La Follette and La Follettism

"He is an individualist, a progressive, and a liberal democrat in a period in which the socialization of our politics is the great issue before the country."


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.


In his new period of leadership La Follette represents the progressivism of 1912 brought down to date in the personality of one man and modified by the war experience. He seems now to appeal to the class interests of farmers and workers rather than to the general public welfare of the country as a whole. He is attempting to organize the forces of discontent for the accomplishment of immediate results. His programme is one of strategy rather than of statesmanship. He is the organizer of a bloc system intended to destroy the two-party system as it now exists, leaving to the future the problem of the formation of new parties to replace the old.

Fortunately we have his views fully expressed in the statement presented to the Cleveland Convention of the Conference for Progressive Political Action. Over and over again in that document he reiterates his belief that "the paramount issue" of 1924 is "to break the combined power of the private-monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people." He declares that this "system has grown up only through long-continued violation of the law of the land and could not have attained its present proportions had either the Democratic or Republican parties faithfully and honestly enforced the law." He refers to John Sherman as "the clearest-visioned Republican statesman of his time," and describes the Anti-Trust Act of 1890 as "the most effective weapon that the ingenuity of man could devise against the power of monopoly while it was yet in its infancy."

The statement then proceeds to review the history of the growth of monopoly and the failure of succeeding administrations to enforce the Sherman Act. He notes that in 1908 the Republicans promised to revise "the prohibitive tariff duties from which the monopolies derive much of their power, but the iniquitous Payne-Aldrich Tariff Bill was written in 1909 in admitted violation of the solemn pledges of the Republican Party." Again, in 1912, he points out that the people voted that the power of monopoly must be destroyed and that President Wilson forcibly expressed himself in opposition to the power of the trusts and corporations. In spite of the vote of the people in 1912 and Wilson's recognition of the pledge in his campaign, La Follette declares that from 1912 to the present time "no honest or continuous effort has been made by a single administration, either Republican or Democratic, to protect, the American people from the exactions of private monopoly by enforcement of the anti-trust laws."

In his opinion, in 1920 "the people expressed their resentment at their betrayal at the hands of the Democratic Party by defeating it with the greatest popular majority ever cast against a political party in the history of this country." Since 1921 the American people have learned that monopoly can be as "bold and ruthless in time of peace as in time of war." He then refers to the oil monopoly, its resort to "the outright corruption of a member of the President's Cabinet to attain its ends," and its enlistment of the services of former members of the Cabinet of the preceding Democratic administration. "Corruption," he declares, "is the inevitable result of monopoly control over government."

Senator La Follette concludes his indictment of monopoly with the following statement: --

"Peace, liberty, and economic freedom are the great principles to which the American people are devoted. Progressives must champion these principles until they are firmly reestablished in the life of this country.

"The organized banking interests which own the railroads, control credit, and dominate the industrial life of the nation, will further oppress labor, rob the consumer, and, by extortionate railroad rates and dictation of terms of credit, reduce agriculture to the level of European peasantry, if longer permitted to control this government.

"The ill-gotten surplus capital acquired by exploiting the resources and the people of our country begets the imperialism which hunts down and exploits the natural resources and the people of foreign countries, erects huge armaments for the protection of its investments, breeds international strife in the markets of the world, and inevitably leads to war."

After certain applications of his paramount principle to European and domestic affairs, he declares that "the Progressive Movement is the only political medium in our country to-day which can provide government in the interests of all classes of the people. We are unalterably opposed to any class government, whether it be the existing dictatorship of the plutocracy or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Both are essentially undemocratic and un-American. Both are destructive of private initiative liberty."

Senator La Follette's attitude toward what he describes as the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was also brought out in his letter in regard to the Farmer-Labor-Progressive Convention held at St. Paul in June. In this letter he called attention to the fact that he had devoted many years of his life to an "effort to solve the problems which confront the American people by the ballot and not by force. I believe that the people through the ballot can completely control their government in every branch and compel it to serve them effectively. I have fought steadfastly to achieve this end, and I shall not abandon this fight as long as I may live. I believe, therefore, that all Progressives should refuse to participate in any movement which makes common cause with any communist organization."

