Any study of Robert M. La Follette must include the consideration of three features in the development of contemporary American political and social thought. These features are: (a) the sectional differences between the East and the West due to the influences growing out of the settlement of the West; (b) the results of the period of economic and industrial development which followed the Civil War; and (c) the succession of third parties, which culminated in the Progressive Movement and the Progressive Party of 1912. All three of these factors, closely interwoven, made the United States of 1912, upon which the European War and its aftereffects have reacted. La Follette is a representative of the combination of these influences, modified by a personality of great force and ability and of unusually pronounced individuality.
Sectional differences between the East and the West developed naturally and have persisted to the present time. The newer regions of the West have had different problems and experiences. Their need of more capital has led to paper-money agitations and to wildcat banking. More democratic suffrage and the spoils system had their origin in the West. The result has been antagonism between the sections, which appears in Western hostility to Wall Street and in Eastern criticism of Western demands for modifications of the national banking system. The West has been and still is the great source of democratic impulse in the United States. It is different from the East because it is nearer to the frontier and farther away from the Atlantic and Europe. Its centre of interest is "the day after to-morrow" instead of "the day before yesterday."
After the Civil War industrial development became the dominant feature of American life. Industrial combinations replaced the small industries of earlier years. Big business assumed leadership while individual workers shrank into relative insignificance. Autocracy in industry appeared and reacted upon government and law. Great individual fortunes, the trust, and the material development of the West absorbed attention.
Under modern capitalistic conditions the settlement of the West was completed. The building of the transcontinental railroads resulted in an orgy of political corruption. The public lands and the natural resources of coal, of iron, and of timber were lavishly wasted in the great scramble for wealth and material power. The carnival of waste and plunder reached its climax about 1890. Evidences were abundant that the great business interests of the country were controlling the government for their own private benefit. The capitalists who financed the railroads, mines, mills, packing houses, grain elevators, and other great enterprises, received from Congress favors which destroyed competition and enormously increased private fortunes.
Such a condition produced reactions in the minds of the individuals and the communities which were directly affected by these activities. The succession of minor parties, beginning in the seventies, constituted the political phase of the gradual awakening to a realization of the situation. These parties were recurring protests against successive manifestations of the growing industrial power of the financiers and capitalists. The regulation of the railroads, the continued use of greenbacks, and the free coinage of silver were among the issues of the men who were waging war against special privilege.
A new social consciousness gradually emerged, resulting in the Progressive Movement in both the major parties, and culminating in the Progressive Party of 1912.
The influence of the succession of third parties, and their gradual conversion of the major parties to a serious estimation of social and economic issues, is one of the most significant phenomena in the United States of the first decades of the twentieth century. Apparently this accomplishment has reached a stage of relative completion, since no new minor or third parties have been formed since 1912.
Senator La Follette was one of the pioneer Progressives. He has lived through the developments that have just been summarized. The democratic influence of the frontier, the reaction against the effects of the material exploitations of Western resources, and the new social consciousness that grew out of it, have all formed a part of his intellectual make-up. He is a product of all these influences, and the La Follette ideas and ideals can only be understood by constant reference to the background out of which they have grown.
La Follette's career has had two distinct phases, breaking at the year 1912. These two periods subdivide again into: his Wisconsin activity up to 1906, and his service in the Senate before 1912; his position during the European War, and his return to influence since 1922.
During the period before 1912 his ideas were those of other Progressive leaders in the different states. His political experience in Wisconsin led him to emphasize the direct primary and the regulation and taxation of railroads. After his election to the Senate in 1906 he took a prominent part in the debates upon the Railroad Rate Bill and he was one of the small group of Republican Senators who refused to vote for the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909.
Senator La Follette's programme and his accomplishments in his own state came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea, and the state was regarded as the ideal type of a progressive democratic commonwealth. It was thought of as embodying in a peculiarly successful way the purposes of the Progressive Movement.
The Wisconsin Idea maintained the doctrine "that business and human welfare can increase side by side" and "that laws can be so constructed as to lead to progress and at the same time preserve to the fullest all human betterment." The life of the community was brought into the closest relations with education. The University of Wisconsin, of which La Follette was himself a graduate, became the model for such state institutions in the United States. Railroad regulation, sanitation, and social legislation were placed in the hands of experts. The policy was to make use of the results of the work of scholars connected with the University in connection with the administrative routine of the state. Expert knowledge tempered by democracy was the objective. The ultimate success of democratic government depends upon the general application of similar methods, both in our national affairs and in the activities of local divisions. Somehow we must get away from the prevalent idea of public office as a reward for political service and base it upon competency to perform the work required of the official. The development of a body of expert officials would result from the application of the Wisconsin Idea.
Before 1912 La Follette was one of the group of leaders of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party; since 1912 he has followed in the main a solitary career of opposition. Only recently has he emerged from his isolation and become the leader of a group of Progressives and radicals in Congress and in the country.
