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  • Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics by Michael J. Lansing
  • Ben Keppel
Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics.
By Michael J. Lansing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. ix + 346 pp. Notes, index. $45.00

Michael J. Lansing’s study of the Nonpartisan League, a political movement of the early twentieth century centered in the upper Midwest of the United States and in the western provinces of Canada, is a thoughtfully conceived and carefully constructed example of how a study [End Page 241] steeped in a particular regional context can also provide valuable insight on enduring questions, which include but also ultimately transcend that context. This begins with Lansing’s consistently clear analysis of the economic challenges faced by farmers on these western plains, including of the ways in which the grading of wheat, certainly an advance in scientific understanding, also contributed to the exploitation of smaller farmers.

Lansing’s close analysis of the mechanics of politics within the two adjacent versions of federalism illustrates how a multiparty parliamentary system, usually associated with a more social democratic politics, can also, in its candidate selection processes, prove a barrier to reform from the bottom up when it is systematically compared to the then emerging system of party primary elections in the US. At the same time, Lansing shows how open the peoples in this borderland area were to ideas from their closest national neighbor. American readers will thank Lansing for introducing them to the career of Louise McKinney, “the first woman elected to a parliamentary body in the British Empire” (43), as an example of someone who spoke and had influence on both sides of the border. Even as he confirms the powerful impact and interconnectedness of political repression during the First World War, Lansing also demonstrates how the bipartisan and transnational nature of this movement gave it the strength to weather this political storm, although without sustaining some serious blows to its effectiveness.

I was left wishing for more in one area. In his discussion of North Dakota US senator Joseph Nye’s investigation of the role of munitions manufacturers in pushing the US into war, Lansing seems to take the Nye committee’s findings on this question too much at face value when a closer and more critical examination was warranted (see 263–65).

This reservation does not, however, reduce the overall value of this work. Throughout this book Lansing provides solid evidence that the challenges and confusions of the present populist mood and politics are not as new to us as they sometimes appear.

Ben Keppel
Department of History
University of Oklahoma


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pp. 241-242
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