Saturday, November 21, 2015

Michael J. Lansing's "Insurgent Democracy"

Michael J. Lansing is Associate Professor of History at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. A historian of the modern United States, his research focuses on the North American West and Midwest, political history, environmental history, and gender history. He co-authored The American West: A Concise History and his essays have appeared in the Western Historical Quarterly, Environmental History, the Journal of Historical Geography, the Middle West Review, the Utah Historical Quarterly, and Ethics, Place, and Environment.

Lansing applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest  book, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics, and reported the following:
In 1915, western and midwestern farmers mounted one of the most significant challenges to party politics America has seen: the Nonpartisan League (NPL), which sought to empower citizens and restrain corporate influence. Before its collapse in the 1920s, the League counted over 250,000 paying members, spread to thirteen states and two Canadian provinces, controlled North Dakota’s state government, and birthed new farmer-labor alliances. Yet today it is all but forgotten, neglected even by scholars.

My book aims to change that. Insurgent Democracy offers a new look at the NPL and a new way to understand its rise and fall in the United States and Canada. I argue that, rather than a spasm of populist rage that inevitably burned itself out, the story of the League is in fact an instructive example of how popular movements can create lasting change. Depicting the League as a transnational response to economic inequity, I not only resurrect its story of citizen activism, but also allow us to see its potential to inform contemporary movements.

Page 99 of the book describes the shift in fortunes for the NPL when the United States entered World War I in April 1917. The movement easily fended off attacks by insurance agents, bankers, corporate leaders, and small-town businessmen as it spread across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest during its first year-and-a-half. But NPL members’ complicated stance on U.S. involvement in the European conflict soon rendered it an easy target for all those insisting on absolute loyalty during wartime. In response, the League noted its firm Americanism, but insisted that regular citizens—and not large corporations—should benefit from the war. It held this complicated position in the face of a less-thoughtful surge of patriotism.

In the short-term, this stance proved disastrous. In states such as Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska, local and state governments soon cracked down on the supposedly “disloyal” NPL. They shut down public meetings and arrested NPL organizers. The denial of Leaguers’ civil liberties proved so significant that it helped inspire the creation of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (later renamed the American Civil Liberties Union).

In the long-term, however, the NPL’s stand garnered it important allies—including George Creel, President Woodrow Wilson’s close advisor and head of the U.S. Committee on Public Information (which produced pro-war propaganda for the federal government). It also convinced large numbers of German Americans, many of whom held similarly complicated perspectives on World War I, to join the NPL. Ultimately, the League not only survived, but also went on to influence state and federal politics via its distinct form of citizen politics across the western half of the U.S.—and the Prairie Provinces—before falling apart in the mid-1920s.
Learn more about Insurgent Democracy at the book's website.

--Marshal Zeringue