We were excited to see Dissent magazine publish an essay adapted from Peter Dreier's forthcoming work from Nation Books, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, online today. The 100 Greatest Americans is a rich social and cultural history that venerates America's most influential progressives, an honor roll of sorts recognizing the people who moved progressive ideas in the United States from the marginal to the mainstream. Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. The profile excerpted by Dissent is of Robert M. La Follette Sr., the progressive Wisconsin congressman, governor, and US senator who took on unfettered corporate interest and political corruption tenaciously throughout his career.
IN FEBRUARY 2011, more than 15,000 Wisconsinites marched on the state capitol building in Madison. By the middle of March, more than 100,000 protestors had joined this challenge to Governor Scott Walker's steep budget cuts, his proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, and his threat to use the National Guard if government workers go on strike. Many at these rallies called upon the memory of a Republican progressive whose bust stands inside the state capitol: Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who spent his long political career — as a U.S. congressman (1885–1890), governor of Wisconsin (1901–1906), U.S. senator (1907–1925), and candidate for president (1924) — consistently and effectively challenging militarism and corporate power. Signs asked "What Would Bob Do?" and proclaimed "La Follette forever." A professor at the University of Wisconsin told the Wall Street Journal that La Follette would "be standing with the protesters, screaming 'Right on!'" Who was this man called "Fighting Bob," who influenced so many reformers and radicals during his life and after his death?
Born in Dane County's Primrose township, La Follette worked as a farm laborer before enrolling at the University of Wisconsin. After his graduation, he ran successfully for district attorney. In 1884, he was elected to Congress as a Republican. After an electoral defeat in 1890 he returned to Wisconsin. Philetus Sawyer, a leading state Republican, offered La Follette a bribe to fix a court case against several former state officials. La Follette not only refused the bribe, but took the opportunity to publicly decry the corrosive effect of money in democratic politics. The incident lit a spark, and La Follette spent the next ten years touring Wisconsin denouncing the political influence of the railroad and lumber barons who dominated his own party. In 1900, he ran for governor on a pledge to clean up the corruption. He gave 208 speeches in sixty-one counties — sometimes ten or fifteen a day — and won handily.
Upon taking office, he denounced the "corporation agents and representatives of the machine," who had “moved upon the capitol.” As a corrective, he promoted "the Wisconsin Idea," making the state a laboratory for reforms that would prove highly influential. He created state commissions on the environment, taxation, railroad regulation, transportation, and civil service, recruiting experts (especially from the University of Wisconsin) to provide ideas and information. To weaken the political influence of big business and party machines, he successfully pushed for campaign spending limits and direct primary elections, which gave voters the right to choose their own candidates for office. He supported measures that doubled the taxes on the railroads, broke up monopolies, preserved the state’s forests, protected workers’ rights, defended small farmers, and regulated lobbying to curtail patronage politics.
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