The Original Tea Partiers: How GOP Insurgents Invented Progressivism

Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette and his supporters pioneered long-shot primary challenges, strong ideology, and populist rhetoric a century ago.
A portrait of Senator Robert La Follette hangs in the Senate Reception Room at the U.S. Capitol. (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

If “Fighting Bob” were alive today, he’d be howling in the Capitol. A hundred years before the Tea Parties, Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin was the original Republican insurgent. In the early 1900s, he led a grassroots revolt against the GOP establishment and pioneered the ferocious tactics that the Tea Parties use today—long-shot primary challenges, sensational filibusters, uncompromising ideology, and populist rhetoric. But there was a crucial difference between La Follette and today’s right-wing insurgents: “Fighting Bob” was a founding father of the progressive movement.

A century ago, the country struggled with challenges similar to our own—economic inequality, financial instability, low wages, and environmental devastation. The two major political parties, both corrupt and dominated by corporations, crushed reformers’ efforts to remedy the nation’s problems. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was powerless to push serious reform bills through Congress.

Unlike Roosevelt, La Follette did not believe that reform was possible under the prevailing political order. He insisted that the system must become more democratic and the parties be made accountable to the people. His political insurgency began as a forlorn and hopeless campaign, scorned by the party establishment, mocked by the press, and dismissed by Roosevelt. A decade later, it brought the once-dominant Republican Party to its knees and initiated the greatest period of political change in American history.

* * *

Madison, Wisconsin, June 28, 1904

The governor’s residence was a stolid block of pitted yellow limestone seated on a grassy bluff with its back to one of Madison’s lakes. Lincoln Steffens, the world-famous reporter from McClure’s Magazine, stepped onto the front porch with some hesitation. He wasn’t sure that it had been a good idea to accept Governor Robert La Follette’s dinner invitation. Too much familiarity with his subject might undermine his objectivity. He resolved to maintain a clinical distance during the visit.

The February 1908 McClure's Magazine

Steffens was a new kind of journalist. Most newspapers of the era openly affiliated with one party or the other. Many reveled in scandal and sensationalism like modern-day tabloids. By contrast, Steffens and his colleagues at McClure’s delivered serious, thorough investigations of the country’s leading politicians and corporations. Ida Tarbell exposed the monopolistic abuses of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Ray Stannard Baker took on J. Pierpont Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation. Steffens focused on the politicians. The charming and debonair journalist with a devilish goatee had a way of ferreting out the sordid schemes that greased the gears of government. Over the course of his career, he had exposed dirty cops, corrupt officials, robber barons, swindlers, bribers, boodlers, and card cheats.

As he penetrated the underbelly of American politics, his ideas began to evolve. He came to see the petty bribes and minor frauds as fragments of a much larger mosaic. A system, he called it, and later, The System. Crooked cops and venal officials were small cogs in The System. Much more dangerous were the party bosses, unofficial powerbrokers who oversaw the vast apparatus that delivered votes each election day. Some bosses were elected officials. Others held seemingly innocuous administrative posts and conducted party business behind the scenes.

Yet for all their power, the bosses were themselves beholden to others—the businessmen who financed their political operations. Campaigns cost money, more and more these days. Neither the spellbinders who went from town to town speechifying nor the ward-heelers who used less savory methods in the cities worked for free. Businessmen were willing to provide the capital—for a price. Such exchanges were entirely legal. The businessmen made lawful campaign donations; the politicians passed laws that benefitted their patrons. There was no crime to prosecute. Without new legislation, The System was impervious.

Steffens had been cautiously optimistic when his friend Theodore Roosevelt became president. They’d met in 1895 when Roosevelt became a New York City police commissioner. Steffens recalled how the hotshot blue-blood politician had invaded NYPD headquarters on his first day. “Where are our offices?” Roosevelt had shouted, “Where is the board room? What do we do first?” He wanted to know everything—the good cops, the bad cops, and how it all worked. Steffens became one of his trusted advisers on police corruption. Roosevelt used to lean out the window of his second-story office and summon him with a cowboy yell that he’d learned in the Dakota Territory, “Hi yi yi!”

Steffens liked Roosevelt, and they became friends, but he never quite trusted him to fulfill his promises. Too many of Roosevelt’s initiatives fell short of what was needed. As he got to know him better, Steffens could see that Roosevelt’s mind was committed to reform but not his hips, and it was those hips that made the decisions. Whether he was charging up a hill under enemy fire or running for governor, Roosevelt always seemed to act before he had even made up his mind to act. “You don’t think with your brains, do you?” Steffens asked him once. Those brains wanted reform, Steffens reckoned, but the hips hung back closer to the old guard. The hips were happiest right in the middle with one foot in each camp.

“You’re a practical man,” Steffens teased him.

Roosevelt took it as a compliment. “I am, you know,” he replied, “I’m a practical man.” He repeated it several times, and it became a watchword for him in the years to come.

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Michael Wolraich is a writer based in New York. He is the author of Blowing Smoke and his writing has appeared on CNN, Reuters,Talking Points Memo, and Pando Daily.

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