A New Prairie Populism

Brian Schweitzer is an agricultural scientist, a gun owner, and a third-generation Montana farmer. He is also a popular Democratic governor of a usually conservative “red” state. Schweitzer likes to joke that he has a rule for himself: If he stays longer than 24 hours in Washington, D.C., he takes a bath in tomato juice when he gets home -- the classic home remedy for the stench of skunk spray. This is pure Schweitzer. The man is not of the elite, and he is not going to be pulled away from his roots. But Schweitzer has a powerful, homegrown, progressive vision of America.

In his bid for governor, Schweitzer ran as an unabashed Democrat in a state with a long Republican tradition, and he ran on values: not the narrowly defined moral values of the Christian right, but broadly shared American values of freedom, opportunity, self-reliance, and responsibility to future generations. This stance played out in his treatment of the issues. On the environment, rather than accepting the right's formulation of burdensome federal regulations imposed by coastal tree-hugging elites, he proudly sounded a call to preserve and protect traditional hunting and fishing grounds, guaranteeing access for sportsmen and honoring the cherished traditions of generations of Montanans.

But Schweitzer's real passion is energy and its connection to economic development. On his desk in Helena you won't find stacks of papers; instead, he has vials of oil -- safflower, canola, and camelina -- and biodiesel made from these Montana crops. Schweitzer has made alternative energy and smart use of natural resources a centerpiece first of his campaign, and then of his administration, showcasing how investment in new, clean, and innovative energy can rebuild Montana's economy, put money back into the pockets of his constituents, and create lasting opportunities for Montana farms and businesses.

When Schweitzer took over the statehouse, Montana produced less wind energy than any other state in the union -- even Rhode Island and Delaware -- yet it ranked among the top for wind potential. Today, he has passed an ambitious renewable energy law that requires 15 percent of all state electricity, by 2015, to come from wind and other clean energy sources. And he is already more than halfway to meeting that goal -- at a cheaper price per megawatt than the state's new traditional coal plants. Under his leadership, Montana passed new tax credits for investment in biodiesel production, and today, thanks to public grants and loans, a plant in Culbertson that once made confectionary oil from canola and safflower now turns out biofuels for the local market at a price below the cost of diesel. For Schweitzer, this is common sense, but it's also rooted in his love of the land, his sense of patriotism, and his commitment to a better future for his state.

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In January, when president bush delivered his State of the Union address, he startled listeners by declaring that America is addicted to oil. It took only a only few seconds in an hour-long address, but it represented a stunning turnabout, however insincere. This was hardly Nixon going to China, since there was little serious policy follow up. But, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. If an oil-man president felt he had to address, even only symbolically, what so many of his countrymen sensed, it was an important coming of age for the goal of a post-petroleum economy.

The costs of our collective oil addiction are hardly news to working Americans who have been paying more at the pump, nor to security experts who chart the vulnerabilities of oil tankers, pipelines, power plants, and refineries to disruption by terrorist attack, and the excessive influence of oil on America's geopolitical goals. Nor was it news to economists who track our escalating trade deficit, diminishing reserves, and the ever-increasing fuel demand from China and the developing world. But it was a stark indication of just how far and fast the politics of energy, and by extension all of American politics, have been changing. Admitting you have a problem is, after all, the first step in curing any addiction.

By Superbowl Sunday GM was running commercials for trucks that run on ethanol, and the auto industry was softening its line on changing fuel technology. And prospects for a bipartisan oil savings bill in the Senate suddenly seemed a little brighter. But these visible signs are really just the tip of a political iceberg that has been quietly building for several years. They represent a shift not just on energy policy, but on the politics of how we build our economy, where we invest as a society, and what public benefits we as citizens will demand in return for our votes and for our taxes.

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Stephanie Herseth is South Dakota's lone member of Congress, and the state's first woman to serve in the U.S. House. She won her seat in a June 2004 special election, and immediately defended it in November of that year. Millions of dollars in out-of-state money flowed into her Great Plains district. The state went easily for Bush by a wide margin; Tom Daschle, the sitting minority leader of the U.S. Senate, was unseated in a startling upset; and Republicans retained their solid grip on the state legislature.

Yet Herseth, daughter of a local corn farmer, was elected with deep support. A centerpiece of her ultimate victory was her unwavering commitment to enacting a renewable fuels standard to require the use of eight billion gallons of ethanol per year. What could have been a minor policy detail was in South Dakota a stand that showed the people what she was about and the agricultural way of life she came from.

She carried the race easily and has become a national champion for homegrown domestic alternatives to oil in Congress, leading the newly formed Rural Working Group in the House, and helping put the issue at the center of the agenda with her Democratic colleagues. In recent months these bread-and-butter rural issues have been advanced by minority leader Nancy Pelosi as the centerpiece of a new Innovation Agenda for America. That farm-state issues are emerging not only as regional priorities, but as core progressive strategies for innovation, national security, and long-term economic growth, is a seismic shift.

