Wisconsin Progressives Span Parties

By Nate Pedersen

The single senatorial “no” vote for the Patriot Act came from Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Feingold’s brave and principled rejection of this gross infringement on civic liberties captured the symbolic heart of Wisconsin progressivism in one single vote. While certainly not always united under one party’s banner, progressivism in Wisconsin has a long and rich history and has found its voice in Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Progressives and Greens alike. The Wisconsin Progressive Party, however, active from 1934 until 1946, was the most tangible expression of progressive thought in Wisconsin and provides an interesting insight in state-level third-party politics.

The story of the Wisconsin Progressive Party really begins with Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the fiery, red-headed governor and senator from Wisconsin in the early 20th century who for many years was this country’s strongest populist voice. A progressive Republican, La Follette ran an underdog, grassroots campaign for the Governorship and managed to break through the stranglehold of bossism on Wisconsin politics to win the 1900 election. He served three terms as governor, enacting a number of progressive reforms, before nominating himself to a Senate vacancy in 1906. While serving the remainder of his life in the Senate, La Follette was a strong supporter of organized labor, social security, and the suffragist movement. La Follette died in office in 1925. His proud progressive legacy was then carried on by his two sons, who would begin the Wisconsin Progressive Party.

La Follette’s first born son, Robert Jr., better known as “Young Bob,” was a studious man of melancholic disposition, who nevertheless won the special election to fill his father’s Senate seat, where he served continuously for twenty years. He proved to be a capable and popular senator, every bit as progressive as his father, even if he lacked his father’s oratorical flair. La Follette’s youngest son, Philip, by contrast an attractive, gregarious man, was elected governor five years later, in 1930.

Both La Follette sons were affiliated with the Republican Party when they first held office. The 1932 Democratic sweep ignited by FDR brushed Philip out of office and troubled Young Bob as well. Philip strongly believed that recreating the Progressive Party, this time as a state-level party in Wisconsin, would most effectively tap into the state’s progressive tendencies, holding the best chance of returning him to the governorship and his brother to the Senate in 1934. Young Bob, initially resistant to the idea, eventually came around after some spirited persuasion from Philip. Thus the La Follettes and their legion of loyal political allies combined forces with the radical farm and labor groups in Wisconsin to form the Wisconsin Progressive Party in May of 1934, just in time to nominate a full slate of candidates for the general election.

They met with enormous success. Both La Follettes were re-elected under the Progressive Party banner, while taking a number of US House seats, and sizeable numbers of State Senate and Assembly seats as well. The Progressives quickly became the dominant party in Wisconsin and attempted to enact a number of reforms. They were crippled, however, by in-fighting and by regular, united opposition from the two other parties. The combined forces of the Democrats and Republicans were enough to sweep the Progressives back out of power in 1938.

The party scraped by until 1946, when Young Bob fatefully decided to run in the Republican Primary for his re-election bid. This decision was the death-blow for the Wisconsin Progressive Party, which subsequently disbanded. Worse, La Follette lost the primary in a stunning upset by an unknown county judge, about to cast a long, dark shadow over American history, named Joe McCarthy.

Progressivism in Wisconsin marched on, however, even without the La Follette family at its head. It next found its voice in the Democratic Party, and a number of progressive politicians continued to be elected throughout the remainder of the 20th century. Today, that legacy is upheld by Sen. Feingold, who proudly carries on the progressive spirit of Wisconsin.

Nate Pedersen is a Minnesota native now living in Oregon as a volunteer with the Progressive Democrats of America. See natepedersen.wordpress.com. See www.prodane.org for more on the Wisconsin Progressive Party in Madison and greater Dane County.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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