Who is Today's Version of "Fighting Bob" La Follette?

Stephen H. Unger
July 20, 2015

Wealthy people have always exercised immense political power. Since recent court decisions have greatly relaxed restrictions on contributions to political organizations, the political potency of money has been significantly enhanced. Furthermore, in addition to direct contributions to candidates, political parties, and organizations dedicated to particular issues, their control of news media gives the rich even more leverage.

In the past, there were countervailing forces that occasionally succeeded in limiting the power of the rich. Organized labor was one such force. When most farms were small, there were a great many of them, and farmers constituted a significant political force. Neither group is a factor today.

Apart from identifiable groups that wielded power, there were, in the past, outstanding individual politicians who, even when outgunned by big money interests, were able to fight effectively for progressive causes, and occasionally win real victories. Prime examples are "Fighting Bob" La Follette, George Norris, and Fiorello La Guardia.

What did they accomplish?

While a member of the House of Representatives during a period in which the rich appeared to be in full command, Fiorello La Guardia [1] helped win the vote for women, pass legislation outlawing child labor, and defeat a number of measures characterized as pork barrel legislation. One of his memorable victories was passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which outlawed some of the key weapons used to crush labor unions. He later served three terms as the greatest mayor New York City ever had. He vigorously and successfully fought against the gangsters who, via Tammany Hall, had dominated NYC politics for many decades. Public housing, parks, highways and bridges were constructed, which, among other things, provided much needed employment during the thirties. (The emphasis on highways and other automotive infrastructure was, in my view, a negative aspect of this period.)

Nebraska Senator George Norris [2] consistently supported legislation helpful to workers (e.g., the Norris-La Guardia Act mentioned above), and was an important voice in promoting the TVA in the thirties. Earlier in his career, he was one of just 6 senators voting against US entry into WW I. Altho a Republican, he consistently supported New Deal legislation.

As a member of the House of Representatives in the 1890's, Robert La Follette [3], among other things, championed the rights of Blacks and Indians. Later, as Wisconsin governor, he fought, with considerable success, for such measures as a workers' compensation system, railroad rate reform, a minimum wage law, women's suffrage, and progressive taxation. Later, as a US senator, he fought for such measures as child labor laws, social security, and women's suffrage. He too voted against US entry into WW I, and subsequently defended people such as Eugene Debs, who were imprisoned for speaking out against the war. He opposed military conscription, and the Espionage Act (still on the books; it has been used by the Obama administration to imprison a number of people for giving information to journalists.)

La Follette completed his political career by running for president in 1924 on an independent ticket. His platform included the items mentioned above. He received about 17% of the popular vote, carrying Wisconsin.

These 3 men (all Republicans!) were important originators and supporters of most of the progressive legislation associated with the New Deal. They were staunch champions of civil liberties. It is striking that they fought for these measures, and sometime prevailed, during a period in which the congress was dominated by those hostile to their views.

Robert F. Wagner, a Democrat, fought on the same side, serving as a US senator for 24 years, including the entire New Deal period. He was a major factor in the passage of legislation establishing social security, passage of the National Labor Relations Act, and legislation facilitating the construction of low-cost housing.

Over the past century or so, the president who most effectively promoted a wide range of progressive ideas was Franklin Roosevelt. He succeeded on a number of fronts, such as providing security for the aged, implementing unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws, facilitating the growth of labor unions, and enhancing the public infrastructure via construction of bridges, roads, dams, etc.

What's Happening Today?

I have mentioned a few political figures who played what I regard as key roles in promoting progressive ideas during the twentieth century. What Americans are playing similar roles today? Which politicians are leading battles against growing inequality, erosion of civil liberties, massive government eavesdropping, persecution of whistleblowers, environmental degradation, bloated military budgets, aggressive military adventures? Who is fighting for single-payer health care? Who is aggressively trying to end the massive influx of people from low-pay countries, a major factor underlying the sad situation of so many American workers, particularly those at the bottom? What politicians are actively trying to do something about record numbers of Americans being imprisoned, many for crimes that harm nobody but themselves?

