Welcome to our All Star Senate edition of the prairie states– Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska.
America’s breadbasket, we arrive at states most well known for their flatness, their fertility, and their farming. These are states where you can, in my father’s words, “stand on a six-pack and see the next county.” Agrarian radicalism has a long history in all of these states, and there are subterranean iconoclastic impulses if you know where to look. Sometimes it shows up in the farm holidays, large scale strikes attempted by farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Sometimes it shows up institutionally, with the founding of semi-radical third parties like the Non-Partisan League. Sometimes it made itself known in “penny auctions”, where bands of farmers would buy a neighbor’s mortgaged home for a penny, give it back to the neighbor, and beat to a bloody pulp anyone who tried to make a higher bid. Sometimes it manifests in the almost absurd, even homicidal, lengths to which Kansans will go to prevent abortions.
Yet, there is a plain-speaking character at work here. There is little stellar oratory, few biographical eccentricities, and relatively little scandal. That’s the farm belt for you. Even the radicals are boring.
Iowa has been, and perhaps always will be, a quintessential farm state. Unlike many of its neighbors, it was loyal to the region’s Republicanism during the Populist uprisings in the 1880s and 1890s. As for today– don’t let the divisive Iowa caucuses fool you– it will faithfully give its vote to whichever party promises the highest farm subsidies.
61. William B. Allison (Republican, 1873-1908)
Elected an astounding seven times to the U.S. Senate, Allison preceded over much of that shady time period lasting between Reconstruction and the Progressive age. Allison was one of the most important committeemen in Senatorial history- serving at various times on the Appropriations Committee, the Indian Affairs Committee, and the Finance Committee. His Bland-Allison Act reintroduced the coinage of silver, a boon to Western silver mines, and debt-ridden farmers craving inflation.
62. Albert Cummins (Republican, 1908-1926)
A moderate progressive, Cummins was…ah, you know, I just can’t do this any more. The Iowa guys are just so deathly dull that I can’t even try and make a case for their significance. Believe it or not, North Dakota is actually much more interesting…
XXXII. North Dakota:
Back in the 1920s, North Dakotan farmers decided, forty years after the Populists, to join together against those bankers in Minneapolis and St. Paul who were getting a little too big for their britches. Hence, the Non-Partisan League, which lobbied for such radical ideas as government-funded granaries to place excess wheat, and mine safety legislation. Eventually, the Non-Partisan League made their name a moot point by first joining forces with the Republicans, then the Democrats. To this day, when you see a North Dakotan Democrat like Kent Conrad’s political affiliation, it is listed as Democrat/NPL.
63. Gerald Nye (Republican, 1925-1945)
Looking startlingly like Rowan Atkinson during the first season of Blackadder, Nye was the dean of the isolationists from the 1920s, when the idea had a great deal of credence, until WWII, when it did not. His Nye Committee was charged with determining the causes of U.S. entry into the First World War. Although addressing this task dutifully and as objectively as he could, Nye found strong, tangible connections between banking industries, munitions industries, and policymakers. So much for “making the world safe for democracy”– the auspices of the First World War were used to line corporate pockets. After dealing with this scandal from the Wilson administration, Nye was also charged with leading the investigation into Teapot Dome, which would disgrace the Harding administration in the years following the death of Harding himself.
Nye ultimately led an organization known as “America First” dedicated to encouraging a strictly neutral foreign policy– this attracted many Midwestern Americans, including a very young Gerald Ford. Like Vandenberg,his ideas may look bad in hindsight, but the disillusionment felt by many Americans after the First World War was utterly sensible. We would do well to emulate Nye, and be skeptical when we are told that we fight abroad for lofty ideals. It is always wise, after all, to follow the money.
64. William Langer (Republican/NPL, 1941-1959)
Langer is a fine example of the agrarian discontent that hit the farm states during the 1920s and endured for a good long while after. Langer is probably more famous as a governor of North Dakota, where he barricaded the state capital, announced an independent republic of North Dakota, and declared martial law when the federal government investigated him for various charges of fraud. As a senator, Langer cooled down considerably, but still advocated American neutrality, artificially raising wheat prices to keep farmers afloat, and universal health care.