As Herseth says, “South Dakotans' livelihoods have always been deeply tied to the land, and many of us look at biofuels as a last chance to save our way of life. If we can shift from growing food to growing energy to sell all over the world, maybe we can ensure that the next generation of farmers and ranchers can stay on the family farm and pass it on to their kids. It's about choice and the ability to live the way we want to live. This is aspirational: as patriotic Americans, we can be part of the solution to one of the biggest problems facing our country by making ourselves energy independent, and we can preserve our way of life in the process.”

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Two states to the south, Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, is favored to win reelection in 2006. As a popular Democrat in Kansas, an epicenter of the religious right, she is a rising star among Democratic governors. Perhaps not coincidentally, Governor Sebelius has recently taken over the helm of the bipartisan Governors' Ethanol Coalition. Governor Sebelius has placed her bets on farm-based energy as a major tool for rebuilding the future of her state's economy. As farm incomes have fallen and aerospace jobs have fled for cheaper labor markets, she sees new value-added production and good manufacturing jobs in the growing calls for energy independence through ethanol and wind.

Down-ballot, Raj Goyle, challenger for a long-held Republican state legislature seat in Wichita, declares, “Clean energy means new technology that puts machinists back to work in Wichita making rotors and turbines, and it means new revenue for farmers supplying electricity and fuel to a nation that's nearing an energy crisis.” To Kansans like Sebelius and Goyle, this is just common sense and a smart business decision for America; it's also good politics.

And it is not just in Republican farm-belt states that progressive leaders are using energy politics to offer a better vision of the economic future. In the swing state of Pennsylvania, Governor Ed Rendell has passed a far-reaching renewable energy law that not only committed the commonwealth to significant markets for solar and wind, but also brought in the coal industry, offering jobs for unionized mine workers cleaning up waste coal to produce new energy resources. And in another swing state, New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson has worked with other Western governors to connect climate change concerns, renewable power, and alternative energy to an ambitious agenda for Western regional economic development. While in the Senate -- building on ground first tilled by progressive Democrats like Iowan Tom Harkin and South Dakotan Tom Daschle -- a new generation of Democrats from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton are staking their leadership claims on this issue.

The trend has a Republican flipside, too. Defining a big vision on energy has helped Republican governors in decidedly “blue” Massachusetts, New York, and California show their difference from backward-looking national conservatives, often through collaboration with Democrats. Governors in these states have used ambitious clean energy programs to demonstrate leadership on technology, jobs, security, economic development, and environmental stewardship. By doing so, they have helped transcend the bitter polarization of American politics.

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There is indeed something stirring in the great Plains and the Mountain West, in the Sunbelt, the Midwest farm belt, and the nation's industrial heartland. In a country so cleanly split in two between equal and competing political camps, it has become increasingly easy to take for granted permanent red and blue lines of polarization. But it would be a mistake to believe our nation is fundamentally divided on its essential definition, when under the surface there is such complex unease and a building potential for rapid realignment. A deep hunger for change and meaningful debate is afoot in America today, just beneath the predictable cynicism of politics as usual. And it's perhaps strongest in red-state America, where the economic pain and vulnerability of the present moment is most palpable.

You can see the tension in all the polling -- the president's falling approval rating is coupled with the paradoxical failure of Democrats to pick up gains; anger over corruption in Congress is pitted against distress over a general coarsening of media culture; frustration with high salaries for corporate CEOs is braced by an equal sense that personal morality and ethics are in decline. The old politics just don't seem to fit. The old battle lines fail to describe the current problems and are hopelessly weak at offering solutions that are likely to do any good. It is little wonder then, with so little to hope for, and so few champions, that the country is starkly divided on how to proceed.

Thomas Frank wrote about this in What's the Matter with Kansas? He put his finger on the political movement of heartland voters toward tough stands on moral values, and correctly identified it as an effort to address a creeping discomfort with a culture and an economic system that's ever more insecure and uncaring for the fate of average folks. Yet it would be a mistake to understand this debate as a split between one camp focused on “moral values” and another offering “economic self-interest.” This view misses the real core of the tension for most voters in America today. In truth, our economic problems and our values crises are deeply intertwined and lead us back to a crisis in our national sense of purpose. The malaise of rural poverty, a diminishing manufacturing employment base, and the creeping low-road culture of Wal-Mart jobs with discount wages all contribute to the deepening fear and insecurity driving our economic, political, and ethical landscape.

Instead, Americans are looking for some way to reconcile their moral concerns with their economic insecurity, to create a vision for the country and the world that they can believe in again, a vision that offers both prosperity and justice, that makes us all safer, and restores the chance for an ennobling future. What appears today to be two competing ideologies, one red and one blue, one based on moral values and one on populist economic theories, instead could just as easily be the sign of one nation searching for deeper answers, waiting to come together around real leadership and a real vision of a future that marries these equally pressing national imperatives, in order to build an economy with meaning, compassion, justice, and hope.

The candidate or party that first steps forward to articulate such a bold and unifying vision, backed by a strong commitment and clear priorities, will really have something to run on, something that can break the Gordian knot of the last few elections. Rather than making only tactical and cautious plays for the narrow and vacillating middle, the party that steps forward with a dynamic agenda just might find a country every bit as willing to produce a landslide as it has been to cast votes for paper-thin margins of victory.

