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  • Progressive Insurgency in the Heartland
  • Christopher W. Shaw (bio)

Seventy years after its publication, Russel B. Nye’s Midwestern Progressive Politics retains a relevant message for present-day readers: midwestern progressive politics demands our serious attention. Generally overlooked in contemporary public discussion is Nye’s emphasis on the Midwest’s history as a fountainhead of progressive politics. The region’s political relevance is regularly reduced to its current electoral function as the site of the so-called “blue wall” of states that Democrats depend on in presidential elections, a limited perspective that erases the Midwest’s rich tradition of political insurgency.

Nye’s classic account of midwestern politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emerged from Frederick Jackson Turner’s claim that the frontier experience had fostered core American attributes such as individualism and democracy.1 Nye accordingly argued that the region’s “agrarian, Jeffersonian, frontier tradition” produced a democratic “spirit of protest.” Rural in outlook, regional in perspective, moderate in ambitions, practical in approach, and self-interested in aims, the primary focus of this politics was antimonopoly, “the central thread in Midwestern political patterns.”2

Nye treated the aspirations of the region’s family farmers with sympathy, while paying tribute to their ability to influence national politics. His wideranging synthesis tells a big story that scholars have failed to confront with comparable ambition over the intervening decades. Still, historians have revealed a more diverse midwestern tradition of protest. Nye’s interpretation excludes important parts of the picture, such as urban, labor, and radical politics, leaving no room for Chicago’s place as a center of anarchism, the persistent electoral success of socialists in Milwaukee, or the Industrial Workers of the World’s strength among rural laborers in the region.3 [End Page 157]

Nye presented an obituary for midwestern insurgent politics, claiming that this tradition was eclipsed by the “sophisticated, nationalized, and federalized” politics of the New Deal.4 His emphasis on the Midwest always had competitors, although these accounts have not denied the strength of reform sentiments in the region. Contemporary Arthur S. Link highlighted the role that Southerners played in securing progressive reforms, a theme that later scholars elaborated upon at greater length.5 In 1998, Daniel T. Rodgers influentially cast his gaze still further afield, noting that progressive ideas circulated on an international scale.6

Historians also have expanded the horizons of progressive politics within the Midwest. Unlike Nye’s definition of the region as fundamentally rural, subsequent work placed cities at the center of its political history. Decades of research on urban reform has explored how class and gender influenced politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.7 As a result, reformer Tom L. Johnson’s tenure as mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909 now provides an opportunity to observe, in Shelton Stromquist’s words, the “construction of a new urban politics of reform” that rested on working-class support.8 In addition, the 1991 publication of Robyn Muncy’s Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform confirmed that the reference to Jane Addams in surveys of the era has become a starting point for examining female political authority up through the New Deal.9

Because large numbers of European immigrants and their family members lived in the Midwest, the question of how ethnicity influenced the period’s politics arises in scholarship on various subjects. Sara Egge recently addressed how ethnicity shaped the women’s suffrage debate in the Upper Midwest.10 Heath W. Carter’s 2015 study of the Social Gospel as expounded by workers in Chicago necessarily confronts the role of ethnicity as well.11 Midwestern Scandinavian communities—both urban and rural—have attracted particular notice from historians due to their strong support of insurgent politics, ranging from the La Follette movement to labor radicalism to socialism.12

Writing at the outset of the Cold War, Nye described the “true socialist” as “urban, industrial, [and] ideologically foreign.” He claimed that most of the Midwesterners who were deemed socialists actually were something else, such as Populists, Bellamyites, or Christian Socialists. J. A. Wayland, publisher of the Appeal to Reason, for example, was an exponent of “a sort of maverick...


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