Runner-up: For his consumer advocacy and work against large corporate conglomerates, I fully intended to put Byron Dorgan on this list before reading up a bit about William Langer.
XXXIII. South Dakota:
Ah, South Dakota, where the flowers are floral and the corn is plural. Home of Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee, there’s plenty of history at work here, and it has put forth two first-rate senators.
65. Peter Norbeck (Republican, 1921-1936)
Norbeck demonstrates how oftentimes in American history, social movements are co-opted and watered down by one of the major parties, in the same way that the Democrats absorbed some elements of Huey Long’s program, or the current GOP ate up and dulled the fervor of the Tea Party more recently. Norbeck, a towering figure in his day within South Dakota, suggested very moderate reforms that were nonetheless sufficient to limit true agrarian populism in the 1920s– South Dakota never developed a Non-Partisan League like its neighbor North Dakota, nor a Farmer-Labor Party like its other neighbor, Minnesota. He put forth a series of rural credits and mortgage loans for farmers, and tried to position himself as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.
66. George McGovern (Democrat, 1963-1981)
You all knew this was coming, right? My admiration for Senator McGovern is well known, so let me limit myself to a few parenthetical comments. While dedicated to constituent services, McGovern believed, perhaps more than any other senator on this list, that the Senate could also be a bully pulpit from which to confront large questions of national character. While most well known for his stance on Vietnam, McGovern was also crucial in the modern-day free and reduced school lunch program, and introducing breakfasts into our school cafeterias, ensuring nearly every American schoolchild access to an affordable meal while in school. He similarly advocated for Food for Peace, through which we gave nations facing food shortages our excess grain as a Cold-War gesture of good will. These were both humanitarian impulses of the highest order, while also providing markets for South Dakota’s foodstuffs.
My favorite address of his is the one he gave on the Senate floor in the midst of the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, which would have cut off funding for an indefinite, inconclusive war in Indochina. Showing unusual anger, he thundered:
“Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave… This chamber reeks of blood… it does not take any courage at all for a Congressman or a Senator or a President to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Viet Nam, because it is not our blood that is being shed.”
Though often dismissed as a radical, McGovern had a very traditionalist understanding of the U.S. and its place in the world. Having earned a Ph.D. in history, he knew our history, warts and all, but held it to the standard of its ideals.
Nebraska has traces of an odd populist character in its makeup. It has the only unicameral legislature among the 50 states, and it divides its presidential electoral vote by congressional district, with 2 extra votes going to whomever gets the plurality. For a state that is a Republican lock for its overall presidential vote, it has a habit of sending Democrats to the Senate, as Ben Nelson, Bob Kerrey, and James Exon can all attest.
67. William V. Allen (Populist, 1893-1899, 1899-1901)
For several years in the Depression-wracked 1890s, the People’s Party was a genuine alternative to the third-party system. In numerous farm states, it outpaced both Republicans and Democrats for a short period, sent congressmen and senators to Washington, and even voted for third-party presidential candidates. As every schoolchild knows, many of their stances for increasing rule of the people– referendums, direct election of senators, public ownership of major utilities, were picked up by the Progressives. Their belief that corporate abuse must be checked remains a bulwark of dissident thought today.
By 1896, populist fervor was appropriated, and ultimately watered down, by the Democratic Party, who nominated free-silver man William Jennings Bryan. William V. Allen was one of the Populist true-believers during this process. Allen was party to the sentiment, which lives on today, that the farm states had been hard done by, victim of self-serving policies of industrialists and stock-jobbers in the East. He once opined,
“The East is wedded to an abnormally high tariff for a distinctly protective purpose; that is, for the purpose of enabling one class of citizens, through the means of high-priced articles… to transfer much of the earnings of all other classes to their own pockets.”
