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The La Follette Progressives

Certainly the most successful third party in the immediate post-World War I era was the Progressive effort led by Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin. The end of the war had seen an upsurge in left-wing political activity in the United States, as evidenced in the growth and development of the Workers’ Party (the Communists), the Socialist Party and the Farmer-Labor Party, all of which increased their ranks at the beginning of the 1920s. Also making an impact at this time was the Conference for Progressive Political Action (C.P.P.A.), which in 1922 merged the efforts of several railway unions into a surprisingly effective state and local political force. They successfully backed a number of liberal candidates in Congressional races and had visions of greater success in 1924. The C.P.P.A. held a national nominating convention in Cleveland, Ohio, that year and concluded that their best hope of gaining real influence would come through backing a candidate with a national reputation. La Follette fit the bill, but he was leery of Communist influence in left-wing political parties and styled himself an Independent. He was, however, enticed to accept the Progressive nomination by being given full control over the party platform and the choice of his running mate. The C.P.P.A., in many ways heir to the defunct Bull Moose or Progressive Party of Teddy Roosevelt, offered a platform in 1924 that was only marginally more socialistic than the statement issued a dozen years earlier. La Follette called for:

  • Government Ownership. Citing mismanagement by private enterprise, the Progressives called for government ownership of the nation's railroads, timber forests, coal, ore and oil fields, and power-generating water resources.
  • Tax Reform. Arguing that the middle and lower classes shouldered a disproportionate amount of the tax burden, the Progressives called for a lowering of tax rates for those groups and sharp increases for the wealthy.
  • Agricultural Reform. Support was voiced for a variety of government programs designed to relieve the distress of American farmers, who were contending with the related problems of overproduction and low prices.
  • Judicial Reform. The Progressives argued that middle class and working Americans were harmed by overactive courts that overturned the legislative efforts of a well-meaning Congress and state assemblies. Limitations were urged on judicial review and on the use of injunctions.
The Socialists, Farmer-Labor Party and a variety of labor organizations climbed on board with La Follette, which broadened the movement into what was generally termed the Progressive Party. The Workers’ Party offered its support, but was turned down. In the November election, La Follette polled nearly five million votes and carried his home state, but was easily outdistanced by the major parties. The Progressive Party unraveled quickly following the election defeat in 1924, but it staged a comeback in the 1930s on the state level in Wisconsin where La Follette’s sons, Robert Jr. and Philip, forged a successful movement that lasted until the end of World War II. A third effort bearing the name of Progressive Party would be a factor in the Election of 1948.