A left-leaning Nebraskan’s recent essay in the New York Times lamented our right-leaning state’s political imbalance.
“Nebraska’s Lonely Progressives” was the title of Lincoln author-psychologist Mary Pipher’s piece. At a meeting after November’s election, she wrote, a fellow liberal flatly proclaimed: “We are doomed.”
No doubt, conservative Nebraska is tilting even further to the right compared to, say, 25 years ago. But doomsday or not, Pipher’s negative stance about Nebraska not being “progressive” drew pointed response.
David E. Corbin, professor emeritus of public health at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a self-described progressive himself, wrote in a follow-up letter in the Times: “Despite being a very red state, Nebraska has some pretty progressive traits.”
As he noted, Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature and, unlike most places, we are mainly a public-power state.
Talk about progressive: Nebraska has the second-best child immunization coverage in the country, Corbin wrote, and the Nebraska Medical Center has received wide acclaim as one of the few places to treat Ebola patients.
Nebraska is also one of two states to allocate electoral votes partly by congressional district.
Bruce E. Johansen, UNO professor of communication, noted in a letter to the Times that the Omaha-based 2nd District gave an electoral vote to Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. Also, in 2014, the district was one of only three in the country to defeat a Republican congressional incumbent.
As a longtime registered independent, I have always admired Nebraska’s independent, populist streak. It showed itself again in November when voters approved an increase in the minimum wage.
Party registration in Nebraska, though, is lopsided. The GOP enjoys a 200,000-registrant advantage, 48 percent to 31 percent over Democrats. (Which leaves a healthy 21 percent mostly nonpartisan or independent.)
The 49-member Legislature is officially nonpartisan but last week increased to 35 Republicans from the previous 30.
For a half-century, by contrast, Nebraskans often elected Democrats to high office. Starting with Frank Morrison’s 1960 election, Dems sat in the governor’s chair for 26 of the next 38 years.
Ed Zorinsky’s election as U.S. senator in 1976 was the first of nine Democratic victories in 11 Senate races. Democrats J.J. Exon, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson each served as governor, then senator.
In the early 1990s, Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats, the 2nd District House seat and the offices of governor, state treasurer and state auditor.
The state’s independent streak was fostered long ago by George W. Norris, a national figure elected five times to the House and five times to the Senate. A Republican who became an independent toward the end of his 40-year elective career, his autobiography is titled “Fighting Liberal.”
Yes, that is history. And the more recent Nebraska tendency of electing Democrats to high office appears to be history, too. All six Democrats running for statewide office in November got trounced.
Debate over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed route through Nebraska is coming to a head and again has placed our state in a national focus.
Mary Pipher is an active foe of the pipeline, which would carry mostly heavy crude oil from western Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. That’s part of the reason that her New York Times essay is topical.
She writes that she loves Nebraska, despite noting its extreme weather and calling it “a windswept, spare place.”
When she travels to the East and West Coasts, she writes, people sometimes ask why she lives in Nebraska and if she has considered moving.
“Outsiders often believe Nebraska is a nondescript state with little to recommend it in culture, politics or landscape,” her Dec. 27 essay says. “But I reply that Nebraska is my home and that I love its people and its geography.”
Nebraska, she asserts, needs progressives.
I asked Paul Landow, a Democrat and an assistant professor of political science at UNO, for his take on Pipher’s essay.
In a liberal “California politics” definition of progressive, he said, it’s hard to disagree with her point.
“But left-wing politics is not as popular most anywhere as it once was,” Landow said. “To put it another way, this isn’t the ’60s anymore. Many things have changed, including the economy and the goals and aspirations of our people.”
Democrats elected to statewide office, he said, played to a populist sense that appealed to the basic values of Nebraska and stayed toward the middle of the road.
“They continued to be successful and got re-elected,” he said, “because they weren’t liberal Democrats.”
In the foreseeable future, he said, electing Democrats to statewide office is “not impossible, but unlikely. The registration advantage of Republicans is overwhelming.”
Pipher, author of “The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture,” says she and her political allies are resilient and “know how to lose and keep working.”
In its history, Nebraska indeed has shown progressive traits. But for those on the state’s political left, making progress has gotten to be a progressively difficult task.