Commentary Magazine

Midwestern Progressive Politics, by Russell B. Nye

From Coxey to Wallace
Midwestern Progressive Politics.
by Russell B. Nye.
Michigan State College Press. 422 pp. $5.00.


Just a few months ago Jacob Coxey died at the ripe age of ninety-seven. Coxey, in the depression days of 1895, led the Army of the Commonweal, composed of the unemployed and vagrant, from its headquarters in Massilon, Ohio, to Washington where a “petition in boots” was to have been presented to Congress. But Coxey and his chief lieutenant, Carl Browne, were arrested for walking on the grass in the capital city, his tatterdemalion following was dispersed, and the petition was never presented.

Coxey and the movement he led were typical of the pattern of Midwestern radicalism. Coxey and his followers wanted Congress to print paper money and pay it out to the unemployed who would be put to work building roads. Browne called himself the reincarnated “Cerebellum of Christ”; Coxey “the Cerebrum of Christ”; and the movement “the Commonweal of Christ.” Coxey, like Bryan and other Midwestern agrarian leaders, aroused tremendous enthusiasm; and while his movement spread like a prairie fire, it burned itself out just as fast—and that is the status of Midwestern progressivism today, as dead as old Coxey.

If Midwestern progressivism is dead, then what killed it? Professor Nye believes that its demise came about because of the regional character of the movement—the fact that it never broadened to include the problems of the last three decades, especially those of industry and labor. The Midwestern revolt was based mainly on the effort of the farmer to better his lot economically; its radicalism was little more than an attempt to find some method, generally through state action, to remedy the farmer’s most pressing grievances; under the impact of high agricultural prices and subsidies for farm products, its fighting ardor vanished.

Midwestern progressivism was an expression of cultural provincialism that was distrustful alike of Europe and of the city. For this reason the movement could not become reconciled to the issues of our own day, which are primarily international and urban. Gladly, the progressive Middle West would have put the clock back. It would have liked nothing better than to have avoided “entangling alliances” with any place in the world, and it thought of America only in terms of the community of likemindedness that stretched unbroken from the day of the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion to that of Sockless Jerry Simpson, Ignatius Donnelly, William Jennings Bryan, and old Bob La Follette. Theirs was the spirit that raised more hell than corn in Kansas in the 80’s, dumped milk in Iowa in the 1930’s, fought monopolies, trusts, corrupt government, and everything else that frustrated the old Jeffersonian-frontier ideal of a self-reliant individual living in an agrarian commonwealth—an ideal which progressivism adopted as its own. But what Midwestern radicalism did not appreciate was the fact that the trust is here to stay; that “busting” it was no more of a solution than burying one’s head in the sands of isolationism was a way of stopping Hitler; that the tendency in America was toward the triumph of Hamiltonian centralization rather than of Jeffersonian localism.

The New Deal and the Welfare State were further responsible for the decline of the progressive movement. New Dealism stole a great deal of the progressive thunder, even though there were important differences between the two movements. The New Deal was a nationalized program in the Hamiltonian tradition and was rarely concerned with local prerogatives. The Wisconsin idea of “the new individualism” did not include within its scope the vision of a leviathan state and a program of continuous federal assistance; nor did it encompass Rooseveltian federalization and what, to progressive eyes, looked like regimentation. Indeed, it was because of these differences that Philip La Follette launched a new third party which was critical of the New Deal. But the Midwest, feeling the benefits of the Roosevelt farm program, was apparently not the place it used to be. La Toilette’s failure marked the petering out of progressivism as an organized political force.



Professor Nye’s account of Midwestern progressivism and its eclipse is, on the whole, a very satisfactory performance. Without offering much in the way of new information or fresh insight, his is a valuable synthesis based on a large bibliography of scattered materials. Nye’s delineation of the differences between Midwestern progressivism, New Dealism, Marxian socialism, and the Wallace movement of 1948 is particularly effective. But while sensitive to the relationship of progressivism to leftof-center ideologies and movements, he ignores its bearing upon the political right.

Professor Nye does not explain why in 1936 the veteran progressive William Lemke cast in his lot with Charles E. Coughlin and was presidential candidate of the National Union for Social Justice. What is the relationship of the ideological content of progressivism to certain non-progressive episodes in the careers of Senators Langer, Wheeler, and Nye? Why did so many of the progressives wind up in the America First camp in the company of some of the country’s most dangerous political elements? Has the heritage of Coxeyism any bearing upon the fact that the Middle West in recent years has been a breeding ground for demagogic and crackpot ideas dangerous to democratic government? Did this come about because of or in spite of the progressive tradition? If the Middle West has proved receptive to anti-Semitism, to what extent did portrayal in progressive propaganda of the international banker, of Wall Street, and of the city-dweller lay the groundwork for the stereotype of the Jew served up in the present-day hate sheet?

Fear of making his book overlong may have prevented Professor Nye from exploring and possibly explaining these interesting aberrations. I think that it would have added to the worth of what is already a good book if he had pursued some of the lines of thought suggested, for example, by Professor Handlin in the June issue of COMMENTARY, in his article “How U. S. Anti-Semitism Really Began.” Although the body of old man Coxey lies moldering in the grave, his spirit might some day march forth under strange banners.



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