Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889

Article excerpt

Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889 By Jon K. Lauck Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 281. $32.95 cloth.

In 2004, Thomas Frank, a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal and left-wing analyst of American conservatism, published the unlikely best seller What's The Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books). The book drew commanding attention from pundits and politicians for its Marxist-style treatment of poor Kansans voting against their own economic selfinterest - a form of false consciousness - by electing traditionalist social conservatives such as Senator Sam Brownback and President George W. Bush to office. Kansans had been duped, according to Frank, by the charms of Republican politicians peddling culture wars over economic development and policies conducive to self-sustaining small-town values in America.

Conservatives have responded to Frank. Both Jack Cashill's What's the Matter with California? Cultural Rumbles from the Golden State and Why the Rest of Us Should be Shaking (New York: Threshold, 2007) and Dennis Boyles's Superior, Nebraska: The Common Sense Values of America's Heartland (New York: Doubleday, 2008) countered Frank with sociological analyses of California - the home of the loony Left and the one-time home of Kansas City-based journalist Cashill - and with a vivid description of the U.S. Highway 36 corridor in north-central Kansas and southern Nebraska. What Boyles found in Kansas was not the false consciousness depicted by Frank, but earnest and hardworking people doing their best to preserve their economy, communities, and churches from the twin threats of globalization and government bureaucracy. He found not the depressed and defeated people associated with Frank's Kansas, but rather a vibrant and patriotic set of individuals who believed in the traditional views of American constitutional republicanism.

All of these books took aim at a current problem pregnant with political implications. If the Left could convince Red State America that its interests lie with the leftists, with the idea that government planning and economic policies favoring redistribution of wealth are the pathway to a revitalized future for Middle America, then the Left could challenge the basis for conservative victories in recent decades and turn American democracy back to the vision of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. For a moment between 2006 and 2009, such a prospect seemed depressingly plausible, and Barack Obama's election as president paved the way. But the consequences of balancing out Wall Street-Fannie Mae greed with beltway stimulus, health care reform, and cap and trade - punitive toward the very Middle Americans the Left wishes to reach - made the reassertion of a conservative congressional majority a plausible idea in 2010 (at least in the House of Representatives).

Frank's theory, that class is a better determinant of values than culture, is emblematic of the study not only of current Plains history, but also of the long history of the West in America. Historians such as Howard Lamar, Donald Worster, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Richard White have made the "new western history" the story of workers against capitalists, of yeoman farmers versus railroads, of women against men, of Hispanics versus Anglos, of the people versus the interests. They have contributed to a more complex and enriched conception of western history than one could have gained from Theodore Roosevelt's The Winning of the West (1889), but in their view of the Western territories and states as nothing more than colonies of the industrialized East and of their inhabitants as serfs of Wall Street banks and Broad Street railroads, they have simplified the texture of life on the Plains in ways that make Frank's narrative understandable and acceptable to so many contemporaries.

Jon Lauck, a professional historian who serves as the senior advisor to Senator John Thune (R-S. …