La Follette's paramount issue of 1924 looks back to the Sherman Act of 1890. His references to economic freedom suggest that he has still in mind the struggles before 1912 when his political ideas first took definite shape. He seems unconscious that the present situation has gone far beyond the imprisonment of the heads of big business and the dissolution of combinations. One misses the social emphasis that should characterize any forward-looking, constructive dealing with current economic and industrial problems.

A comparison of La Follette's platform of 1924 and the programme of the British Labor Party, adopted in 1918, drives home this lack of a constructive character in his work. No group of scholars and investigators like the English Fabians has been studying the situation in America for a generation and working out tentative solutions. Instead, one man, in the heat of the controversies in which he has been engaged, has merely adapted certain ideas to the changing demands of the time.

The succession of third parties and the Progressive Movement form together the source from which the platform of 1924 is fashioned. Great skill and ability in the arrangement of materials is shown, but the underlying idea remains the same. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a supreme principle, but it is not of itself and by itself sufficient to solve all the complex social and economic problems of the day. Just here is where La Follette fails to meet the test of constructive statesmanship. He is an individualist, a progressive, and a liberal democrat in a period in which the socialization of our politics is the great issue before the country.

Undoubtedly Senator La Follette's stand for a new alignment in American politics is the next step in any constructive approach to our problems. The need of readjustment has been recognized for many years by thoughtful observers. The inherent difficulty in our rigid two-party system of expressing intelligent and consistent judgments has been made hopeless by the divisions within the parties themselves. Somehow conservatives and progressives and radicals must be organized separately before there can be even an approximation to satisfactory results in our quadrennial electoral contests.

The hope of a new adjustment has been strengthened by the nominations of the two major parties. They have selected excellent representatives of conservative policies. La Follette sees the opportunity and will use all his remarkable talents for leadership to take advantage of it. In his statement he declares that "permanent political parties have been born in this country after, and not before, national campaigns, and they have come from the people, not from the proclamations of individual leaders ... If the hour is at hand for the birth of a new political party, the American people next November will register their will and their united purpose by a vote of such magnitude that a new political party will be inevitable."


An analysis of La Follette's experience and ideas brings out clearly the fact that he represents the point of view of the West as contrasted with that of the East. The conviction that the government is controlled by monopoly grows out of Western life and traditions. The opposition to the Esch-Cummins Act of 1920, and the demand for its repeal, is the present-day aspect of the Granger agitation for the regulation of the railroads of the seventies. The currency proposals of the Greenback and Populist Parties find their counterpart in the denunciations of "deflation" and the insistence upon the reconstruction of the Federal Reserve System. Agricultural credit is the contemporary objective of those who in earlier years were condemning the money power and the gold standard. Monopoly must be destroyed in order to restore the government to the people. In reality, the warfare against monopoly is an indication of the persistence of Western democracy.

The hostility to the Federal courts is a manifestation of the same democratic impulse. A proposed amendment to the Constitution favors the election of all judges for fixed terms not exceeding ten years, by direct vote of the people. The judicial veto of laws enacted by the legislative branch of the government is described as "usurpation" and as "a plain violation of the Constitution." The claim is made that all legislative power is vested in Congress because that body is given authority to override the veto of the President. To do away with the judicial veto an amendment is suggested specifically giving Congress the right to override nullification of laws by the Federal Courts. Western opposition to the appointive Federal Judiciary finds its explanation in the uniform custom of electing judges in that part of the country. Western democracy depends upon popular election as the best method by which the people can secure control of their representatives.

In recent years the condition of Western agriculture has given rise to a new farmers' movement. The centre of the disturbance seems to be in the trans-Missouri region rather than in the Mississippi Valley, where the unrest of the seventies, eighties, and nineties was most pronounced. The last American frontier section is true to the traditions established in the settlement of the West.

