The Progressive Era
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Wisconsinites have a rather fickle political history. Democrats held sway in the territorial days; then, in 1854, the newly formed Republican Party took the reins. The two monoliths—challenged only occasionally by upstarts such as the Grangers, the Socialists (Milwaukee consistently voted for Socialist representatives), Populists, and the Temperance movement—jockeyed for power until the end of the century.
The Progressive Party movement, formed of equal parts reformed Democrats and Republicans, was the original third-party ticket, molted from the frustrated moderates of the Wisconsin Republican Party keen on challenging the status quo. As progressivism gained steam and was led on by native sons, the citizenry of Wisconsin—tireless and shrewd salt-of-the-earth workers—eventually embraced the movement with open arms, even if the rest of the country didn’t always. The Progressive movement was the first serious challenge to the United States’ political machine.
Fightin’ Bob: Legacy of Progressivism
If there is one piece to the Wisconsin political mosaic that warrants kudos, it’s the inveterate inability to follow categorization. Whether politically prescient or simply lacking patience, the state has always ridden the cutting edge. These qualities are best represented physically by the original Progressive: Robert La Follette, a.k.a. “Menace to the Machine.” One political writer in the early 20th century said of La Follette: “The story of Wisconsin is the story of Gov. La Follette. He’s the head of the state. Not many Governors are that.” The seminal force in Wisconsin, La Follette eschewed the pork-barrel status quo to form the Progressive Party. In Wisconsin, the La Follette family dominated the state scene for two generations, fighting for social rights most people had never heard of.
Robert M. La Follette was born on a Dane County farm in 1855, where the typically hardscrabble life prepared him for the rigors of the University of Wisconsin, which he entered in 1875. He discovered a passion and talent for oratory but, too short for theater, gravitated to politics—a subject befitting the ambitious young man. He was elected Dane County district attorney in 1880. Well liked by the hoi polloi, he gave them resonance with his hand-pumping and his off-the-cuff speeches on hard work and personal responsibility in government. An entrenched Republican, he was more or less ignored by the party brass, so in 1884 he brashly ran for U.S. Congress on his own—and won. He was the youngest state representative in U.S. history.
Initially, La Follette toed the party line fairly well, though he did use his position to crow elegantly against the well-oiled political infrastructure. After the Republicans were voted out en masse in 1890, La Follette returned to Wisconsin and formed the Progressive Party. He ran for governor and, after two tries, landed the nomination. A tireless circuit and chautauqua lecturer, he relied on a salt-of-the-earth theme and left audiences mesmerized. This marked the birth of the “Fightin’ Bob” image, which persists to this day. He was elected governor three times, returned to the Senate for a tempestuous career, and made serious runs at the presidency.
La Follette’s critics found him as self- righteous and passionately tactless as he was brilliant, forthcoming, gregarious, and every other superlative by which he remains known today. This driven man of the people was no more enigmatically contradictory than many other public figures, but historians have noted that even his most vehement opponents respected his ethics. Under him, Wisconsin instituted the nation’s first direct primary and watershed civil-service systems, passed anticorruption legislation and railroad monopoly reforms, and, most important, formed the Wisconsin Idea.
Progressivism and the Wisconsin Idea
Progressivism represented a careful balance of honest-to-goodness idealism and what may today be termed Libertarian tenets. La Follette saw it as an attempt to overcome, on a grassroots level, the dehumanizing aspect of corporate greed and political corruption. The Progressive, the Madison-based periodical he founded, remains the country’s leading medium for social justice.
Fightin’ Bob’s most radical creation was the Wisconsin Idea. Officially a system whereby the state used careful research and empirical evidence in governing, in reality it meant that La Follette kept a close-knit core of advisers as de facto aides. His was the first government—state or federal—to maintain expert panels and commissions, a controversial plan at the time. Some criticized it as elitist, but he argued that it was necessary to combat well-funded industry cronyism.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition