July 26, 2018

Word: Midwestern populIsm worked

Dan Kaufman, NY Times - As they look to 2018 and beyond, Democratic Party leaders would do well to remember the electoral success and durability of native Midwestern progressivism. That tradition was forged largely in Wisconsin, once described by Theodore Roosevelt as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.” Wisconsin progressives devised much of the New Deal, including the Social Security Act and the unemployment insurance program, as well as Great Society programs like Medicare.

The result of the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in part because her centrism failed to appeal to Midwesterners, shows the urgent need for a return to just such a tradition. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Wisconsin, which had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 — until Donald Trump. In the Wisconsin Democratic primary, however, Senator Bernie Sanders won every county save one, and beat Mrs. Clinton by 13 points.

Mr. Trump is not the first right-wing populist to make inroads in Wisconsin — after all, the voters there twice elected Joseph McCarthy to be their senator — but his visceral mixture of nativist and racial resentment, attacks on free trade and vigorous defense of Social Security and Medicare resonated in a time of economic insecurity, allowing him to cleave off a significant portion of the white working class, both urban and rural.

Mr. Trump’s success exposes the electoral danger for Democrats in 2018 and 2020 as right-wing populism continues to gather strength worldwide. But paradoxically it also reveals that there may be room for the appeal of charismatic newcomers like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Randy Bryce, the union ironworker vying for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional seat. Mr. Bryce’s campaign, which has emphasized labor rights, has galvanized Wisconsin’s progressive grass roots.

The state’s progressive tradition dates back to the 1840s, when Scandinavian immigrants began settling in the area. Many were fleeing crop failures and devastating famines. The harshness of the environment they left behind helped forge a communitarian ethos that they brought with them to the United States.

Those values also fostered an openness to social welfare programs, which is captured in the Swedish word “folkhemmet,” which means “the people’s home” and came to serve as a nickname for the welfare state.

“It implies that all people should feel safe, protected here,” Julie Allen, a professor of Scandinavian studies at Brigham Young University, told me. The people’s home, Ms. Allen said, is about “lifting everyone up.”

Egalitarianism led Scandinavian settlers to form agricultural cooperatives and to disproportionately support the trade union movement. Many also gravitated to the abolitionist principles of the new Republican Party, which was founded in a one-room schoolhouse in Ripon, Wis., in 1854.


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