The political culture of the United States is cramped and stunted by the narrow range of acceptable viewpoints and the utterly banal, subliterate tone of our political campaigns—to compare American elections to the marketing of soap is an insult to the people who sell soap.  If, as Sean Scallon notes in Beating the Powers That Be, culture precedes politics, the state of American politics says nothing good about the state of American culture.

Beating the Powers That Be is, in part, a story of the constriction of the American political spectrum since World War II.  Scallon describes three related political movements that began in the Upper Midwest in the first half of the 20th century: the Progressive Party in Wisconsin, the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, and the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota.  These organizations were representative of the far left in this country at a time when the left cared more for working people than about securing the civil rights of the transgendered.

Scallon begins his narrative with a remembrance of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the latest in a line of “Minnesota Mavericks” that include U.S. Rep. Charles Lindbergh, Sr., and Sen. Eugene McCarthy.  Wellstone was a professor who wanted to make a difference.  “He wanted to link academics with social activism the way professors did back during the Great Depression and the New Deal years of the 1930s . . . ”  Wellstone entered politics and served two full terms in the U.S. Senate before his untimely death in a plane crash in October 2002, only days after courageously voting against the then wildly popular Iraq-war resolution.

The tradition that Wellstone represented began in 1918, when the Farmer-Labor Party was founded.  (It later merged with Minnesota’s Democratic Party.)  Unlike the fringe third parties we are used to today, Farmer-Labor was once powerful in Minnesota, winning elections for governor and senator.  Scallon describes the factors that lay behind the alliance between farmers and laborers:

A farmer owns his land and pays taxes on it, no matter how small the plot.  Holding onto that land and making a profit from it to provide for [his family] and pass [it] on to [them] is his primary concern. . . . He can be radical if ownership of his land is at stake and be quite conservative in order to use that land as he . . . sees fit. . . . Before World War II a laborer didn’t own much more than his or her labor power.  A laborer can be conservative if that labor is perceived at stake . . .  Or he . . . may turn radical if working conditions are so tough [that he feels he has] nothing left to lose.

Owing to the efforts of Floyd B. Olson and the suffering of the Great Depression, the Farmer-Labor Party dominated Minnesota in the 1930’s, but it couldn’t long survive the death in 1936 of then-governor Olson.  Although the party still carries the name Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Scallon pronounces it dead as of November 5, 2002.

The election results declare that Minnesota has officially become suburbia just like everywhere else—and the Democrats will adjust accordingly.  There are far more soccer moms and office-park dads in the land of 10,000 lakes than there are farmers, factory workers and the Scandinavian socialists who once formed the DFL’s backbone.

To Minnesota’s east lies Wisconsin, a state whose political culture is described by Scallon as “clean, high-minded and infused with a civic tradition and ethos.”  Here, Robert La Follette, Sr., disgusted with corruption in the state Republican Party, became a progressive reformer, advocating regulation of banks, railroads, and insurance companies.  A very successful politician, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives before serving as governor and senator from Wisconsin.  In 1912, his first presidential campaign was done in by another progressive Republican—Teddy Roosevelt:

[W]hat both men thought progressivism was began to diverge by 1912.  To LaFollette, it was a movement of political reform and social justice.  Inequities in the great transition from farm to factory and the corruption it spawned would be straightened out . . . [M]ore so than just being from the East, Roosevelt’s views resonated with those who weren’t just interested in anti-trust legislation or removing some hack politician from a county commission for corruption.  [His progressivism] was about changing the nature of man itself so [he] would no longer accept bribes or be so greedy.  It led to beliefs that man could be made perfect or progress from his primal urges and lusts.

As David Frum says, “War is a great clarifier.”  La Follette distinguished himself from Roosevelt by opposing America’s entry into World War I, for which he was called a traitor by the New York Times.  Robert La Follette, Jr., succeeded his father in the Senate—both as a Republican and, later, as a representative of the Progressive Party—and opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s committing the country to World War II.

After the New Deal and World War II, there was little room in America for the kind of movement that Scallon describes.  As the federal government grew, taking over many of the functions of the states, Cold War conformity narrowed the scope of acceptable opinion.  On occasion, broad discontent with the status quo bubbled up in the form of presidential campaigns by such candidates as George Wallace and Ross Perot, but Scallon notes a more interesting phenomenon occurring in political movements at lower levels of government.  He focuses on three such movements—two in the New England states of Vermont and New Hampshire and a regional movement in the South, where the League of the South seeks to promote the “independence of the South ‘by all honorable means.’”  I remain somewhat skeptical of the prospects for success of this last enterprise.  Nothing about the quality of political leaders that the South has produced in the last few years, including our sitting president and his immediate predecessor, inspires my confidence (as a Tennessean) in a Southern regime.  Decentralization of our monstrously overgrown federal government, however, remains an excellent idea, while dissolution of the Union should be a legitimate topic of discussion, not a hate crime.

Accordingly, Scallon profiles the Second Vermont Republic, an organization dedicated to keeping the Green Mountain State from becoming a giant Wal-Mart-McDonald’s-big-box strip mall and reestablishing it as the independent republic it was from 1777 to 1791.  And, next door, the Free State Project is working to encourage at least 20,000 libertarian ideologues to move to New Hampshire for the purpose of taking over the state’s political system.  While the thought of an invasion by libertarians may be frightening, the free marketeers are, in fact, relatively harmless.  If the Free State Project succeeds in making any change more substantive than requiring Granite State high-schoolers to suffer through Atlas Shrugged—including all 60 pages of John Galt’s speech—I’ll be surprised.


[Beating the Powers That Be, by Sean Scallon (Baltimore: Publish America;) 203 pp., $19.95]