The Mississippi River begins at Lake Itasca, Minn., and winds its way 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. If you plot that out on a map, you see that the river bisects the United States. It is the axis that joins North and South, neatly splitting the country into East and West.
It is also the axis around which American politics has revolved from the day it was acquired. Political loyalties lash back and forth in time with historical forces driven by the march of the river; this year, from Wisconsin in the north to Louisiana in the south, at least five and as many as seven of the 10 states along the river are so closely divided that any one of them could decide the presidential election.
No other force has more profoundly shaped the history of the United States, which would not exist as we know it had President Thomas Jefferson not bought it in the Louisiana Purchase 201 years ago.
The acquisition doubled the size of the country, instantaneously making the political and social norms of hundreds of thousands of settlers the political and social norms of America. The river became the most vital transportation avenue of the new nation. Along its banks flowed the heart of American commerce, and ideas.
Scan the history of American political and social movements and you will find it impossible to identify one that doesn’t have some connection to the Mississippi River. For example, it etched the wound that left the long scar of slavery — the river was the engine that drove the cotton trade, and the Missouri Compromise was born on its western banks.
Entire local economies were built to exploit the river, and the states along the Mississippi are forever locked in boom-and-bust cycles as they wrenchingly reorient their economies to accommodate the times. Thus are born new political movements. Thus are born opposing political factions that survive for decades, some to this day.
Thus are born swing states.
Wisconsin: Progressive is as progressive does
In some states, resentments can build so powerfully that influential reform movements span the spectrum from far left to far right. Nowhere else is this more so than in Wisconsin, home of bratwursts and cheeseheads, birthplace of right-wing witch hunts and left-wing isolationist Progressives.
The Progressive movement of the turn of the 20th century was embodied in the LaFollettes. Robert LaFollette Sr., a disenchanted Republican, was elected three times as governor beginning in 1900, championing the Progressives’ platform of business regulation, open suffrage and environmental conservation.
He moved to the Senate in 1905, serving 20 years. Along the way, he took up the cause of banking and transportation regulation and led the opposition to U.S. entry into World War I.
When LaFollette died in 1925, his son Robert Jr. was appointed to replace him. Junior won his own election three years later and held the seat for three terms; his brother, Philip, was governor during the 1930s. The brothers established The Progressive, a magazine you can still buy today, in 1934.
But in 1946, the Progressive LaFollette dynasty met a swift and nasty end, thanks to Joseph R. McCarthy, who slung enough lies and mud to take away Robert LaFollette Jr.’s Senate seat.
McCarthy, mining hard-right anti-progressive sentiments among many Wisconsin Republicans, even then was not above grotesquely inflating his war record (he held a desk job in World War II) and accusing LaFollette of treason for not serving in the war. (He was too old, but that didn’t stop Tail Gunner Joe.)
In 1917, a Senate committee investigated whether Robert LaFollette Sr. should be expelled for treason; it exonerated him. In 1950, Congress honored him as one of the five greatest senators in history. Four years later, the Senate censured McCarthy for abusing his powers in spearheading what came to be known as McCarthyism.
For a half-century, the furthest wings of mainstream American politics battled over the same seat in the U.S. Senate, both upholding their own particular brands of populist grievance. The polarization survives. Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by just 2 percentage points in 2000; pollsters expect the race this year to be just as close, if not closer.
Louisiana: Another kind of progressive
At the other end of the river, in Louisiana, the Wisconsin extremes were blended into a unique populist stew.
If any state has ever come close to being a banana republic, it was Louisiana from 1928, when Huey P. Long became governor, to 1935, when, by then a U.S. senator, he was assassinated. In those seven short years, Long seized dictatorial control of Louisiana and set himself up as a presidential contender by melding LaFollette’s little-guy progressivism with McCarthy’s brutal exercise of raw power. They called him the Kingfish.
Long built roads. He spent more on schools and guaranteed free textbooks. He reformed the court and prison systems. He recognized labor unions. He fought big business and the wealthy, calling for laws that would limit incomes to $1 million a year and families’ total wealth to $5 million.
At the same time, he was a despot. When he was elected to the Senate in 1930, he refused to take his seat until he could engineer the appointment of his hand-picked successor as governor, and if anything, he ran the state government with even more ruthlessness from Washington. Although he had no right to do so, he drafted and passed bills through the Legislature, and in 1934 he personally reorganized the state bureaucracy to give himself — a U.S. senator, not a state government official — the authority to appoint all state employees.
He was also a bully and thoroughly corrupt. He browbeat and lied about opponents in a way McCarthy would make famous 20 years later. He was a racist, requiring state appointees to prove they had no Negro blood. When he was shot to death in 1935 in Baton Rouge, it was allegedly because his assassin feared that Long would revive a scurrilous racial rumor about him.