As one of the strongest voices to challenge the tariffs and gold-standard which dominated the politics of his day, and as one of the most effective third-party senators in American history, William V. Allen earns a place here.
68. George Norris (Republican and Independent, 1913-1943)
George Norris is like Chuck Norris, only better and with more sensible political views. A member of the progressive wing of the Republic Party, Norris endorsed a number of measures in the 1930s that would aid his constituents. Norris had, long before the New Deal, championed a program similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, channeling the nation’s natural resources for electricity in some of the most rural sectors in the country. His Rural Electrification Act ultimately did a similar thing. Norris had also, earlier in his career, opposed U.S. intervention in the First World War, seeing American involvement as little more than war profiteering.
George Norris may not be able to roundhouse kick you to the moon, but he has lobbied for the average American much more devotedly than his possible distant relative, Chuck. Norris is a crucial, geographical link between the Populism a generation before his career, to the Progressivism at the beginning of his career, to New Deal liberalism at its close.
In the 1880s, one respectable magazine, aghast at the agrarian uprisings in the state, asked in evident frustration on its front cover, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” In 2004, journalist Thomas Frank published a best-selling book with the same title. In Frank’s case, he marveled at how Kansan voters repeatedly undercut their livelihoods and economic best interests, taking up social crusades and sending anti-abortion, but nevertheless plutocratic, zealots to represent them in Washington. The distance between the Kansans of the 1880s and the Kansans of the 21st century is not as great as you might think. Agrarian radicalism lies at the heart of the state, whether in the Bleeding Kansans violence that preceded its entry into the union, or the scorched earth culture wars of today. Yet, my two choices for the state’s best senators are two calm, masterful politicians with national reputations, and both Majority Leaders in the Senate.
69. Charles Curtis (Republican, 1907-1913. 1915-1929)
The United States had a vice-president who was mostly Amerindian (specifically, Kaw) in the 1920s, and I’ll bet you never knew. Curtis quickly ascended the ranks in Congress, and his reputation as a cloakroom wheeler-and-dealer and a first-rate poker player made him a one of the most persuasive men in the Senate during the Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge administrations. As Majority Leader, he could have had any seat in the Senate that he chose, and he selected one in the very back row, allowing access between the cloakroom and the floor, and between the Republicans and the Democrats, allowing him to almost literally be everywhere at once. While generally amenable to the pro-business and deregulationist policies of the New Era, Curtis showed glimmers of progressivism every now and then, most notably in taking up an Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s that was thwarted by the Southern bloc in Congress. He also supported anti-child labor legislation, and women’s suffrage. Because of his evident success in cajoling Congress, Curtis was named Herbert Hoover’s running mate in 1928, and went down with him in his 1932 landslide defeat at the hands of FDR.
70. Robert J. Dole (Republican, 1969-1996)
“Bob Dole…,” George McGovern wistfully reminisced during our interview three years ago. “Now there was a compassionate conservative.” His longtime colleague was right; Dole’s record on hunger is as strong as McGovern’s, and he was a longtime advocate of Food for Peace, food stamps, and increasing nutritional access in the United States. Dole’s philanthropy mixed with a fierce partisanship. He was loyal to, and proud of, his Republicanism. He remained hawkish for his entire career, and helped kill the move for universal health care in the 1990s, leading the GOP opposition to Clinton’s plan. Dole even had the unenviable task of being the Republican National Chair as Watergate went down. Even still, Dole’s old-fashioned conservatism ran headlong into the suburban government-dismantling Contract with America; he would often butt heads with its leader, Newt Gingrich, in the 1990s. Ultimately, Bob Dole was a man of the Senate. His barbed humor, his lack of populist fire, and his party loyalty worked well in that chamber, and did not translate successfully elsewhere. His two attempts at higher office, as Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 and as the Republican standard-bearer in 1996, were two of the party’s only defeats in that era.
Runner-up: Nancy Kassebaum was, for years, the only woman in the Senate. A moderate Republican, her politics were very similar to her dad, Alf Landon, who challenged FDR for the presidency in 1936.