William Greider once wrote that the animating impulse behind the Republican Party in the George W. Bush era was to roll back the twentieth century’s progress on the environment, worker’s rights, civil rights, and the New Deal. Perhaps no place better represents this fight to undo progress than the state of Wisconsin.
The Badger State looms large in the history of the American Progressive Movement. Wisconsin’s most important governor, Robert M. La Follette, was a fiery populist who fought for the working man and against corporate power. His followers nicknamed him “Fighting Bob” for his struggles against a bipartisan political system corrupted by railroad money. He started out as an unremarkable politician in the late 1800s, serving as a Republican in Congress. After he lost the 1890 election, the establishment offered this former farmer a bribe to fix a court case. La Follette refused and began a 10 year people’s campaign against the political system, railroads, and the lumber companies that controlled the state. Once elected governor in 1900, La Follette began a system of reforms copied across America.
His accomplishments included the invention of primaries for party nominations. La Follette’s idea intended to break the control of party bosses. In education, he invented the “Wisconsin Idea,” a highly influential idea in the history of American higher education. The idea brought the University of Wisconsin into close contact with the real world: government professors advised city planners, agriculture professors taught farmers, and engineering departments improved manufacturing. This public service function of higher education is uniquely an American idea. Governor La Follette also broke up the monopolies in the state, made corporations pay their fair share in taxes, and protected the forests and small farmers. He also strongly supported women’s suffrage and opposed the Ku Klux Klan. Many of the ideas came from German immigrants who brought the ideas of worker’s compensation and disability insurance from Otto von Bismark’s social welfare system. Wisconsin started the nation’s first worker’s compensation system.
When the people of Wisconsin sent him to Washington as a senator in 1906, they intended for him to become the ambassador of Wisconsin reform ideas to the rest of America. A fiery orator, he opposed the corporate takeover of Washington. He derided Theodore Roosevelt as too weak on the Progressive cause and ran against him in the 1912 Republican primary as the stronger champion of reform. Senator La Follette was the original antiwar and anti-imperialist politician, opposing the United States entry into World War I. The senator argued strenuously against this war of imperialism on behalf of big business and the corporate oligarchy in a filibuster. In fact, the Senate had to invent the cloture rule to end his filibuster. A man of extremely strong principle, he defended the rights of Socialists being imprisoned for their beliefs like Eugene Debs and criticized Congress’s refusal to seat Socialist congressmen.
After such brave and unpopular stands, you would think the old man would retire. He instead ran for re-election to take on the war profiteering companies that benefited from World War I; he won by the largest landslide in Wiconsin history. After two party hacks were nominated by the Republicans and Democrats for president, La Follette ran as a third party candidate in 1924 for president. Senator La Follette called for the abolition of child labor, defense of freedom of speech, nationalization of the railroads, municipal ownership of power companies, and a national referendum before the nation went to war. Exhortations to vote for the “lesser of two evils” prevailed, and the Republican corporate hack Calvin Coolidge won the election in a landslide. The election had the lowest turnout in American history which suggests that millions of people were discouraged from voting for the man they believed in. La Follette died the following year; before he died he warned America that the unjust Treaty of Versailles would cause another world war and that rising bank and farm failures in the 1920s would lead to a financial crisis.
La Follette stood for everything great and good in America. Everything cowardly scoundrels like Glenn Beck denigrate on a nightly basis in the comfort of their New York studios. Progressives like La Follette stood for America when America wouldn’t stand for itself in its darkest days of pro-war hysteria.
Wisconsin politicians since then love to pay tribute to the great man. The recently defeated Senator Russ Feingold admired La Follette and followed his principles when in office, voting against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. But these days, gee, they just don’t make them like they used to.
Governor Scott Walker represents the antithesis of everything Robert La Follette ever stood for. He hates the unions and the working class. He cut taxes for big corporations and planned to sell off the public power plants in no bid contracts. Walker has cut into environmental regulation while serving as the errand boy for Koch Industries and their pro-pollution far-right agenda against the people. The Koch brothers, the top Tea Party financiers in America, make billions off of American taxpayers by mining on public lands and eating up biofuel subsidies. They are the type of monopolists La Follette and the Progressive Party were born to fight.
In fact, unlike past governors, he refused to be sworn in near the bust of Robert La Follette in the state capitol. Governor Walker likes his unpopular stand in this collective bargaining battle, but he is not standing up on deep principle or on on behalf of the little people who have no voice. He’s too busy fighting to end kindergarten for four year olds.
In short, Scott Walker wants a Wisconsin without Robert La Follette. The people of Wisconsin have decided they want a Wisconsin without Scott Walker.
Wisconsin Historical Society – “Career of Robert La Follette”
Fighting Bob – “About Robert La Follette“