Two thousand years ago, at the dawn of the Imperial era, Livy wrote a history of Rome. He feared “the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.” He was not optimistic. “Of late years,” he observed, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may put it, in love with death both individual and collective.” But he wrote nonetheless, convinced that “history is the best medicine for a sick mind.” For in history we can identify “fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
In Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879–1889, Jon Lauck, sometime professor of history and more recently senior advisor to Senator Jon Thune of South Dakota, has written a modest history of South Dakota in the spirit of Livy. His book suggests a background of foreboding about our present political culture, turning to the South Dakota struggle for statehood in order to identify sources for renewal. Lauck argues that the farm and small town culture of the Midwest in the late nineteenth century encouraged a sense of responsibility for the common good.
Until the end of the Civil War, nearly all of Nebraska and the Dakota Territories were thought to be arid wastelands. With newly developed farming techniques and expanded railway networks, however, the final decades of the nineteenth century saw a tremendous boom in the upper Great Plains. The territory that eventually became North and South Dakota had a tiny population in 1860, grew to 135,000 in 1880, and then exploded over the next decade, reaching 600,000 in 1890.
Rapid growth tends to breed a get-rich-quick atmosphere of land speculation, market manipulation, and outright fraud, as well as community-dividing competition between groups for the spoils. The Dakota Territory had absorbed a large wave of immigrant homesteaders, a population vulnerable to economic exploitation and political domination by the native born Americans who also flooded into the territory. The railroads were often giant corporations with lots of money to buy political favoritism, and not surprisingly they tended to bring corruption in their wake.
Describe these conditions to a group of sociologists, and they’ll predict a culture of cowboy capitalism, oligarchies, politicians for hire, and ethnic voting blocks. And they would have good reasons. Consider some aspects of the American history of racial and ethnic relations: Systematic racial segregation emerged in the South after the failure of Reconstruction, while in the 1880s a growing California banned Chinese immigration and in the early twentieth century ethnic politics, often bitter and sometimes violent, dominated major American cities. Civic culture is strained to the breaking point by rapid social change.
Yet, aside from the still ongoing agonies of Native Americans, it was not so in South Dakota. As Lauck points out, for more than a century, Americans have pictured places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as bastions of Mom-and-apple-pie normality. The endless fields of corn and soybeans blur into the expanses of the American Middle West, fly-over country, where ethanol plants and windmill farms have sprouted in recent years but nothing much makes the national news.
What explains this unexpectedly sedate and respectable outcome? How did South Dakota transform a volatile mix of growth and ethnic diversity into the staid small town life that has been caricatured since Mark Twain and censured since Sherwood Anderson?
Lauck identifies a number of factors. First, as he observes, “Many Dakota settlers, hailing from the Midwest and New England, brought with them their home regions’ heritage of republican citizenship.” An American tradition of local governance encouraged political participation. It also bridled against the power of the railroads and eventually provided votes for Populists who sallied forth against Big Money, the most famous of which was the Great Commoner, the Nebraskan William Jennings Bryant.
This sense of energetic local citizenship was dramatically reinforced by long lasting memories of the Civil War. Many towns in the Dakota Territory were named after Union heroes, and the shared experience of veterans provided an immediate sense of social solidarity that was strongly colored by an idealistic patriotism. Abraham Lincoln’s words, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” was far from a dead letter.
The third factor can be found in the pervasive influence of Christianity. The incoming immigrants, some from other parts of the United States, others from Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere, built “an archipelago of Christian churches on the Dakota prairie that deepened community ties, inculcated social virtue, and generally promoted social order.” Relations were not always warm. Protestants in nineteenth century Dakota Territory feared the influence of what they imagined to be the anti-democratic culture of Roman Catholicism. The overall influence of Christianity, however, supported a robust local political culture. To be trained in faith invariably means being trained to serve rather than exploit and dominate one’s neighbor.
A tradition of local governance that resists both a supine dependence on Washington, D.C. or dominance by remote corporate interests; a patriotism that believes in the noble possibilities of the American experiment; vibrant churches and church leaders who remind us that life is more than our economic or political self-interest—it’s not surprising that Lauck finds these features of Dakota life attractive. After twenty years living in Nebraska, I certainly have as well. But does this political culture, what Lauck calls “republican citizenship,” have a future?
Lilacs tipped with light purple blooms still grace the side streets of small towns throughout the American Midwest, but as Lauck recognizes in an elegiac epilogue, fewer and fewer people live there. Crop production increases every decade, but modern technology has drastically reduced the need for farm labor. Children and grandchildren move to larger towns and cities. Certainly much less impoverished and vulnerable than their immigrant forebears, they recapitulate their forebears’ migrating search for economic opportunity and a better life for their children.
Places like South Dakota are reinventing themselves in an effort to stay afloat in a global economy. Small town Midwestern culture is becoming, if not urban, at least suburban, a place where people commute to Des Moines to work at Home Depot rather than walk down the street to run the local hardware store.
As a cultural conservative, I am inclined to deeply regret the corrosive, dissolving consequences of our mobile, ever-changing society, as much destroyed by economic vitality, it seems, as enriched. Moreover, I fear the growing power of an increasingly invasive centralized government that is eager to tell us how to live our lives. Yet I remain something perhaps possible only for a conservative who is also an American—an optimist.
There is nothing uniquely Midwestern about a determined desire to gain a measure of political control over one’s immediate environment. As New York City demonstrated after September 11, patriotism is not a rural phenomenon. Christianity, of course, first erupted in the ancient cities of the Roman Empire, not its rural farmlands. There is no reason why healthy patterns of citizenship, reinforced by the influences Lauck identifies in late nineteenth-century South Dakota, cannot take root in the new civic spaces that are emerging in America.
Indeed, the typically American crazy quilt of private philanthropy, political involvement, religious commitment, and civic association seems to be sewn again and again. We can wax anxious about the details—impersonal suburban mega-churches taking the place of the intimate congregations, professionalized “community organizers” instead of local leaders, and of course a political process increasingly dominated by pollsters and spin artists—but we shouldn’t lose sight of the basic American impulse. Yes, we’re often greedy sensualists. We’re selfish and concerned mainly about our private lives. But on the whole we’re not inclined to allow ourselves to be turned into cattle, whether by the Nanny State or the laws of supply and demand.
Thus my optimism, encouraged by my experience on the Great Plains. Most of us do not want to live in the political equivalent of a housing project administered by remote bureaucrats. Nor do we want to live in the political equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange where every dimension of civic life has a selling price. And because we don’t, if we are reasonably vigilant and energetic, odds are we won’t.
R. R. Reno is Professor of Theology at Creighton University and a Senior Editor at Large of First Things.