Wisconsin progressives: the original Tea Partiers

Over at The Atlantic, Michael Wolraich has an excellent article outlining how Wisconsin progressives like “Fighting Bob” La Follette were the original Tea Party challenging the political status quo.

If “Fighting Bob” were alive today, he’d be howling in the Capitol. A hundred years before the Tea Parties, Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin was the original Republican insurgent. In the early 1900s, he led a grassroots revolt against the GOP establishment and pioneered the ferocious tactics that the Tea Parties use today—long-shot primary challenges, sensational filibusters, uncompromising ideology, and populist rhetoric. But there was a crucial difference between La Follette and today’s right-wing insurgents: “Fighting Bob” was a founding father of the progressive movement.

A century ago, the country struggled with challenges similar to our own—economic inequality, financial instability, low wages, and environmental devastation. The two major political parties, both corrupt and dominated by corporations, crushed reformers’ efforts to remedy the nation’s problems. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was powerless to push serious reform bills through Congress.

Unlike Roosevelt, La Follette did not believe that reform was possible under the prevailing political order. He insisted that the system must become more democratic and the parties be made accountable to the people. His political insurgency began as a forlorn and hopeless campaign, scorned by the party establishment, mocked by the press, and dismissed by Roosevelt. A decade later, it brought the once-dominant Republican Party to its knees and initiated the greatest period of political change in American history.


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1 thought on “Wisconsin progressives: the original Tea Partiers

  1. An interesting article, but it is misleading to equate today’s Tea Party with the Progressive movement that LaFollette fostered in Wisconsin. Progressivism promoted a more democratic political system, making the parties and government more accountable to the people. Government doing its part to protect all the people. It was a reaction to the brazen corruption of both parties, who were controlled by corporations, the wealthy and Wall Street.
    Today’s Tea Party wants back to those days before Progressivism. It hates government, which intrudes on their sense of “freedom” and “liberty.”

    Back in 2010 Paul Ryan did a telling interview with Glenn Beck, where they agreed that progressivism is a “cancer.” Ryan described his ideas as trying to “indict the entire vision of progressivism.”
    Obviously no student of history, Ryan explains he “learned more about the founders and reading the Austrians and others that this is really a cancer because it basically takes the notion that our rights come from God and nature and turns it on its head and says, no, no, no, no, no, they come from government, and we here in government are here to give you your rights and therefore ration, redistribute and regulate your rights. It’s a complete affront of the whole idea of this country.”

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