficiency -- the self-sufficient homestead is, I suspect, an extinct species in this area, even assuming that it ever existed at all. What grew up was, rather, an attitude of cooperation, division of labor, and even the pooling of resources, as appropriate -- a form of natural socialism, if you will, but socialism on the “light” side -- non-coercive, non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical… a distributist model, if you will, not contrived but growing naturally out of the demands of the land combined with cultural attitudes and habits. And above all, it depended, still, on everyone pulling his (or her) own weight -- I can’t imagine that slackers, parasites, and fools were long tolerated.
So an attitude developed that, while cooperation was needed and was a good thing (not just a temporary or emergency expedient), it was not intended to relieve anyone of their natural duty to the community -- the need to contribute. And I also suspect that the need to “enforce” this premise did not arise all that often; in other words, these people were bred and brought up to carry their share of the load, and very few would be inclined to wander off the cultural reservation. And the few who did might be inclined to gravitate toward the cities, where the connection between work and eating is not so iron-clad (or obvious) as it is in the countryside.
And this was all well and good -- it “worked” within the bounds of the regional society. Thus, Northern Plains liberalism was born -- not as a school of thought, but almost as a kind of localized Natural Law. And this was easily translated -- again because of its distributist, non-hierarchical elements -- into populism. In other words, people did not need an elite, or a bureaucracy, or a complex hierarchy, telling them what to do -- much less one centered in the cities of the East Coast. There was a natural suspicion of “experts” -- of men with high foreheads and soft hands. One proved one’s worth by working… by bringing in the sheaves… not by giving advice and then taking a cut of the results.
So from this substrate there arose what was (and is) called “progressivism” -- which is essentially a codified form of natural socialism, mutual aid, what have you -- with a political overlay. The (mistaken) premise being, what’s good, and what works, for us, must also be good, and will work, for the entire country. And this is was ideational premise, to be sure, but I hesitate to call it "idealistic" because it was too firmly rooted in the reality of people and place. It had nothing on "pure" socialism or communism, for instance, when it came to utopian (i.e. delusional) thinking.
That was progressivism at the beginning. But it’s no longer synonymous with populism, and the best evidence for this is the “progressives” have, over the century-plus of their existence, made their ideals felt in a huge way, and have, for all intents and purposes, taken over many American institutions. But at the same time they have become separated from their roots; they have become “effete”, as Spiro Agnew would say. Progressivism is now more theoretical than pragmatic, and most of the theorists cling to the East and West Coasts… whereas the people whose heritage they have absconded with continue to inhabit “fly-over country”. The Democratic Party styles itself “progressive”, but its motley crew includes many varieties of the human (in some cases barely) species other than old-school progressives.
My impression is that the progressives were concerned primarily with social welfare (for the deserving) and economic egalitarianism -- not the radical leveling we see promoted from Obama’s White House, but certainly equality of opportunity, and, more importantly, opposition to the rule of capital, i.e. of “big business” and monopolies (including those granted by the government). But I don’t sense that they were opposed to private property, or to property rights per se. So the progressives were naturally pro-labor, but did not go as far as the Marxists, who declared that the sum total of the worth of all goods and services equaled the labor involved in producing them (with the implication that invention, technological innovation, skilled management, marketing, and creativity were worth nothing). And by the same token, they were not necessarily anti-religion, even if they did hold hierarchies in general suspect. (There are, in fact, ample numbers of Catholics in the Northern Plains; they are not all stoic lapsed Lutherans of the Garrison Keillor variety). And they were most definitely in favor of people working together for mutual benefit, in non-exploitative relationships -- even if they drew up short of purely communistic or communal models (that experiment was run primarily in New England and upstate New York -- at least until the hippie communes of the 1960s came along). They were, in other words, idealists, but of a more pragmatic stripe than the utopians who percolated up from the rich soils of upstate New York during an earlier era. And they saw government as, ideally, a means to an end; I don’t think many of them saw their ideal career path as involving a lifetime sinecure in Washington, DC the way many modern liberals do. They were more rooted in the land, and in the region from which they arose, and they did not forget, or choose to ignore, the core values of that culture.