Since 1920 discussion of the condition of Western agriculture emphasizes the contrast between the increase in the dividends paid by the great corporations and the virtual bankruptcy of twenty-six per cent of all farmers in the fifteen principal wheatgrowing states. Unlimited prosperity for the great corporations and ruin for the farmer is described as the direct result of the policy which deflated the farmer while extending credit to organized wealth. Manufactures and industry are protected by high tariffs, but the prices of farmers' products are depressed by financial manipulation. Excessive freight rates put a premium upon wasteful management and saddle an intolerable burden upon the farmer. Gambling in farm products results in loss to agriculture and gives great profit to the middleman. The growth of farm tenancy is explained solely as the outcome of the economic and political power of monopoly. To cure these evils, it is declared, the American people must resume and exercise their sovereign control over their government. Again the belief in democracy as the panacea for all ills is plainly evident. The Western farmer has a naive faith in government by the people which the older East has lost.

The debate on the McNary-Haugen bill, to which so much attention was attracted during the last session of Congress, shows clearly that the attitude of the Western farmer is widely held by the people of the West. The bill was inspired by farm-implement manufacturers, bankers, and business men; much of the propaganda for it comes from the same sources. They are embarrassed by the inability of the farmers to pay their debts and they see no natural developments which are likely to improve the situation. They declare quite frankly that the bill undertakes to do for the farmer what the protective policy has been doing for the Eastern manufacturer and business man. The farmer, they assert, sells in the world market and buys in a protected domestic market. The prices of his products are competitive, while those of the goods for which he pays are artificially fixed by law as a result of the protective tariff.

One of the chief advocates of the proposed legislation is the present Secretary of Agriculture. A map, published in the farm paper which he owns, presents the vote graphically on what is described sarcastically as "farm equality." Tennessee, Arkansas, and Wisconsin joined with the seacoast states and a few of the larger inland cities to defeat the measure. Such a vote is suggestive of the continued sectional differences which underlie the complex economic and social conditions of the United States of 1924. They form the solid substratum on which the La Follette movement is founded. Any attempt to judge of the meaning and importance of the movement without taking these factors into consideration is bound to fail. Lack of comprehension of Western feeling, and indifference to local issues, which Western people thought paramount, lost the elections for the Republicans in 1912 and 1916.


What is the prospect of La Follette's programme being adopted? There is an immense amount of unrest, especially in the trans-Mississippi and trans-Missouri portions of the West. We are not fully readjusted after the disturbances of the war. The European situation is still an unsolved problem. How will these conditions express themselves politically? Will the percentage of non-voters remain as large as it has been in recent elections? Will they vote for La Follette or will they divide along Traditional party lines and will only extremists and radicals vote for him?

Any estimate that dismisses lightly the possible strength of La Follette as an opposition candidate is likely to have a rude awakening in November. He is a remarkable leader. He represents the West in many of its fundamental ideas. He has been campaigning, lecturing before Chautauquas, and fighting the railroads and monopolies for thirty years. No one could listen for two days to the proceedings at Cleveland and not realize how correctly he understood the ideas and aspirations of the representatives of the people assembled there. The repeated applause that greeted the reading of his message by his son was spontaneous, without need for the mechanical devices used in ordinary political conventions. He knows the rank and file of laborers and farmers and voices their ideas and their wishes. Some of the ideas have a sinister sound to conservative and middle-class ears, but they cannot and must not be ignored.

The mistake of the East, when it dismisses La Follette as a demagogue, is the mistake of ignorance. It does not understand the West. It neglects to visualize the sources from which he gets his power. It denounces where it should try to understand. It should undertake to offer reasonable solutions to take the place of the crude projects often proposed to meet urgent needs. It should help the Western farmer readjust and not preach to him about the law of demand and supply when its own interests are fostered by the Tariff.

Furthermore, the East should remember that many present-day policies have come out of the West. The regulation of railroads, a more flexible currency and banking system, primary elections, and the initiative and referendum are a few examples. The Populist "sub-treasury" of the nineties was the first crude suggestion for the later work of the War Finance Corporation and the Intermediate Credit Banks of 1923. The East has first ridiculed, then carefully examined, and at last adopted many Western proposals.

Finally, the strength of La Follette's hold and its firmness are based on the soundness of his interpretation of the ideas and the ideals of the West. In so far as La Follette is representative of the West as a whole, his power rests upon a solid foundation. As a leader of a class movement of laborers and farmers no definite estimate can be made. It is an unknown quantity, not measurable by any established standards. We can only await the verdict of the voters at the coming general election.