Berkley Bedell was one of the last of his kind.
Bedell, a six-term congressman from northwest Iowa, died on Dec. 7. He was 98, and had been out of office for more than 30 years.
He first ran for Congress in 1972, the year another prairie populist, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, was the Democratic nominee for president. Like McGovern, who was trounced by President Richard Nixon, Bedell lost to Republican Rep. Wiley Mayne.
Both men enjoyed the 1974 election a lot more. After Nixon was forced from office in disgrace after the Watergate scandal, Bedell defeated Mayne while McGovern earned his third Senate term with a solid victory over former POW Leo Thorsness.
Bedell, the founder of a fishing tackle company from Spirit Lake, Iowa, was a millionaire and glad-handing, quick-witted politician. He remained involved after leaving office, campaigning for Sen. Elizabeth Warren this past summer.
It all started in 1974, which was a high-tide moment for Midwest liberals. Jim Abourezk, who somehow was to the left of McGovern, was South Dakota’s other senator.
Hubert Humphrey, in his second run as a senator after four years as vice president, and future VP Walter Mondale represented Minnesota in the Senate.
Future longtime Sen. Tom Harkin was a fellow Iowa congressman and Democrats dominated the Hawkeye State’s congressional delegation.
Democrat Quentin Burdick was in the midst of a 32-year run in Senate in North Dakota, establishing a party stranglehold on the seat for nearly six decades. Nebraska even had a Democratic senator in Edward Zorinsky.
Now, Republicans hold almost all those seats. The Upper Midwest is Trump Country, with the president winning by huge majorities in 2016 and a heavy favorite to do so again in 2020.
Most of those old populists are dead, replaced by a new brand of populist politician who uses quite different techniques. While McGovern, Humphrey, Bedell and others held liberal views on social and international matters, they were staunch supporters of farm programs.
They knew that farmers and their families, along with the folks in small towns in their states, followed such issues closely. While they might have disagreed with the liberals they sent to Washington on foreign affairs, they liked the money they brought home with them.
Pork wasn’t just about raising hogs. It also meant millions for water projects and infrastructure, and these Democrats delivered for their states.
South Dakotans Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, who followed in McGovern’s footsteps by serving in the U.S. House before winning three terms in the Senate, also channeled cash to their home state. As long as they did that, voters didn’t pay a lot of mind to their other work in Washington, D.C.
The new breed of populists, however, are more about lighting fires than delivering water. Like their voters, they follow Fox News, which sounds a steady drumbeat of warnings about evil people and dangerous times.
They “report” about murderous Mexican immigrants, twisted transgender people eager to use the “wrong” bathroom and lazy socialists who rely on taxpayer handouts to buy more pot. There is only a smattering of truth in many of these claims, but in the echo chamber of modern conservative media, if it’s repeated enough, it becomes gospel.
Abortion, homosexuality and the changing face of America are all of great concerns to people in these states. None of these issues mattered in 1974 but now they move elections.
So while the farm economy tanks, and small towns get smaller, while family farms vanish and country gravel roads collapse under the weight of massive new machinery, Midwest voters still send Republicans to Congress.
Bedell represented Iowa’s 6th District, which doesn’t even exist any longer. It was deleted after the 1990 Census. Most of the district is now represented by Rep. Steve King, perhaps the most controversial Republican in Congress.
King, with his remarks on white supremacy, culture wars and warnings of illegal aliens flocking to small-town Iowa, is in a battle for the GOP nomination to represent Iowa’s 5th District. He may not win, but it seems like a Republican will represent the district for years to come.
Among the few still living, Abourezk, Daschle, Johnson, Harkin, and Mondale have left politics behind. Iowa’s District 6 is gone, and so is Bedell now.
The era of Prairie Populism ended years ago. Now, newspaper columns, the obits and history books are about the only places that mentions it.