Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s tragic death last week affected people across the country. But here in the Midwest, Wellstone’s death has been especially resonant. Wellstone was the latest in the pantheon of great Democrats who have imbued Midwestern politics with their brand of grass-roots progressivism. His trademark populism recalled the great Midwestern populists and progressives of the 20th century – Robert LaFollette, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair – who spent their lives crusading for good government and the causes of the common man.
Wellstone identified himself with workers, farmers, the underprivileged and disfranchised. And he fought consistently and loudly for consumer rights, education, labor and the environment. Despite his common-man platform, Wellstone’s appeal cut across class and political lines and earned him the respect of citizens across the country who admired his principled voice of dissent and his unwavering commitment to his ideals.
The standards that Wellstone set as a crusading senator exemplify all that is right about grass-roots progressivism. Along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Wellstone pushed the issues facing everyday Americans into the national spotlight, challenging the status quo in order to make the political process more accessible to the public. But despite their dedication, Wellstone and Feingold were often the lone voices of dissent in their respective legislative bodies where they were often dismissed as being too liberal.
The overwhelming reaction to Wellstone’s death vindicates his efforts. Before his death, pundits agreed that the outcome of Wellstone’s race against former St. Paul Mayor Norman Coleman would serve as an indicator of liberal progressivism’s potency, a Wellstone victory serving as a mandate that grass-roots politics are still alive and well in the heartland. With Wellstone’s passing, liberals have lost perhaps their most vocal champion of those ideals, but they have not lost their mandate. Even in death, Wellstone’s has helped to turn the spotlight favorably on progressive Democrats and on Midwestern liberals in particular. It has given us pause to reflect on the massive potential that resides here in the Midwest – in our universities and community colleges, our unions and local governments, our neighborhood organizations and student groups. That latent grass-roots movement has been presented with the opportunity to energize itself once again.
Here in Michigan – one of only two states where both senators voted against granting the president full authorization to pursue a war in Iraq -that Midwestern progressivism is being championed by Democrats like Ann Arbor’s own state Rep. Chris Kolb and lameduck U.S. Rep. Lynn River. But no big name Michiganders have emerged yet as contemporary standard-bearers of the great progressive tradition.
Wellstone’s legacy is secure and will only to grow in the future. We can honor it by continuing the tradition that the late senator revived.