Michael Lansing is Associate Professor of History and History Department Chair at Augsburg College. This interview is based on his new book, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Insurgent Democracy?
ML: I’m a social and environmental historian by training and orientation. I never envisioned writing political history. But the convolutions of the early 2000s–endless war, ecological catastrophe, mass incarceration, and economic crisis–made this project an imperative. I came to believe that any effort to address those problems (and a host of others) depended largely on addressing the underlying issues in political economy then and now. That demanded a close look at democracy in the age of corporate capitalism. The story of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) shows that the late 1910s and early 1920s proved to be a pivotal moment in that relationship. Even as corporations consolidated their hold on the American economy and elites redefined American democracy as a system that required expertise, engaged citizens kept practicing democracy in everyday life.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Insurgent Democracy?
ML: Drawing from their experience in cooperative organizing, over 250,000 citizens in thirteen states created the most significant challenge to party politics-as-usual in American history. Their short-lived popular movement nonetheless created lasting change–as evidenced by the ongoing success of the state-owned and -operated bank and industries in North Dakota–and transformed visions of democracy itself.
JF: Why do we need to read Insurgent Democracy?
ML: In the age of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, everyone’s talking about insurgencies and popular politics. Yet we’d be better off if we focused on the question of democracy in our daily life. In other words, instead of debating whether or not Trump and Sanders are populists (or Populists), we should focus our attention on the deterioration and potential renewal of civic agency in a profoundly corporate and cynical age. This requires expanding our political imagination and broadening our political discourse.
Civic agency refers to the capacity of regular people to work together across differences in identity and ideology, identify their shared self-interest, ascertain where power lies, and to create change. The men and women who participated in the NPL embodied this vision of democracy. It affected not only elections but also everyday relations between different kinds of people.
Drawing from and contributing to this tradition, farmers from North Dakota invented a electoral option that proved attractive to voters in twelve other states and two Canadian provinces. Nonpartisan platform-based politics that took advantage of the newly-created open primary to endorse candidates regardless of party affiliation provided an innovative way to enact change. But because rural people from a place that most ignore devised this tradition, it remains largely forgotten.
Furthermore, as the only truly transnational political movement in North American history, the NPL also shows the potency of citizen-oriented politics in Canada. In a profoundly different political context (at both the federal and provincial levels) nonpartisanship, popular participation, and equity in wheat markets appealed to many in the Prairie Provinces. Leaguers in Alberta, in particular, proved especially successful. They left a deep imprint in Canadian politics that continues to be felt to this day.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ML: As a child, my parents took me to historic sites whenever they could. I think encountering history in this way encouraged me to believe that historical thinking demands imagination. So I was lucky enough to learn early on that history wasn’t just about memorizing facts. By the time I got to college, I knew I would be a history major. As an undergraduate, I had great mentors and learned that I loved working with primary sources. Furthermore, my father taught in public schools and so I thought teaching was the highest calling one could have. The possibility of a career filled with researching and teaching history proved too tantalizing to pass up.
JF: What is your next project?
ML: I’m working on a book tentatively titled The Cradle of Carbohydrates: Minneapolis and the Making of the World’s Food. It explores Minneapolis’s central role in the propagation of processed and packaged food that promoted carbohydrate-rich diets. The work uses environmental and urban history to examine the rise and reach of a powerful food industry led by companies such as General Mills and Cargill. Ranging from white flour to fast food, The Cradle of Carbohydrates explores the power and politics spawned by the creation of complex food systems in a capitalist age. Ultimately, the story of processed and packaged food in Minneapolis is the story of a how a city made itself, transformed rural landscapes, launched corporations with a global reach, and changed the way people eat.
JF: Thanks, Michael!