Robert M. La Follette, Sr. was an American politician from Wisconsin who founded the magazine now called The Progressive and who gave the label “progressive” much of the meaning it carries today.
Robert Marion La Follette was born in June 1855 on a farm in Primose, Wisconsin, La Follette grew up in this rural community. He attended the University of Wisconsin (1875-79), served as a county district attorney (1880-84).
In 1884 LaFollette was elected as a Republican to the first of three terms in Congress, defeated for re-election in the Democratic landslide year 1890. He thereafter practiced law in Madison, Wisconsin, and developed a political organization. A reformer and foe of corruption, he in 1891 publicly accused a state Republican leader of offering him a bribe. LaFollette began calling himself a “progressive” in 1897.
In 1900 La Follette was elected Governor of Wisconsin, reelected in 1902 and 1904. He attracted national attention for what he called the “Wisconsin Idea,” using University of Wisconsin professors to draft legislation and run the state’s fast-expanding regulatory agencies. Intellectuals and journalists nationwide lionized this politician who was giving power to academics. He advocated more regulation and higher taxes on the railroads, direct primaries, restrictions on big business (which he demonized as “selfish interests”), and “progressive” taxation (an idea for destroying capitalism that had appeared in 1848 in Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto).
In 1906 La Follette resigned the governorship and was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until 1925, promoting reforms based on his claim that the entire United States economy was controlled by fewer than 100 men who, in turn, were controlled by the banking groups of J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil.
In 1909 La Follette founded La Follette’s Weekly, later a monthly magazine that following his death was, in 1929, renamed The Progressive and continues publication to this day. (This magazine that in its early days published socialist authors such as Jack London and Lincoln Steffens nowadays publishes socialist Barbara Ehrenreich, radical Noam Chomsky and Marxist historian Howard Zinn.)
The years 1909-11 were the peak of La Follette’s popularity, when after Theodore Roosevelt left the presidency La Follette was widely viewed as TR’s successor as America’s leading progressive politician.
In 1912, when Roosevelt reentered politics as head of his Bull Moose Party, La Follette lost much of his support by bitterly attacking Roosevelt and then endorsing Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, who won the presidency.
La Follette lost more support during the next several years by stridently opposing U.S. entry into World War I, contrary to the enthusiasm for this war exhibited by Roosevelt. As a Senator La Follette in 1917 led a filibuster to prevent the arming of U.S. ships, and he voted against the congressional declaration of a war he said the U.S. was entering to protect the investments of bankers and businessmen. In 1916 La Follette campaigned for a national referendum on the war and, in a sense, got one. President Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but six weeks after his new term began Wilson plunged the U.S. into World War I in Europe.
La Follette also distanced himself from Democrats by opposing what he saw as pro-business measures, particularly the creation of a Federal Reserve Board, backed by President Wilson.
In 1924 La Follette broke completely with the Republican Party after it nominated Calvin Coolidge as its presidential candidate. La Follette became that year’s presidential candidate of the new Progressive Party but finished third behind Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis. La Follette won only his home state, Wisconsin, but he finished second in 11 states and won approximately one out of every six votes cast that year for president. He died less than a year later, in June 1925.
La Follette’s left legacy lives on in a variety of ways. His son Robert La Follette, Jr. was elected to his father’s Senate seat and held it until 1947. His second son Philip Fox La Follette served as Governor of Wisconsin from 1931 to 1933 and again from 1935 until 1939, the only governor elected by the Progressive Party. Robert M. La Follette, Sr.’s wife Belle Case La Follette was co-founder of their magazine, a worker with the Woman’s Peace Party during World War I, and a co-founder thereafter of the Women’s Committee for World Disarmament.
The Progressive Party continued in Wisconsin until 1946, when it rejoined the state’s Republican Party. (In 1948 another even-more-radical third incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt’s and Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party ran Henry Wallace, former Vice President of the United States under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and lost badly.)
La Follette also inspired future generations of radical activists. One is Wisconsin native and Washington correspondent for The Nation Magazine John Nichols.
The roots of John Nichols’ far-left politics and hatred for capitalism can be found in his childhood. His great-grandfather, wrote Nichols, was an activist supporter of Wisconsin’s “Progressive” U.S. Senator Robert M. (for Marion) “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a Franco-American who carried French utopianism and revolutionary fervor in his blood. After La Follette’s death in 1925, Nichols’ great-grandfather helped lead an effort to have a street in the town of Blue River named “La Follette.”
John Nichols went on to write for the radical magazine La Follette founded and edited, now called The Progressive. That magazine’s defining article posted on its web site, “Portrait of the Founder, Fighting Bob La Follette,” carries Nichols’ byline.
How fervent is Nichols in his near-worship of this radical? Although he “is a Quaker,” wrote Nichols on a personal data sheet he in 2002 gave to an emcee to introduce him as a speaker, he does accept “idol worship involving busts, photographs or other proven graven images of Robert M. LaFollette and William T. Evjue.”
(Evjue had been managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper, resigning after it turned against an ever-more-radical La Follette. Evjue then in 1917 founded the pro-La Follette The Capital Times, “Wisconsin’s Progressive Newspaper,” where Nichols in recent years has been Editorial Page Editor and Associate Editor.)
By deconstructing Nichols’ Progressive Magazine tribute to La Follette, we can tease out the threads with which Nichols’ own far-left political views have been woven. “This was the La Follette that his friend [left anarchist] Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as ‘the finest, most inconsistent anarchist’ of his time,” wrote Nichols.
“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,” wrote Nichols. “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…,’” wrote Nichols, “La Follette told his followers: ‘Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty.’”
La Follette, observed Nichols, was supported not only by socialists but also in 1924 “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.’”
(Harold Ickes, Jr. was a major player in Democratic President Bill Clinton’s White House and is a large figure in the “Shadow Government” of billionaire puppet-masters, including left financier George Soros, who are now working to take control of the U.S. Government.)
La Follette’s influence, wrote Nichols, has also continued through his disciples such as former leftwing U.S. Senators Wayne Morse, a Wisconsin native who won election in Oregon, and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening, who was a spokesman for La Follette’s 1924 campaign.
As Governor of Wisconsin, wrote Nichols, “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.”
But in truth, what today does the “progressive” tradition of La Follette espoused by John Nichols and many others on the left promote? It promotes transferring society’s earned wealth from individuals and decentralized competing private companies to the government, the ultimate monopoly. It has boosted the political power of money from the penny-ante levels of the past to the multi-million dollar election-buying of George Soros. (But La Follette was opposed to plutocracy, government controlled by the rich.)
In their leftwing faith distilled from the radicalism of La Follette, Nichols and those who share his ideology would turn America into a politically-correct neo-feudal fiefdom of monolithic, paternalistic government. How can anyone take this reactionary ideology seriously when, by embracing the false label “Progressive,” it claims to advance human “Progress?”
Many who today call themselves “progressives” sincerely trace their political roots to the Progressive Parties of Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Wallace or Robert La Follette, Sr. But many others on the left nowadays call themselves “progressives” as a deceptive euphemism for more precise, less popular words that describe their real political objectives and ideology – words such as “socialist,” “Marxist,” or “Communist.”