About Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.
The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.
The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.
La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."
The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."
This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
It was this militant faith in the people that enabled him to win reelection to the Senate in 1922 by an overwhelming margin. And this faith guided the Midwestern populist as he embarked on the most successful leftwing Presidential campaign in American history.
Running with the support of the Socialist Party, African Americans, women, organized labor, and farmers, La Follette terrified the established economic, political, and media order, which warned that his election would bring chaos. And La Follette gave them reason to fear. His Progressive Party platform called for government takeover of the railroads, elimination of private utilities, easier credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, the right of workers to organize unions, increased protection of civil liberties, an end to U.S. imperialism in Latin America, and a plebiscite before any President could again lead the nation into war.
Campaigning for the Presidency on a pledge to "break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people" and denouncing, in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan's resurgence, "any discrimination between races, classes, and creeds," La Follette told his followers: "Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty." La Follette's 1924 crusade won almost five million votes--more than five times the highest previous total for a candidate endorsed by the Socialists. He carried Wisconsin, ran second in eleven Western states, and swept working-class Jewish and Italian wards of New York and other major cities--proving that a rural-urban populist coalition could, indeed, be forged.
La Follette declared in a post-campaign article for the national publication he edited, La Follette's Weekly, which would soon be renamed The Progressive, that, while threats and intimidation had weakened the 1924 drive, "the Progressives will close ranks for the next battle."
Though he did not live to see it, La Follette would within a decade be proven right.
The 1924 campaign laid the groundwork for the resurgence of leftwing populist movements across the upper Midwest--the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota, the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. It spurred labor-based independent political action by New York's American Labor Party and other groupings. And La Follette gave inspiration, as well, to those who swung the Democratic Party to the left in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Harold Ickes Sr., a key aide to La Follette's 1924 campaign, would become an architect of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in the words of historian Bernard Weisberger, "completed the elder La Follette's work."
Roosevelt acknowledged the inspiration of La Follette. But the Wisconsinite's truest heirs were of a more radical bent--people like his sons, Bob Jr. and Phil, who served respectively as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and governor of the state; Minnesota's Floyd Olson, who was very possibly the most radical figure ever to govern an American state; author Upton Sinclair, whose 1934 foray into gubernatorial politics borrowed heavily from La Follette's 1924 platform and promised to "end poverty in California"; and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a veteran La Follette partisan who nominated the Senator for President in 1924 with the announcement that "I speak for Avenue A and 116th Street, instead of Broad and Wall."
In 1941, when U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, cast the sole vote against entering World War II, she recalled La Follette's lonely opposition to the First World War. And a full four decades after La Follette's death, the two U.S. Senate votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that committed the United States to all-out war in Vietnam came from Oregon's Wayne Morse, a Wisconsin native who had imbibed La Follette's anti-imperialism as a youth, and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, who had served as spokesman for La Follette's 1924 campaign.
In the Upper Midwest, La Follette's legacy lives on. As recently as the fall of 1998, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold made that legacy a centerpiece of his reelection campaign against a significantly better-financed Republican challenger. Feingold, who traces his role as the Senate's leading foe of special interests to his own father's youthful involvement with the Progressive Movement, told supporters on the night of his reelection: "Now we have the chance, 100 years after the great Fighting Bob La Follette, to send a message to Washington. . . . Out of the Upper Midwest will come political reform, will come political change, will come the principle of one person/one vote once again."
WHAT is it about La Follette that has made him such an enduring figure? It comes down to a single idea: America, La Follette argued throughout his political life, cannot live up to its ideals so long as militarism and corporate power warp our democracy.
Steeped in the ideals of Jefferson and Lincoln, La Follette developed his revulsion for corporate capital as a young man--taking his cue from Edward Ryan, a fiery Irish radical who rose to the position of chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court during the great populist upsurge of the 1870s.
When Ryan spoke to University of Wisconsin students in 1873, young Robert M. La Follette heard the jurist declare: "There is looming up a dark new power. . . . The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marking, not for economic conquest only, but for political power. For the first time in our politics, money is taking the field of organized power. The question will arise, and arise in your day though perhaps not fully in mine: 'Which shall rule--wealth or man? Which shall lead--money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations--educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?'"
Those words served as La Follette's mantra as he embarked on a career that would take him to Congress, the governorship of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Senate. La Follette's election as governor came after a decade-long crusade against the timber barons and railroad interests that dominated his own Republican Party. When he took office, he pledged to end the rule of "corporation agents and representatives of the machine," who had "moved upon the capitol."
Declaring that "the spirit of democracy is abroad in the land," La Follette successfully pushed the legislature to double taxes on the railroads, to break up monopolies, to preserve the state's forests, to protect labor rights, to defend the interests of small farmers, to regulate lobbying, to end patronage politics, and to weaken the grip of political bosses by creating an open-primary system.
By the time he was elevated to the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette was already a national figure. He soon emerged as a leader of the Senate's burgeoning progressive camp and by 1912 was a serious contender for the Republican Party's Presidential nomination. The fight for the nomination exposed divisions within the progressive camp, however, as La Follette's more radical followers battled supporters of a more centrist reformer who also claimed the progressive mantle: former President Teddy Roosevelt.
The Roosevelt/La Follette split grew more pronounced five years later, as the nation prepared to enter World War I. While Roosevelt urged U.S. participation in the war--the position supported by the nation's political establishment--La Follette emerged as the leading foe of a war he described as a scheme to line the pockets of the corporations he had fought so bitterly as a governor and Senator.
La Follette personally held up the declaration of war for twenty-four hours by refusing unanimous consent to Senate resolutions. From the Senate floor, La Follette argued: "We should not seek [to] inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war." He painted the impending conflict as a war that would benefit the wealthy of the world but not the workers, who would have to fight it. And he warned: "The poor . . . who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power. . . . But oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard. . . . There will come an awakening. They will have their day, and they will be heard."
Those words sounded treasonous to some, and La Follette's constant efforts to expose war profiteers only heightened the attacks upon him. He was targeted for censure by the Senate, portrayed in Life magazine as a stooge of the German Kaiser, and denounced by virtually the entire media establishment of the nation--including the Boston Evening Transcript, which announced, "Henceforth he is the Man without a Country."
As mounting domestic oppression sent more and more anti-war activists to jail, La Follette emerged as their defender, berating his colleagues with the charge that "Never in all my many years' experience in the House and in the Senate have I heard so much democracy preached and so little practiced as during the last few months."
His critics declared that La Follette would never again be a viable contender for public office.
And yet, less than four years after the Armistice, running on a platform that explicitly recounted his opposition to the war and his opposition to imperialism, La Follette won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in Wisconsin. And two years later, he earned one out of every six votes cast for the Presidency of the United States.
The 1924 Presidential campaign was the last for La Follette. Within a year, he was dead.
NOT long after the Senator's passing, my great-grandfather and the other members of the Blue River, Wisconsin, village board renamed one of the handful of streets in their tiny community "La Follette." I make it a point to walk that street every year. I go not merely to honor the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced, nor even to recognize the movement that my great-grandfather and so many like him saw as the way to reclaim democracy for the people.
As one who has reported for too many years on too many political compromises, I go because I know that, more than any other leader in American history, La Follette understood this country's promise. And I go because I know that, so long as we keep his vision alive, that promise may yet be kept.
John Nichols is the associate editor for The Capital Times, in Madison, a newspaper that was founded to support Robert M. La Follette Sr.'s fight against World War I. A version of this article originally appeared in the Progressive magazine's 90th anniversary issue in 1999.