While there are some members of congress who have made real efforts to attack a few of the above-mentioned problems with at least some success, none have fought hard and effectively for a broad range of progressive measures. Perhaps Dennis Kucinich has supported the broadest package of progressive measures. But his record is marred in several respects. While supporting some legislation to protect the jobs of Americans, he also supported a variety of measures to encourage immigration from poor countries, an important element in the plight of American workers. Initially a strong advocate for single-payer health insurance, he yielded to pressure exerted by the president, and voted for Obama Care. (This did not save him from being gerrymandered out of congress.)

What about Bernie Sanders, now seeking the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency? Sanders has been speaking out strongly against the growth of income inequality, has taken good positions on environmental issues, and has pledged to try to restrict the amount of money spent on election campaigns. These all concern important issues, and, in general, I agree with his positions on them.

But, regardless of how he may feel about them, he has not significantly tackled some of the most critical issues of our time. In particular, he has not been actively opposing the murderous international operations of our government, mainly in the Middle East. The "Issues" portion of his campaign website [4] makes no mention of the use of American drones to kill people all over the world, or of our massive military budget, or of US support of numerous unsavory national figures such as King Ibn Saud, or US support of the killing by Israel of thousands of noncombatant Israeli Arabs, including many women and children. Sanders has been actively supporting the F-35 program, and succeeded in getting funding to base many of them in Vermont. This 1-seater fighter plane is the most expensive military aircraft ever built; the cost being estimated as about $150 million each.

Regarding Snowden, Sanders said [5], "...there is no debate that Mr. Snowden violated an oath and committed a crime....In my view," Sanders continued, "the interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile...." So Sanders thinks that the criminal Snowden should plea bargain and accept punishment short of a long prison sentence.

It is interesting that, while Libertarian Senator Rand Paul expressed views about Snowden similar to those of Sanders, his father, former congressman Ron Paul, also a Libertarian, expressed a rather different view of Snowden and what he did [6]: "Edward Snowden sacrificed his livelihood, citizenship, and freedom by exposing the disturbing scope of the NSA's worldwide spying program," he said. "Thanks to one man's courageous actions, Americans know about the truly egregious ways their government is spying on them." Paul circulated a petition saying, among other things, "By signing this petition, you are telling the US government that Mr. Snowden deserves the right to come home without the fear of persecution or imprisonment." I can't find any indication of a Sanders position on any other whistle blower, such as Bradley (or Chelsea) Manning, or John Kiriakou.

While Sanders expresses real concern over the plight of American workers, and criticizes the exporting of American factories (and the associated jobs), his position on immigration is inconsistent. While sometimes expressing concern over Americans being displaced in the job market by immigrants, he advocates amnesty for the roughly eleven million illegal immigrants, and actually urges that illegal immigrants who parent children in this country be rewarded by being allowed to remain here [7].

Sanders seems to be trying to minimize criticism of the Obama administration. Consider the following excerpt from Sanders' campaign website:

"The good news is that the economy today is much better than when President George W. Bush left office. The bad news is that despite improvements the 40-year decline of the American middle class continues."

So, in effect, Sanders is saying that it is good that, under Obama's rule, the economy has improved, altho it is too bad that the beneficiaries of this improvement are the wealthy, while the situation is continuing to deteriorate for most people.

Two years ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren, praised Snowden, [8] saying, "We wouldn't even know about the NSA's spying without Edward Snowden's heroism." I have not located any more recent statements by her about Snowden. In other respects, including a pro-immigration position, her positions are very similar to Sanders', tho she is more focussed on opposition to Wall Street, and perhaps even more in accord with Obama on foreign policy and military issues.

Democrat Rush Holt, who has represented the Princeton area in the House since 1999, recently announced that he will not run again. He is arguably the most progressive member of the House, in terms of the depth and breadth of his expressed concerns. He has an excellent record on environmental issues, and on many economic issues. But, regarding Snowden, his opinion is similar to that of Sanders': Holt argues [9] that Edward Snowden should "face the music for breaking the law", but with "leniency" (presumably meaning a short prison sentence).