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Looking out across the vast divide of today's red- and blue-state America, it's important to remember that America's heartland has not always been the center of conservative thought. It was red-state America that gave birth to the populist movement. A radical agrarian agenda swept like wildfire out of Texas and across the rural west of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, mobilized around issues of debt, investment, and giving working farmers an ownership stake in the future of the nation. Later it was a revolt by heartland progressives like Iowan John L. Lewis that gave America an industrial labor movement, coming up with innovations that merged ethics and economics, like child labor laws, overtime protection, and the weekend. And it was the heartland instinct to view the economy through a moral lens that led another Iowan, Henry A. Wallace, to fight for a progressive vision of government that regulated corporate abuse in the name of the public interest, that buffered economic cycles to keep family farmers on their land, and that built a social compact to keep the elderly out of poverty.

Consistently throughout our history, red-state America has articulated a deeply moral vision of the American economy, rooted in the practical ethics of working men and women. Often grounded in religious teachings and respect for the value of work and thrift -- and fueled by a deep concern for the common man -- these leaders and their movements helped articulate an economic theory that counterposed Wall Street's market fundamentalism to Main Street's need for investment, fair rules, and a level playing field in order to grow a great nation out of the wilderness.

The original heartland progressives like Henry Wallace would have found the split between economic self-interest and moral values incomprehensible. Theirs was a pragmatic but deeply moral vision grounded in the long-term self-interest of the nation, an economic vision rooted in core American principles of liberty, widely shared prosperity, reward for hard work, and equality of opportunity. This reform platform had as its bedrock a belief in science and playing by the rules, and it reorganized American politics and priorities. It was this prairie populism -- a mainstream American notion of opportunity and possibility -- that created new coalitions and a new base of political power, that linked the interests of farmers and mechanics, grange members and recent immigrants, around a constantly improving future unfolding in the crucible of a dynamic American economy founded on liberty, equality, and justice.

Today, amid the current ferment of political anger and dissatisfaction, it is possible to discern once again the potential for a similar emerging realignment around a political agenda that features investment, good government, and the belief in progress. It is also not surprising that clean energy is at the center of this political reframing. For our energy problems have clear and credible solutions at hand, offering a political program with hope at its root and the chance to side with the future and to clarify for voters what our leaders stand for.

National polling bears out this potential. A 2005 national survey by Democracy Corps found 57 percent of U.S. voters “much more likely” to back a candidate who supported an Apollo-style crash program to promote clean energy and reduce dependence on imported oil. That result was stronger than responses on prescription drugs, health care, pensions, jobs, or the economy, and was beaten only by support for education, an issue that also captures our hope for the future. Similar findings can be seen in polling by the Renewable Fuels Association, which shows consistent support of 70 percent or higher across nearly all ages and regions of the country for extending policies that invest in biofuels and alternatives to oil. Furthermore, Democracy Corps polls show that oil company corruption, like Halliburton's attempts to influence the federal energy bill, has a more galvanizing negative reaction than any other issue tested.

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In the current political moment, the move to clean renewable energy is that rarest of issues, one that represents not only good politics but great policy as well. Governor Schweitzer captures this truth in a story.

After a recent speech to a Montana audience, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of agriculture took questions from the audience. Governor Schweitzer was allowed to pose the first question. The United States currently spends $6 billion a year to subsidize the grains we export, Schweitzer began. Farmers then give 40 percent of the price of their crops to the railroads to ship the grain to port; multinational corporations then use more energy to ship the grain to the Third World to sell it below the production costs of subsistence farmers driving them out of business, Schweitzer continued. We then send boats full of oil back across the ocean, with oil and grain tankers passing each other somewhere on the high seas. The unloaded oil is then refined and shipped back to rural America, where farmers again pick up the cost of freight. With farmers losing their land at home and abroad, energy prices out of control, and new threats to our security, Schweitzer concluded, shouldn't we just invest that $6 billion a year in the production of oil seed, help farmers own a piece of refineries, and break our addiction to oil?

To which the U.S. undersecretary of agriculture replied: “Next!”

In the year 2000 there was no energy plank in the Democratic platform. It wasn't seen as a Democratic issue and was addressed only as a subset of the environment in terms of global warming and air pollution. In 2004 not only was energy treated to its own section, it ran as a theme throughout the platform. Freedom from oil was one of the four pillars of the national security plan that dominated the Democrats' program, clean and efficient energy was put forward as a tool for investing in small business and restoring communities, and the promotion of a renewables industry was a centerpiece of the strategy for rebuilding America's manufacturing base.

With the American people feeling increasingly under siege, and our national economy increasingly threadbare, it just might be that this country is finally ready for another dose of that commonsense prairie populism, and an economy that builds prosperity by investing in its people. If our leaders don't get busy serving up a real agenda, it might be that in 2008, it will be the voters saying, “Next!”

Bracken Hendricks is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was executive director of the Apollo Alliance and served in the Clinton administration.

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