The Dangers Threatening Representative Government
The fact that throughout the 20th century Wisconsin had a reputation as a progressive state (despite the fact that Wisconsin elected and re-elected Joe McCarthy to the US Senate starting in 1946) was largely due to the political career of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette.
La Follette has been called “arguably the most important and recognized leader of the opposition to the growing dominance of corporations over the Government,” and one of the five greatest Senators in US history.
La Follette was a crusading, anti-corporate, progressive Republican politician, inspired by the abolitionists. (Lincoln was dead only 15 yeasr when La Follette entered the GOP; it was not yet then the representative of big business it was becoming.) Between 1880-1925 he was a district attorney, a three-term Congressman, two-term Governor and four-term Senator. He fought for workers’ rights, for women’s suffrage, for Native American and African American rights, against the compulsory use of English, against big business interests (especially banks and railroads), for progressive taxation, against party machine politics. As a Senator he opposed getting involved in World War I because it was an imperialist war, and when Wilson led the USA into the war La Follette led the fight against the draft, against the Espionage Act and against appropriations to fight the war. Teddy Roosevelt called him “a skunk who ought to be hanged.”
He ran for President in 1924 as the candidate of a party he formed called the Progressive Party. La Follette’s platform called for government ownership of the railroads and electric utilities, cheap credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, stronger laws to help labor unions, more protection of civil liberties, an end to American imperialism in Latin America, and a referendum before any president could again lead the nation into war.
He came in third behind President Calvin Coolidge and Democratic candidate John W. Davis. But he won 17% of the national popular vote, carried Wisconsin (winning its 13 electoral votes) and came second in 11 Western states. His base consisted of German-Americans, railroad workers, the AFL labor unions, the Non-Partisan League, the Socialist Party, Western farmers, and many of the “Bull Moose” Progressives who had supported Roosevelt in 1912.
After La Follette’s death in 1925 his wife, Belle Case La Follette, remained influential. By the mid-1930s, she and her sons Philip and Robert Jr., had reorganized the Progressive Party on the state level as the Wisconsin Progressive Party. The party quickly became the dominant political power in the state; all but one of Wisconsin’s congressmen were Progressives. Philip was elected Governor of Wisconsin. Robert Jr. became Senator. In Washington he led the Progressive caucus composed of Progressive, Farm-Labor, American Labor, and various Republican and Democratic Party congressional representatives.
La Follette Jr. returned to the Republican Party in 1946, where he was defeated in the primary by Republican Joe McCarthy.
Here is an excerpt from one of Fighting Bob’s great speeches, The Dangers Threatening Representative Government. It was given July 4, 1897, but it could have been written today, in this time when, as Mitt Romney said, “corporations are people.”:
. . . The basic principal of this government is the will of the people. A system was devised by its founders which seemed to insure the means of ascertaining that will and of enacting it into legislation and supporting it through the administration of the law. This was to be accomplished by electing men to make, and men to execute the laws, who, would represent in the laws so made and executed the will of the people. This was the establishment of a representative government, where every man had equal voice, equal rights, and equal responsibilities.
Have we such a government today? Or is this country fast coming to be dominated by forces that threaten the true principle of representative government? I have no desire to stir your passions or invoke an unfair judgment. But we owe it to the living as well as the dead to make honest answers to these questions.
Every thinking man must have been impressed with the unsettled restless condition of the public mind so marked for the last few years . The cry of the discontented has sounded in the land again and again – now almost dying away, now swelling in volume – until men who consider beyond self and the hour, are asking, “Is there not some more serious cause for it all?” It is not confined to the rabble swayed by the fiery harangue of the demagogue. It has enlisted the thought of thousands of honest men in every state of the Union.
What is it that is swelling the ranks of the dissatisfied? Is it a growing conviction in state after state, that we are fast being dominated by forces that thwart the will of the people and menace representative government?
Since the birth of the Republic, indeed almost within the last generation, a new and powerful factor has taken its place in our business, financial and political world and is there exercising a tremendous influence. The existence of the corporation, as we have it with us today, was never dreamed of by the fathers. Until the more recent legislation, of which it is the product, the corporation was regarded as a purely public institution. The corporation of today has invaded every department of business, and its powerful but invisible hand is felt in almost all activities of life. From the control of great manufacturing plants to the running of bargain counters, from the operation of railways to the conduct of cheese factories, and from the management of each of these singly to the consolidation of many into one of gigantic proportions – the corporation has practically acquired dominion over the business world. The effect of this change upon the American people is radical and rapid. The individual is fast disappearing as a business factor and in his stead is this new device, the modern corporation. . . . The influence of this change upon character cannot be overestimated. The business man at one time gave his individuality, stamped his mental and moral characteristics upon the business he conducted. He thought as much of bequeathing his business reputation to his son, as he did of bequeathing the business upon which that reputation had been so deeply impressed. This made high moral attributes a positive essential in business life, and marked business character everywhere.
Today the business once transacted by individuals in every community is in the control of corporations, and many of the men who once conducted an independent business are gathered into the organization, and all personal identity, and all individualities lost. Each man has become a mere cog in one of the wheels of a complicated mechanism. It is the business of the corporations to get money. It exacts but one thing of its employees: Obedience to orders. It cares not about their relations to the community, the church, society, or the family. It wants full hours and faithful service, and when they die, wear out or are discharged, it quickly replaces them with new material. The corporation is a machine for making money, but it reduces men to the insignificance of mere numerical figures, as certainly as the private ranks of the regular army. . .
I am well aware that the combining of capital admits of operations upon a vast scale, and may cheapen production in the long run, but we pay too dearly even for cheap things, and we cannot afford to exchange our independence for anything on earth.
These corporations, not content with taking royal tribute daily from the private citizen, shift upon him the chief support of the government. The same disregard for the rights of others, and of all obligations of the state is shown in a determined resistance to bearing a just share of the burdens of taxation.
Corporations exacting large sums from the people of this state in profits, upon business transacted within its limits, either wholly escape taxation, or pay insignificantly in comparison with the average citizen . . . .
Owning two thirds of the personal property of the country, evading payment of taxes wherever possible, the corporations throw almost the whole burden up on the land, upon the little homes, and the personal property of the farms. This is a most serious matter, especially in the pinching times the people have suffered for the last few years. . . .
God, how patient are Thy poor! These corporations and masters of manipulation in finance heaping up great fortunes by a system of legalized extortion, and then exacting from the contributors – to whom a little means so much – a double share to guard the treasure! . . .
So multifarious have become corporate affairs, so many concessions and privileges have been accorded them by legislation – so many more are sought by further legislation – that their specially retained representatives are either elected to office, directly in their interests, or maintained in a perpetual lobby to serve them. Hence it is that the corporation does not limit its operations to the legitimate conduct of its business. Human nature everywhere is selfish, and with the vast power which consolidated capital can wield, with the impossibility of fixing any personal or moral responsibility for corporate acts, its commands are heard and obeyed in the capitals of the state and nation.
But in a government where the people are sovereign why are these things tolerated? Why are there no remedies promptly applied and the evils eradicated?It is because today there is a force operating in this country more powerful than the sovereign in matters pertaining to the official conduct.
The official obeys whom he serves. Nominated independently of the people, elected because there is no choice between candidates so nominated, the official feels responsibility to his master alone…
Gov. LaFollette of Wisconsin addressing Chautauqua assembly, Decatur, Ill. Jan 1, 1905