If you are looking for an epicenter of social movements in the United States, you may want to take a trip to Nebraska.
From the Populist movement of the late 19th century, led by the legendary orator and politician William Jennings Bryan, to the persistent battle against TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, Nebraskans have led the charge in some of the most significant political events in the history of the United States. Although today Nebraska is a predominantly conservative, Republican state, it is also home to a nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature as well as trailblazing, independent politicians like Senator George Norris and Senator J.J. Exon. President Donald Trump won Nebraska with 58.7% of the vote in 2016, yet he is likely to experience the full force of Nebraska’s fierce independence as he revives the Keystone XL pipeline project, which President Obama had denied in November of 2015. Not only does Nebraska provide an example of checks and balances in action, it demonstrates the power of the people to shape the United States amid an Administration that ignores all traditions and rules of civil society.
The Keystone XL Pipeline is disastrous public policy on many fronts. First, it provides few, long-term jobs for American workers. Secondly, TransCanada would export most of the oil transported by the pipeline, doing nothing to secure American energy independence. Finally, and most obviously, the pipeline would continue to exacerbate climate change and environmental degradation when the global community should be shifting to sustainable fuels and technologies. The approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, however, presents another worrying possibility, and this is where Nebraskans are prominently opposing TransCanada and the Trump Administration. Nebraskan landowners and farmers, represented by groups such as BOLD Nebraska and lawyers David Domina and Brian Jorde of Domina Law Group, recognize the inherent danger in allowing a foreign corporation to use eminent domain laws in the United States. If approved by President Trump and the Nebraska Public Service Commission, TransCanada can claim eminent domain to own the land of Nebraska landowners who refused to sell their land to the company. The Constitution, and state constitutions as well, lay out that American governments can use eminent domain to take land for public purposes provided just compensation is provided. However, with little economic benefit and large environmental damage, where is the justification for taking this land for public use? Furthermore, TransCanada is a foreign corporation, a legal entity not treated as an individual person. The precedent this sets, if approved, shows that the profit interests of a large, non-American institution can override the rights of American citizens when it is expedient for them and violate the processes of the Constitution. This continues a problematic pattern of the needs of the few overriding the needs of the many.
Nevertheless, BOLD Nebraska, Domina Law Group, and hundreds of ordinary landowners are continuing a grassroots effort to fight the Keystone XL Pipeline. The groups are comprised of political beliefs of every stripe—conservatives, environmentalists, Native American groups, “rabble-rousers”—united by a common desire to force government to work for them, and not a foreign corporation. Enduring severe costs in time, energy, and money, they have repeatedly, and successfully, used the legal system to block implementation of the pipeline in Nebraska. If the courts continue to back the Nebraskan landowners, the Keystone XL project cannot be completed. Thus, these Nebraskans represent the American political system at its best. They are holding their political leaders accountable, and refusing to allow public policy that disadvantages ordinary Americans. Even more impressive is their willingness to confront the autocratic tendencies of the Trump administration to prevent the pipeline. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, the history of Nebraskan political and social movements should be a model for creating an equitable and just society. Refusing to succumb to apathy, these Cornhuskers are making their voices heard and carrying the spirit of populism into the 21st century.