Bernie Sanders Fulfilling the Western Progressive Tradition

by Jonathan Hobratsch

It’s not surprising that Bernie Sanders is doing well West of the Mississippi. The West has been traditionally very progressive. The majority of the voters for the Weaver’s Populist Party (People’s Party), Deb’s Socialist Party, La Follette Progressive Republicans and Roosevelt Progressive Republican’s came from the West.

Here is a quick run down of Progressive parties and politicians in Western US history:


The first 3rd party that could resemble the modern progressive parties was probably the Union Labor Party led by Alson Streeter, a Democratic Socialist. While the party received just over 1% of the vote, it’s two best states were Kansas (11%) and Texas (8%). At this time, most of the West were still territories and could not vote.


The first strong progressive party was the Populist Party (also known as the People’s Party), which was agrarian-populist, but also pro-Union. They opposed the excesses of capitalism, as well as the gold standard for currency.

In 1892, the party was led by former Civil War general James B. Weaver, a former Greenback Party member and future Democrat. Weaver won 5 states–all in the West–in the general election: Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas and North Dakota. Additionally, they nearly won Wyoming and Nebraska, while defeating one of the two major parties for second place in South Dakota, Alabama, Oregon, Texas and Mississippi. They were a strong third in Washington with 22%.

Four Western states were still territories and could not vote. Since the West was sparsely populated, the Populist Party won only 8.5% of the popular vote nationwide, despite taking 5 states.


This marked the year that William Jennings Bryan, an agrarian populist Democrat with a philosophy close to something like Christian Democratic Socialism, took control of the Democratic Party from the Conservative Bourbon Democrat wing of the party, which held control of the party since the early 1870s.

Bryan was able to win over the supporters of the 1892 Populist Party, as well as Union supporters and poor farmers opposed to the Gold Standard. While Bryan was defeated easily in the election, he won big in the West.

From 1896 to 1904, Western progressives stuck with Bryan and the Democrats until the nomination of Alton B. Parker, a Bourbon Democrat in 1904.


The pro-business, hard money nomination of Alton B. Parker sent Western progressives looking for another option for president. While many jumped to Teddy Roosevelt’s Republican Party, which was just adopting progressive policies, many looked to 3rd parties.

The first alternative was Eugene V. Deb’s Socialist Party. He performed best in California, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Idaho in the 1904 election, winning anywhere from about 10%-7% of the vote in these states.

In Nebraska, 9% of the voters opted for the new Populist Party under Thomas Watson. In Washington, the Socialist Labor Party showed its best result in Washington with 1% of the vote.


In the next election, Democrats realized they couldn’t nominate another traditionalist in a Progressive Age, and opted for the leader of the progressive wing, William Jennings Bryan for the third time. He would lose the election for the 3rd time.

While Bryan was able to win back some of the Western states, Roosevelt has selected William Howard Taft as his successor on the promise that he’d continue progressive policies. As such, many Westerners appear to have stuck with the Republican Party again.

Deb’s Socialist Party, meanwhile took many voters (about 7% to about 9%) from Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana and Washington. The slight decrease for Debs is probably because of Bryan’s nomination.


I’ll call this election the high point of the Progressive Age. We have four parties of which three are very progressive (Bull Moose Progressive, Democrats and Socialist) and one is moderately progressive (Taft Republicans).

Taft had upset Teddy Roosevelt and elements of his party by not being progressive enough. As such, in the primaries, Taft faced two very progressive challengers: Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. The key differences with Roosevelt and La Follette might be over the strength of government in forcing progressiveness. La Follette had a more classical sense in thinking that it can be accomplished with less government than Roosevelt did. Roosevelt more than La Follette foreshadows his cousin’s New Deal, I think.

This election was also the first election with some primaries. Five Western states had primaries. La Follette won North Dakota and Roosevelt won South Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon and California. Although this didn’t matter, since the Convention selected Taft, causing Roosevelt to bolt and launch a 3rd party.

For the Democrats, Woodrow Wilson, a Southern born former conservative Democrat, has tacked to the left over his political career. At the convention he won over the support of progressive Democrat leader William Jennings Bryan, thus giving Wilson the appearance of being a progressive himself.

