Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Avella, Steven

Second Advisor

Marten, James

Third Advisor

Jablonsky, Thomas


This dissertation focuses on the ways in which the political culture of the American Upper Midwest, particularly liberal and Democratic Party politics, is characterized by a distinct predilection toward the ideas, organizing principles, and policy positions of “progressive populism.” In the wake of a series of electoral defeats in the years spanning 1978 to 1980, the state-level Democratic parties of the five-state region of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin necessarily reassessed their relationship to their political heritage. This dissertation argues and identifies that the defining feature of Midwestern liberalism is the progressive political tradition that those Midwestern Democrats rediscovered in the 1980s. In the majority of these states, during either the 1890s or interwar years, left-wing third-party movements—the Populist Party, Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, North Dakota Nonpartisan League, and Wisconsin Progressive Party—displaced the traditional two-party system with broad, class-based appeals to state voters, controlling state legislatures, electing statewide officials, and sending third-party elected representatives to Congress. In the years following 1980, Democratic figures in these states drew, intentionally, on the legacy of those historical progressives to rebuild, redefine, and reconceive of their party’s structure.This process of rebuilding and redefinition of Midwestern liberalism began, however, at the local level amid a series of profound economic dislocations in the Upper Midwest—deindustrialization, inflation, tax base loss, and plunging farm commodities prices—as average citizens joined an undercurrent of political activists to create a broad political movement that sought to challenge the status quo of local, state, and national politics. Joining into organizations that sought to reform utility rates, women’s rights issues, environmental causes, minority rights, farm policy, and more, these people—some activists, some not—engaged with the political process and the resistance of the policies imposed by the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. While defining themselves as conservative or moderate, they increasingly turned to candidates who described themselves as liberal, progressive, or even populist, revealing the power of progressive activists and politicians alike to capture the fabled center of American politics without being a centrist. That coalition, which I call the “progressive center,” is effectively an artificial construct, but one that defines the electoral majorities created by the Democratic politicians who used the concepts of “progressive populism” to tap into a broad movement of Midwestern voters and win statewide elections amid what is known to scholars as the “Age of Reagan.” This dissertation follows a quadrennial pattern, narrating the years leading up to 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992, with chapters in the latter three sections proceeding in a format of activism, state politics, and national politics, tracing the formation of political liberalism in the Midwest from the crucible of grassroots organizing, the debates and coalitions of state politics, and those activists and politicians’ attempts to affect fundamental reform at the national political level. By focusing on the electoral coalitions built by these activist organizations and these politicians, I distinguish the Upper Midwest as a political region defined by its style of liberalism—based on farm-labor, rural-urban, class-based organizing principles that operated as a distinct wing of the national Democratic Party, drawing on historical understandings of left-wing radicalism to explicitly articulate a new form of progressive populism acknowledged in national politics as belonging uniquely to the Midwest.



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