Those strains run through Louisiana politics today. The same state that sent Huey Long to Washington elected his equally corrupt brother, Earl, as governor three times. It embraced the scoundrel Edwin Edwards, electing him governor four times despite two decades of investigations for corruption that culminated in his being sentenced to 300 years in prison in 2001; last year, 57 percent of Louisianans said he had been a good governor. It elected David Duke, a former national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to the state House and almost elected him governor in 1990.
Bush handily won Louisiana four years ago, but pollsters and state officials predict a much tighter race this time around; the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, has campaigned there three times in just the last two months.
Along the way
As they bracket the North and the South, Wisconsin and Louisiana similarly bracket the political currents of the Mississippi River. At almost any stop along the way, you can find a strain of American politics with echoes in this year’s campaign.
Across the river from Wisconsin lies Minnesota, where political mavericks are corralled. Home to the only state where the Democratic Party is not called the Democratic Party (it is the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL), Minnesota helped end Lyndon Johnson’s presidency by sending Sen. Eugene McCarthy to Washington, where he ignited an antiwar insurgency that led LBJ to abandon plans to run for re-election in 1968. Instead, the Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey — McCarthy’s former Senate colleague from Minnesota.
In 1998, Minnesotans elected James Janos — the former wrestler better known as Jesse “The Body” Ventura — as governor. This year, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio made one of his best showings in Minnesota, running a strong third in the state’s Super Tuesday primary. It should come as no surprise that polls show that spoiler independent candidate Ralph Nader could well decide the presidential campaign in Minnesota, where Bush and Kerry are in a dead heat.
Heading south, you reach Iowa, which gave America one of the most left-wing politicians it has ever elected to high office, Henry Wallace. Wallace, a Progressive who eventually espoused socialism, was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941 through 1944 and then commerce secretary. But Iowa is also where Herbert Hoover, the father of the “rugged individualism” school of political conservatism, sprang from. Hoover is popularly assigned much of the blame for the Great Depression; Wallace was one of the strongest advocates of many of the policies Roosevelt enacted to end it. The dichotomy lives on in a dead heat in this year’s political campaign, polls show.
Iowans’ split personality has also been ideal for producing non-partisan observers of the political game. George Gallup, who made public opinion polling an indispensable political science, came from there; so did Johnny Carson, America’s commentator of choice for 30 years.
Birth of the two-party system
East across the river is Illinois, the original swing state. The Republican Party, to a large extent, was born in Illinois, where anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln fought two historic elections against pro-compromise Democrat Stephen Douglas. Douglas won the first, for the Senate in 1858, but Lincoln won the second, becoming president two years later and changing America forever.
Illinois is also where both Ronald Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton were born.
Below Illinois is Kentucky. Lincoln was born there; so was Jefferson Davis. Moreover, the same state that gave us the president of the Confederacy was where Cassius Marcellus Clay, who as Muhammad Ali became an icon of black pride and achievement in the 20th century, came from.
To the west is Missouri. Bush and Kerry are tied there, in a state where competing forces produced both Rep. Dick Gephardt, the darling of the labor movement, and John Ashcroft, the evangelical attorney general. Missouri was run by radical Republicans during the second half of the 19th century, but by 1945 a Missouri Democrat, Harry Truman, was president. Like Iowa, Missouri has also been fertile ground for journalists and pundits; Rush Limbaugh, Mark Twain and Walter Cronkite were all born there.
Go south and you enter Arkansas, a true political weather vane, where Bush won in 2000 but where he and Kerry have played hot potato with the lead this year. Although Arkansas is home to Bill Clinton, it was also one of the last bastions of violent resistance to segregation under Gov. Orval Faubus. But from Arkansas also came Maya Angelou and Eldridge Cleaver. The state also incubated the nation’s engine of low-cost, high-efficiency retail economics: Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart in Arkansas.
A small sliver of Tennessee is across the banks of the Mississippi. Tennessean Al Gore was the Democratic nominee four years ago, but Republican Bush won the state; this year, Bush and Kerry are within a point of each other.
Alongside Louisiana at the southern end of the Mississippi River is Mississippi itself, where racial politics continue to play out in living color, a reality that makes it a solidly Republican state.
Mississippi helped begin the white flight from the Democratic Party. In 1948, Gov. Fielding Wright split Mississippi off from the party, joining South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat presidential ticket. Their legacy lives today; Mississippi is represented in the Senate by Trent Lott, who lost his position as Republican leader two years ago when he seemed to say that Thurmond should have won that election.
Since then, Mississippi — despite being a cradle of the civil rights movement — has supported no Democrat since 1956 except Jimmy Carter.
© 2004 MSNBC Interactive