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What it Means to be Red

Political history is not my cup of tea, but I cannot help being impressed and fascinated by this new book from South Dakota State Historical Society Press: After Populism: The Agrarian Left on the Northern Plains, by William C. Pratt. I’ve known Bill Pratt, professor emeritus at University of Nebraska Omaha, for forty years. His new book is of a conventional genre for historians—collected essays of an old guy summing up a long career. This one far exceeds the usual expectations of a bucket of odd nuts and bolts from the shop.

For we on the Great Plains are ignorant and disrespectful of our political past. We are all-to-willing to accept the shallow characterizations of political hack commentators who cater to the worst of polarizing national expectations. Liberal, conservative; Republican, Democrat; rural, urban; red state, blue state.

All these terms are tortured and abused, but just now think about the absurdity of that last dichotomy: red and blue. If you’ve forgotten what it means to be “red,” then you’ve forgotten Karl Mundt and Bob Dole, prairie politicians who achieved fame as red-baiters during the Cold War. A red, for pete’s sake, is a communist! Just what in God’s creation do you mean when you say Kansas, or North Dakota, or South Dakota is a “red state”? I’ll wager you don’t know.

And “populist,” there’s one of the most abused terms in the echo chamber of current political commentary. Let us follow the lead of Bill Pratt and reclaim it for what it is. Populists adhere to the ideals of the Farmers Alliance and the People’s Party, the Populist Party, which defended family farming and challenged the complacent assumptions of the two major parties in the 1890s—with a grassroots agrarian movement centered on the Great Plains.

So thank Bill Pratt for informing us about the Nonpartisan League, the Farm Holiday Association, the National Farmers Organization, the National Farmers Union, the American Agriculture Movement, and yes, the socialists and communists in our prairie history. His research is astonishing. Historians are impressed with his assiduous use of the FBI files he patiently accessed via the Freedom of Information Act. They applaud his achievement as one of the earliest scholars, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, to dive into the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, which contained unexpected troves of data about communist cells on the American prairies.

Most of all, I am edified by Bill’s personal memoir of his long journey of discovery, his dogged persistence as a road warrior across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, searching out local stashes of papers, looking up and interviewing old lefties and their descendants, and familiarizing himself with their world on the prairies.

Bill describes his journey in Chapter 2, “Adventures and Dilemmas of a Grassroots Historian.” I am going to assign this essay to my students as a model of process and dedication. Bill says, for one thing, “you soon discover that dogs are not man’s best friend,” but also, “The travel itself can be instructive.” Yes, Bill, let’s form a chorus to instruct the rising generation of prairie historians: Butts in the archives, boots on the ground!

“As a historian,” Bill says, “I needed to find out what I could about the people I studied, and anything that encouraged me to look at the landscape or their communities or ponder how they lived and died might help.” This kind of research is inefficient. It might take a lifetime. “Grassroots historians work in the provinces and are often provincial themselves,” Bill confesses, “but if their provincialism is informed by a knowledge of the greater world, it can be a strength. Most history has been acted out at the grassroots level, and it is there . . . that one topic after another still awaits its historian.” No pun intended, I call that a manifesto.

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