The occasion for the momentous change in his career is to be found in the division which arose among the Progressive Republicans in 1911 and 1912 as to the candidate most likely to defeat President Taft for renomination. Senator La Follette was first encouraged to announce himself, but later he was urged to withdraw in favor of ex-President Roosevelt as a leader with a better chance of defeating the President. A bitter personal feud between La Follette and Roosevelt resulted. The former felt that he had been used to test the situation so that, when it had been found promising, Roosevelt might announce his candidacy as he had always intended to do. On the other hand, it was maintained that La Follette had been supported until his physical breakdown, in his Philadelphia speech in February 1912, made it plain that another candidate must be found. La Follette took no part in the formation of the Progressive Party and during the campaign he repeatedly made bitter personal attacks upon Mr. Roosevelt. He was understood to be throwing his influence privately for Mr. Wilson.
Personal egotism seems to have dominated this phase of his career. He could not adjust himself to the judgments of his fellow Progressives and take his place in the ranks. His resentment blinded him to everything except his own sense of unfair treatment. Admitting that he may have had some reason for his attitude, it remains true that he could not subordinate his own feelings and interests to those of the movement for which he had accomplished so much. This attitude was chiefly responsible for the course he has followed since 1912, which may be described as the playing of a lone hand in the political and legislative game. He cannot follow, but only lead. A friend who declines to follow his leadership can no longer be recognized by him as a friend. These are the characteristics, undoubtedly, of a man of great force and individuality. They are elements of strength as well as of weakness in the fashioning of a career.
From 1912 to 1922 La Follette continued to give expression to the ideas which he had developed as one of the leaders of the Progressive Movement. During these years his isolation undoubtedly accentuated his opposition to many of the prevailing policies. Personal bitterness unconsciously colored the opinions that he held. Even his more extreme views in regard to the war, and our relation to it as a nation, were not entirely unrepresentative of the people and the communities with which he was identified.
In the West popular opinion moved slowly away from the first reactions to the outbreak of the war in Europe. The campaign of 1916 was won largely upon the slogan that President Wilson had kept us out of the war. Only Germany's reckless disregard of American rights on the sea in the submarine warfare finally brought the United States into the European contest. La Follette represented the Western viewpoint, remote from Europe and inclined to look with suspicion upon everything European and especially anything British. He blamed "the money power and the subjugated press" for instigating and sustaining the "clamor for war." He urged that "we should make it possible for the people to give voice to their deep convictions. Let us have an advisory vote upon this matter of war, that will serve as a dictaphone within the Chambers of Congress, through which the voice of the people -- the people who pay and who suffer -- shall indeed reach the ears of those who represent them and who have, under the Constitution, the sole power to declare war." Under the stress of war conditions, he went far beyond the mere proposal of a popular referendum upon war. He advocated policies that would have made the United States an accomplice of German militarism. His course inevitably led to the charges of disloyalty which were brought again him on account of certain statements made in a speech delivered in St. Paul in September 1917. These charges were investigated by a Senate Committee and were dismissed, upon recommendation of the Committee, by a vote of 50 to 21.
From April 7, 1917, to January 12, 1918, sixty different war measures were passed by Congress. La Follette supported and voted for fifty-five of these laws. He opposed only such measures as he regarded as undemocratic and un-American. At the same time, he acted throughout the war as if it were a matter of indifference to Americans whether or not the war ended with a victory for Germany. The local conditions in Wisconsin curiously fitted in with the attitudes he assumed. His practical pro-Germanism and his general opposition to war received widespread support in his own state because of its large German population and the strength of the local Socialist movement.
In spite of his sincerity and fearlessness, his ability as a political leader is so great that it is hardly conceivable that he failed to take account of these circumstances.
His return to influence and power in 1922 came as a result of the situation which developed in the West after the fall of the prices of agricultural products, which occurred in 1920. The lack of leadership and the policy of drift left the initiative to Congress. Dissatisfaction with existing conditions, and the failure of remedial action in Congress, brought Republican defeat in the Congressional elections of 1922. A combination of organized farmers and union labor elected Progressive or radical candidates in a number of Western states. These radicals or Progressives held the balance of power in both houses of Congress. They formed the so-called Progressive bloc, and under La Follette's leadership they dominated the last session of Congress. His survival as one of the early Progressives and his identification during the war with labor and radical movements made him the natural leader of the new opposition group. His own reelection to the Senate at the same tune confirmed his recognition as "the leader of the opposition." The accession to power in England of the Labor Party, under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, suggests a comparison between La Follette and MacDonald. A general similarity between the two men as to their attitude toward war and their rehabilitation as leaders, adds to the natural tendency to compare them. His emergence as a leader after ten years of isolation is the more remarkable since it has happened without any change in his official status as a Senator and without the formation of a new party.