Mitigating but Not Rethinking: George W. Norris, Tommy Douglas, and the Great Plains

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The careers of George W. Norris of Nebraska and Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, two extraordinary Prairie progressives, cover nearly a century of political activism, and tell us something about both what was possible and what was never even considered in Great Plains (1). That their seemingly different heritages, one a dyed-in-the-wool Republican from Ohio and one a Scots Labourite, should result in similar solutions to the problems of European-style agriculture on the Great Plains illustrates the significance of geography, independent of ideology, in determining the lifestyles that will work for a region.

Richard Lowitt, Norris's biographer, describes him as a nineteenth-century liberal, but one who became a Progressive and then a New Dealer, developing his ideas to fit the exigencies of the twentieth century but maintaining his basic beliefs in the fundamental goodness of human beings, the value of honesty and hard work, and the role of government in helping people who were in trouble through no fault of their own. Although Norris carefully researched all the legislation he proposed and supported during his long career in the United States House (1902-1912) and Senate (1912-1942), he charted his economic and political course on experience rather than readings in history or theory. Like many highly successful individuals, he had a few big ideas and he stuck to them, winning most of his greatest battles. He believed that government should be efficient, economical, and accountable to the voters. His institutional reforms included curbing the power of the Speaker and the caucus in the U.S. House and in instituting a Unicameral legislature in Nebraska. Norris started his career as a Republican but eventually became an Independent and one of the most intelligent backers of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Deeply moved by an international peace conference he attended in Belgium in 1905, he consistently supported a world body for arbitrating disputes, the disarmament of aggressor nations, and the restriction of munitions and armaments on the part of democratic nations. Norris, though originally not sympathetic to organized labor, came to see farmers and laborers as a necessary coalition. He believed that "big business" tended to exploit them both and that the role of government was to protect the people from monopolies by ensuring fair competition, bargaining right for workers, and mortgage relief for farmers beset by bad weather or low markets. He also believed that electric power was a basic but transformative necessity that could serve people best if it were generated and distributed publically, supporting both municipal and federal power (Norris, Lowitt, passim).

Tommy Douglas has so far attracted more adulation, more vituperation, but less painstaking scholarly analysis than Norris. There is no work that compares to Lowitt's magisterial three-volume study of Norris. Nonetheless, the outlines of Douglas's career and beliefs are also clear. His intellectual tradition was that of British Labour of the Scots variety, deeply affected by the twentieth century Social Gospel of Salem Bland and J.S. Woodsworth. Like Norris, his program was based on experience rather than theory--he quickly dropped the repugnant eugenics theory that had formed his master's thesis, and it never influenced any part of his public policy (Stewart, 2003, 80-81). While Norris had had his pragmatic training as a lawyer and judge in southwestern Nebraska during the 1890s, Douglas's lessons in the world came from his own recurring bouts of osteomyelitis, his witnessing of the police riots against strikers in Winnipeg in 1919 and in Estevan in 1931, and his experience as a pastor and graduate student among the unemployed and desperate in the early 1930s. Unlike Norris, Douglas was satisfied with the parliamentary systems he worked in as both a Member of Parliament (1935-44, 1962-1979) and as Premier of Saskatchewan (1944-1962). He successfully advanced his beliefs, whether he was in the opposition or the majority. …