Fighting Bob La Follette

Near Racine, WI: I’m at Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful Wingspread estate for a meeting of the Grant Makers’ Forum on Community and National Service. Yesterday, on my way here, I had a chance to visit the State Capitol in Madison, which I’d never seen before. The Capitol building was erected under then-Senator Robert (“Fighting Bob”) La Follette. I wanted to see it because I once spent most of a year studying his career. Some of the information I collected found its way into my New Progressive Era book, although I abandoned most of the historical detail. La Follette was a major figure, and a successful one insofar as he transformed his home state, passed major legislation in Washington, and drew millions of votes in two presidential campaigns. On the other hand, many of his favorite causes and greatest battles ended in defeat, and the Progressive movement faltered in the twenties. I believe that he faced several dilemmas that we still haven’t figured out how to solve:

1. He believed that big business had to be countered by popular institutions. Thus he increased the power of state agencies to regulate industry. The newly empowered Wisconsin government quickly became dominated by lawyers and technocrats, employed to counter the lawyers, economists, and efficiency experts who worked for industry. As an inadvertent result of La Follette’s reforms, state policy became a battleground for experts on both sides of every issue?rather than an opportunity for public deliberation. He objected to technocracy (in good populist fashion), but he never found a better way to introduce public voice into complex issues.

2. He believed in public, general, or citizen interests, yet people often find it more effective and straightforward to participate politically as members of special interests?within occupational or ethnic groups or as residents of local communities. Around 1912-16, there was a wave of public-interest politics that carried La Follette to national prominence, but that wave soon broke. I believe that another wave arose in 1972-76, but it also receded quickly and left relatively little behind.

3. He believed that citizens should choose their own policies and goals. Thus he was reluctant to organize campaigns around concrete economic and social policies that he happened to favor. Instead, his great theme was democratization, and his favorite issues were procedural (e.g., campaign reform, ethics in government, civil rights). Yet most people won’t participate in support of such abstract and procedural goals. Besides, voters have the right to know where their candidates stand on social and economic issues. Sometimes, La Follette was able to find political reforms that would also generate direct social and economic benefits. For example, repealing a corrupt tax exemption for a special interest would increase state revenues. But usually there were no such issues, and then he struggled to find a popular mandate for procedural changes.