Jacobs: Plains historian presents new theory of rural rightward lurch

One possible reason: the growing militarization of the Great Plains.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

GRAND FORKS — Many explanations have been advanced for the sharp right turn that Great Plains politics has taken. Nowhere has the lurch been more pronounced than in North Dakota. For 24 years, from 1987 to 2011, the state’s three congressional seats were held by Democrats, and Democrats had majorities in one or the other house of the Legislature into the 1990s.

No more. Today not only the congressional seats but every statewide elective office is in the hands of Republicans. The rightward topple is equally pronounced in the Legislature, where Democrats have been reduced to whimpering wannabes.

What happened?

Among the theses explored here several have seemed especially apt. One is the industrialization of agriculture, abetted by changes in federal farm policy, which emptied the countryside and made the remaining farm operators very much more efficient, more productive and wealthier. Another is the explosive growth of the energy industry. A third is the assumption that the federal government has grown too intrusive, despite the far gentler touch of today’s federal farm policy.

Others have more to do with national issues, especially immigration and the emergence of so-called “identity politics.” North Dakotans aren’t comfortable with diversity. Finally, inept leadership among Democrats has left the party rudderless, unable to articulate a program that resonates with North Dakotans.


Now comes a provocative new thesis. It’s the growing militarization of the Great Plains.

So says Catherine McNicol Stock, an historian of the plains, in “Nuclear Country: The Origins of the Rural New Right,” published by the University of Pennsylvania in November. Stock teaches at Connecticut College; her earlier books have examined the Depression years in small towns (“Main Street in Crisis: The Great Depression and the Old Middle Class on the Northern Plains,” 1992) and agrarian politics (“Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain,” 1996). She also wrote the introduction to Howard Lamar’s classic “Dakota Territory 1861-1889: A Study of Frontier Politics.”

The professor’s got chops.

“Nuclear Country” examines the steadily increasing military presence in the plains states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and, somewhat peripherally, Missouri. Of course, the military has had an important role in North Dakota for a very long time. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was a military expedition, and that was only the beginning.

The military presence, despite its conspicuous continuity in the state’s history, didn’t have a major impact on political developments. Instead, North Dakotans gained a reputation for economic experimentation, establishing the nation’s only state-owned bank and mill and elevator, both hugely successful a century after they were established. The state sent skeptics about military involvement to Congress. Gov. Louis B. Hanna, a conservative who had earlier served in the U.S. House, chartered a “peace ship” that sailed to Norway ahead of World War I. In 1922, Lynn J. Frazier, who had been governor, was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1940. Essentially a pacifist, he said he couldn’t support a military draft even in time of war. For much of his tenure, Frazier’s Senate partner was Gerald P. Nye, famous for his theory that munitions makers had fomented World War I. Wild Bill Langer, Frazier’s successor, was skeptical about foreign entanglements and the military establishment.

This began to change in the 1950s, when Milton Young took a more expansive view of what the military could mean to the state that he represented in the Senate for 35 years. Stock reports his successful efforts. Two of the state’s largest cities, Grand Forks and Minot, became dependent on Air Force bases, and associated intercontinental missile sites helped spread the military presence across the state. Small towns in the northern counties benefitted from construction of the missile sites. Nor were these the only military operations in the state; there were radar installations operated by both the Navy and the Air Force, and National Guard armories in many cities. A survivor of these times, near Cooperstown, is named for Ronald Reagan.

Attracting and sustaining these became not just a fixture in the state’s politics, but a focal point. Grand Forks lobbied successfully to prevent closure of the base, turning it into a joint use facility that has attracted a flourishing new industry — and a further rightward motion in local politics. Sen. John Hoeven has been especially prominent in this effort, but there’s no dissent anywhere in the political establishment. Today, UND is becoming a hub for drone research — not exclusive to military uses, of course, but complementing the Air Force’s drone mission. It’s also seeking a role in the militarization of space though a close attachment to the developing “Space Force.”

All of this clearly has helped pull the state’s politics to the right, though other factors have also been at work. The combination has made North Dakota’s rightward tilt especially obvious.


Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

What To Read Next
Get Local