Robert LaFollette Sr.
Once upon a time Wisconsin was the epicenter of Progressive thinking, Republicans weren’t all right wing idealogues. Then in 1946 they elected Joseph McCarthy. 64 years later they elected Scott Walker. As your typical ideologically tone-deaf, uncaring and power-hungry Republicans, there really isn’t much difference between the tactics of Walker and McCarthy.
On the other hand, the most famous Wisconsin Republican, Robert LaFollette, was not your typical Republican. In fact today, Robert LaFollette would be purged from the party so fast it would make even Rush Limbaugh’s head spin with something other drug-addled vertigo.
Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin served as a member of the US House of Representatives, Governor and Senator from his home state. LaFollettee was originally a Republican who later helped found the Progressive Party.
While in the US House from 1884 to 1890, as a Republican, LaFollette was a champion of Native-American and African-American rights. After a defeat for a 4th term in 1890, LaFollette returned to private law practice.
It was then that the future Governor saw that the Republican party was becoming a virtual arm of corporate, especially railroad, interests. He was determined to reform the party from inside, something that couldn’t even be attempted in today’s corporatocracy. After the nation suffered a severe economic downturn in 1893, LaFollette’s insurgency within the party began to gain steam. He went on the campaign trail denouncing the power of big business and advocating for direct elections (many nominees in the party were not elected by direct electoral primaries).
In 1900, Robert LaFollette was elected Governor of Wisconsin. The more traditional side of the Republican party opposed his agenda every step of the way. To counter this, the Republican LaFollette formed a coalition with Democrats to push through some of his more progressive policies, like taxing the rails. Some of the other causes this Republican governor championed included:
• Minimum wage
• Direct election of US Senators
• Women’s suffrage (this was before the 19th amendment passed in 1919)
• Worker’s compensation
• Progressive taxation
• Open primaries
Most importantly, LaFollette believed that citizens should have a more direct role in governing. He worked with the faculty of the University of Wisconsin and was driven to make Wisconsin a state for “the development of progressive legislation.”
As a ploy, LaFollette would read the names of Republicans who opposed his populist programs to the people while on the campaign trail. More and more this tactic attracted national attention.
In 1904, US Senators were ‘elected’ by the state legislatures. The 17th amendment eliminated that law in 1913. In 1905, the state Senate ‘elected’ LaFollette as US Senator, and he took office in 1906.
While in the Senate, LaFollette opposed America’s entry into World War I. He was also opposed to the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. As a progressive Republican, he tirelessly campaigned for child labor laws, some sort of social security system, and was instrumental in investigating Republican President Warren Harding for Teapot Dome. For his break with the party traditionalists, he left a trail of enemies miles long. Even another progressive Republican, Teddy Roosevelt said he was a “skunk that should be hanged.”
Using a page from his Governor days, LaFollette would go on national speaking tours, reading the names of Senators who voted against the interest of the people.
LaFollette was strongly against entering World War I in 1917. He felt that the country was tricked into the global conflict with lies and deception. He filibustered a key bill authorizing merchant ships to be armed. LaFollette was strongly condemned by President Wilson and the media began to denounce him regularly. Some fellow Senators labeled his anti-war stance as “Pro-German.” But LaFollette never swayed. He opposed the draft, the Espionage Act and financing the war.
After the AP completely misquoted LaFollette at a speech in Minnesota about the sinking of the Lusitania, which was used a symbol for the US to enter the war, the denunciation in the press began to label him a treasonous. To address the growing call for his ouster, LaFollette asked the Senate to permit him to speak and defend his position.
On Oct 6, 1917. Senator LaFollette gave a speech where he argued that the “freedom of speech during wartime was imperative.” He was then attacked by several Senators for his stance on the war and his “disloyalty.”
In 1924, LaFollette formed an independent Progressive party and was nominated for President. His running mate was Democrat Burton Wheeler of Montana. His platform included turning the railroads over to the government, pro-union policies, protection of civil liberties, the end of all child labor, and a national referendum before declaring war. LaFollette got 17% of the popular vote and won the state of Wisconsin. It was the third highest 3rd party tally in American electoral history. It was the only Presidential election for which the Progressives put up a candidate. LaFollette died a year later in 1925.
LaFollette’s sons both entered politics, Philip, as Governor, and Bob Jr., as Senator. In 1946, Bob LaFollette Jr., returned to the Republican party and was defeated in the GOP primary by Joseph McCarthy. As much as LaFollette was a man for the people, McCarthy was a man for McCarthy and certainly one of the worst members ever elected to the US Senate. As a note, Joseph McCarthy is a personal hero to Ann Coulter. That speaks volumes about Coulter and the right.
In 1982, historians ranked the 10 greatest Senators in history. Bob LaFollette ranked #1, tied with Henry Clay. Joseph McCarthy did not make the list. I will bet that NONE of the current crop of GOP Senators of today will either.