In the general election, the West showed its progressive nature by handing Roosevelt’s 3rd party a victory in California, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Washington. Progressive Democrat Wilson won the rest of the West, except for Mormon Utah, which stayed with the more conservative Taft. In nearly every Western state, Taft fell to third place.

The 1912 election is also the best a Socialist had ever performed until Bernie Sanders in 2016. In eight Western states, Debs was able to get about 10% to 16% of the vote. These include Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona, Washington, California, Idaho and Oregon. Even Texas handed him over 8% of the vote. Nebraska was the least interested Western state in Debs, giving him only 4% of the vote.

The split in the Republican Party allowed Wilson to take the White House. He seems to have satisfied most Western progressives since in 1916, he faced little 3rd party opposition from Socialists or other progressives, except in Nevada and Oklahoma. Debs did not seek reelection for his party in 1916 and no third progressive party chose to run in the election.


Neither major party selected a progressive candidate, since the country was moving away from the whirlwind changes of the first part of the century following World War I. As such, Western Progressive not settling for James Cox or Warren G. Harding, went to the Socialist Party or Farmer-Labor party. The latter party, led by Parley Christensen was another agrarian populist party following Democratic Socialist principals.

In this election, which resulted in a Harding landslide victory, progressive third parties were able to pick up a chunk of the vote in Washington, South Dakota, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California and Oklahoma. The Farmer-Labor Party picked up nearly 20% of the vote in Washington and South Dakota, while the Socialist Party, with Debs running again, did better than Farmer-Labor overall.


The 1924 election has been called the High Tide of Conservatism since both parties nominated very conservative candidates for the presidency. Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis weren’t going to satisfy Western progressives.

Davis had been a compromise choice. The initial frontrunner was William McAdoo, who had the support of labor and rural populists. However, his main competition was Al Smith and urban Catholic. By default, The Ku Klux Klan, which was highly influential and no less bigoted, endorsed McAdoo. The endorsement was unwelcomed, but he didn’t disavow it. Ultimately, the party couldn’t choose between a Klan candidate and a Catholic, so it selected the little known conservative John W. Davis.

Probably because of the nomination of two conservative candidates, Progressive Republican Robert La Follette ran an independent third party campaign. However, he won only his home state of Wisconsin. He did perform very well in the West (between 20% and 45% of the vote) in North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, South Dakota, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, California, Wyoming, Iowa, Oregon, Arizona, Nebraska, Utah and Colorado. In nearly every one of these states, La Follette came in second over the Democrat John W. Davis.


Following Coolidge’s presidency, the Western progressives seemed to settle on the two major parties. In 1928, Herbert Hoover dominated the West against Al Smith, who was the more liberal of the two. Hoover, however, was not nearly as conservative as Coolidge, and the Coolidge economy was doing really well, as he passed the presidency on to his successor. Not a singe 3rd party stood out in 1928.

Amid the Great Depression, populists, progressives or both moved to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s version of progressiveness, which seems like a hybrid of Teddy Roosevelt progressivism and Al Smith urban liberalism. FDR won resounding victories in the West.

However in 1936, William Lemke’s Union Party (somewhat inspired by Huey P. Long’s Share the Wealth platform) showed some support in the West, including over 13% of the support of North Dakota. In the 1936 Republican primaries, progressive Republican William Borah won the most support in Western states.

In 1940, FDR showed his greatest weakness in the West, where he lost six states to the somewhat liberal Republican businessman Wendell Wilkie. The business man had been a Democrat. Major reasons for the switch by Western voters might have been because FDR was running for a 3rd term and for some policies, which may have needlessly strengthened government too much. These were policies that even the progressive La Follette dynasty of Wisconsin opposed. FDR was probably able to maintain most Western progressive support by selected former progressive Republican Henry A. Wallace of Iowa for the Vice Presidency.

The West again was split between FDR and his Republican opponent in 1944 when FDR ran for a fourth time. This time seven states opted for Thomas Dewey, a moderate Republican, over FDR, who was slowly dying. Additionally, FDR was forced to replace the progressive Wallace as VP for Harry S Truman, who was ideologically to the right of FDR.


With FDR dead, the Democratic Party split three ways, since Truman could not satisfying conservatives or progressives or hold them together as Roosevelt had been able to do. Additionally, he faced Thomas Dewey, who as a moderate Republican, was sometimes left of Truman.

Ultimately, Truman was able to win most of the West, losing only five states to Dewey. In short, Truman was able to convince progressive voters that he was their best candidate over Dewey or Wallace. The new Progressive Party under Henry A. Wallace greatly under performed, often winning only 2% of the vote in the West.


Sometime after World War II, the population increased significantly in the West, especially in California. My guess is that a mass migration of Easterners diluted the traditional progressive strength in the West as they moved into new suburbs and altered the political atmosphere.

Regardless, large progressive support still revealed itself from time to time.

In 1952, California supported their progressive Republican governor Earl Warren for the presidency in the primary. In a way, Earl Warren was the heir of California’s old progressive Republican governor and senator Hiram Johnson, who had run as Teddy Roosevelt’s VP in his 3rd party progressive bid.

In the 1956 Democratic primaries, most of the Western states supported populist Estes Kefauver.

The Socialist Labor Party, while very weak, showed most of its support in the general election in Colorado and Washington in both the 1956 and 1960 elections.

In the 1964 election, LBJ won soundly in the West and all across the country on his Civil Rights and Great Society platforms. Barry Goldwater, the leading voice against the Civil Rights Act, won only his home state of Arizona in the West, and much of the Deep South.

In the chaotic 1968 election, Western Democrats soundly rejected the establishment by voting between liberal Democrats Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Remember it was at RFK’s victory speech in California where he was assassinated.


In 1972, the first election for every state to have primaries, the liberal Democrat George McGovern, who was ultimately the nominee, outperformed establishment-backed candidates in the West.

In the 1976 Democratic primaries, while Jimmy Carter was the ultimate nominee, the West supported Mo Udall and Frank Church, both of whom had a strong liberal reputation. Jimmy Carter campaigned as a moderate Southern Democrat. Ronald Reagan’s strong showing in the Republican Primary against the more moderate Gerald Ford reveals that by this time Western Republicans were now soundly Conservative, while the Democrats were still mostly Progressive. The split that defines our current politics shows a clear foreshadowing at this time. One can arguably make the case that it goes back to the 1950s, as soon as suburbia is popping up around major Western cities.


The “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 was accomplished partially by an independent bid by moderate Republican John Anderson. My assumption is that many of the former moderate Republicans, who supported Anderson, moved on to the Democratic Party, while former Southern Democrats and new centrist suburbanites moved to the Republican Party. Anderson did very well for a 3rd party in Western states in the 1980 election; although, he failed to win any of them.

In the 1980 Democratic Primary, Ted Kennedy showed much of his greatest support in the West, but he was still soundly defeated by Jimmy Carter.

In 1984, Reagan destroyed Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. However, much of Mondale’s strongest support was in the West.

In 1988, Ron Paul ran as a 3rd party Libertarian candidate. While fiscally conservative, Paul’s socially liberal platform appealed to the West. His top 10 states in this election were all West of the Mississippi River.

In 1992 and in 1996, Ross Perot showed the majority of his support in the West. While Maine 30% of Maine supported him in 1992, his next 13 best states were all Western states.

The 1996 election is also the first election with a presidential run by Ralph Nader, then the Green Party leader. Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and California were all states with a relatively high support for Nader’s Green Party. In 2000, Nader again performed relatively well in the West, getting about 4% of the vote or higher in Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah and Washington. By 2004 and 2008, Nader’s support fell, possibly having taken a hit over the controversial Florida balloting from 2000. However, much of his support remained in the West.

In the 2012 election, both the Green Party and the Libertarian Party performed relatively well in the West. While the Green Party did best in Maine, the region’ strength was in the West in states like Oregon, Washington and California. For the Libertarian Party, which is at least socially liberal, eight of their top ten states of support were in the West.

While Eisenhower to Reagan might have seen a Conservative movement within the West, I think the emergence of the Tech industry on the West Coast, along with increased immigration from Latin America and overseas, might have something to do with a new liberal resurgence. While California had been a safe state for Nixon and Reagan Conservatives, it’s now reliably the state of Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Even the most recent Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was much more moderate than the majority of Republican politicians.


As I write this, Socialist-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders has won Washington by an overwhelming victory in the primaries. Additionally, he has won most of the Western states thus far, including Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota. The two Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming seem like they could follow. California might be a battle, but he has a chance.

Clearly, the Western progressive tradition is still alive in 2016.











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