But for all this, progressivism did get folded into the broader liberal movement, which also included urban labor, radicals of all sorts, minorities, big-government socialists (not a total redundancy, as I’ve tried to demonstrate) -- in other words, the “rainbow coalition” that has characterized the Democratic Party in recent decades. So in a sense, the progressives constitute a core, but a neglected core; infatuation with big government and centralization has taken over, and while economic collectivization has not yet been realized, political and social collectivization is a fact of life -- because with collectivization comes power (for those in charge of the collective), and power is, as Henry Kissinger so truly and cynically said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
But if progressivism succeeded, after a fashion, even in compromised and co-opted form, what of populism? The problem with populism is that it’s even more phobic about organization and hierarchy than progressivism is. It is, unlike both liberalism and conservatism, anti-authoritarian. There was, after all, a Progressive Party -- whereas all the populists have at present is a nebulous “tea party”, with no central organization and no agreed-upon platform. Plus, the “tea party” has committed the fatal error of operating within the cold, clammy sphere of the Republicans… which is a death knell all by itself, regardless of the results of the recent election. The “tea party” may not have been stillborn, but it is being exposed in infancy, in an attempt to kill off its ideas (incoherent as they are) and neutralize its influence in national politics… and the guiltiest party in this effort is the Republicans. The Democrats/liberals/mainstream media may be doing all the lampooning and character assassination, but it’s the Republicans who are administering the kiss of death even as we speak.
Now, there have certainly been other populist movements and events in our lifetime -- the campaigns of Gene McCarthy (a good Northern Plains man, note), George Wallace, and Ross Perot… the Ralph Nader brigade… in fact, virtually all “third-party” movements have been, arguably, populist in nature -- not surprising since all were reacting to the two-party, i.e. one-party, establishment and all of its pomps and works… its hypocrisy and tyranny… its power-madness. But as I indicated above, the moral strength of populism is also its political weakness, which is why populist movements per se simply never succeed. They may serve to challenge the establishment for a while, and get a few people upset, but in the long, or even medium, run they don’t have the resources to have any permanent impact. And this is not to say that certain, what I will call pseudo-populist movements can’t have an impact; think of organized labor and the civil rights movement. But these were hierarchical, sophisticated, and politically astute… and their actual membership was, as it turned out, a highly limited, elite group… whereas populists tend to be a bit disorganized, incoherent, and overly-emotional. A greater touch of “street smarts” and, frankly, cynicism might help -- but it would also be a contradiction.
To sum up, progressivism seems to have validity -- to “work” -- within certain demarcated geographical/cultural areas, but when it attempts to go nation-wide it winds up being co-opted and corrupted. In other words, the reality check that happens when it comes up against "diversity" is enough to take the wind out of its sails. And populism is just too nebulous to be anything but an expression of frustration and dismay when faced with the world as it is. And yet progressivism -- the progressive impulse -- seems to survive, not in its original form but in a recognizable descendent, in the Northern Plains. And this, I contend, is because that area of the country is still culturally coherent and geographically distinct (if no longer isolated) -- and this, in turn, is based on the eternal verities of land and climate as well as cultural archetypes; do I dare say “soil and blood”? Because this is what it appears to be. And yet, the minute the progressive impulse extends itself beyond that geographic and cultural region, it encounters a new reality -- that represented by the Democratic Party. And that reality is one of people -- countless hordes -- who love the idea of massive government, because their very lives depend on it… or so they believe. They want the government to do everything for them, from cradle to grave, and they don’t care how many freedoms or liberties they have to give up in order to make this so. Security is not only a priority; it’s the only priority. And in order to realize this new, decadent version of utopia, not only does government have to be massive and all-encompassing, it has to be extremely hierarchical, with millions of career government officials and employees. There has to be a huge tax-gathering apparatus, with a huge law enforcement/incarceration apparatus standing behind it. And then we have foreign affairs, where progressivism finally grinds to a halt, assuming it has survived this far. If you can’t even impose your notions of progress on the rest of the U.S., how are you going to impose them on the rest of the world? So this is finally left to the mainstream liberals and neoconservatives, who are well-practiced in such matters -- even if their success rate is abysmally low.
And yet, all of these failures and setbacks do not seem to blow back as far as their source; the people of the Northern Plains seem to preserve their vision of the way life ought to be, and to pursue it to the best of their abilities… and in most cases, from what I was able to observe, they succeed. And yet, there must be a sort of chronic puzzlement as to why it simply doesn’t work anywhere else, when it works so well there -- which is to say that they greatly underestimate the effects of land and culture, which is almost a definition of provincialism. If you live in a certain place, and are of a certain cultural type, you take those things for granted -- they are part of the baseline, and are thus somewhat invisible. Then the reasoning becomes not “because of who and where we are” but just “it’s only common sense”. But it’s not common sense -- obviously, because so few people have it. And yet if this ever completely sank in, would the Northern Plains people be edified… or just depressed? Better to let them be who they are and where they are, and let the rest of the country worry about its own problems… and leave the theoretical progressives feeling like orphans in a storm, because they are quite literally men (and women) without a country.