There are no modern versions of Fighting Bob La Follette in congress today.

Looking backwards

Some people have argued that, since Sanders has taken very good positions on domestic issues such as the economy, income inequality, and human rights, we should not fault him for not making commitments on other issues such as NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance of Americans, US military interventions all over the world, and the bloated military budget. They argue that we can safely assume that, if elected president, he would deal with these matters properly. This assumption is not supported by history. There have been a number of presidents who, like Sanders, took good positions on domestic matters. but who behaved very differently with respect to foreign policy and the military.

Woodrow Wilson, a liberal on domestic matters, campaigned as a peace candidate, and then took us into World War I (during which he set precedents for civil liberties violations that still plague us). Another liberal with respect to domestic issues, Harry Truman, made the fateful decision to use the atomic bomb, and later sent our armed forces into Korea. Lyndon Johnson, very good on civil rights, greatly escalated the Vietnam War, after John Kennedy initiated our military intervention. Most people who voted for Barack Obama did not anticipate that he would wage undeclared wars in roughly a half dozen countries, or relentlessly prosecute whistleblowers, or preside over unprecedented violations of privacy in the name of national security.

Criticizing Sanders for virtual silence on important issues is not nitpicking, and does not constitute an unrealistic demand for perfection. If a candidate avoids taking clear positions on significant issues, experience indicates that, once elected, he or she will most likely deal with them badly. It also means that some important positions of the opposing candidate are unchallenged, making it likely that they will be accepted by more people.

Why the shortage of progressives with guts in our congress today?

There is no doubt that there are plenty of principled, courageous Americans. Edward Snowden is an obvious example. Why aren't any of them in congress?

One explanation is that relatively few Americans would vote for such people. Why not? Perhaps the problem is that the general public is seldom exposed to clear explanations of the kinds of ideas that would be championed by modern versions of Fighting Bob. They certainly don't hear many such explanations from those currently in government. So, in a sense, we have a positive feedback situation; with few, if any, Fighting Bobs in office to educate and inspire voters, it is hard to promulgate the ideas that would motivate people to elect such fighters.

Reinforcing this effect is the fact that the mass media, the source of information and political ideas for most people, are almost totally dominated by the hirelings of the wealthy elite. To some extent this has always been the case, but it has become even more of a factor as the media have become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

One possible ray of hope is the internet, which offers an alternative channel to promulgate fresh ideas. This channel may become more effective as more and more people begin to utilize it. One would expect that it would have a big influence on young people, who are accustomed to using it as a source of ideas and data. Unfortunately, I've seen no signs that significant numbers of young people are riled up enough to take action to turn things around.

What lies ahead?

Hillary Clinton will probably win the Democratic nomination, and Sanders will probably be a good sport and endorse her candidacy. Liberals, horrified by whoever the Republicans nominate, will then "reluctantly" support Clinton. Her election campaign will, in substance, ignore issues of liberals and be tuned to attract middle of the road conservatives. I won't try to predict who will win the election, except to say it won't be the American people.


[1] Wikipedia, "Fiorello H. La Guardia", Wikipedia

[2] Wikipedia, "George W. Norris", Wikipedia

[3] John Nichols, "About Robert 'Fighting Bob' La Follette", FightingBob.com

[4] Bernie Sanders, "Bernie Sanders On The Issues", Sanders' website

[5] Free Press, "Snowden deserves leniency, Sanders says 9:30 p.m. EST ", The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, January 6, 2014

[6] , "Ron Paul launches clemency petition for Edward Snowden", , February 14, 2014

[7] , "Bernie Sanders: It's Time For Immigration Reform", The Huffington Post, 6/19/2015

[8] Zaid Jilani, "Elizabeth Warren, 25 Other Senators Call Out NSA For Misleading The Public, Demand Answers", boldprogressives.org, July 3, 2013

[9] Brendan Bordelon, "Democratic congressman urges 'leniency' for Edward Snowden", Daily Caller, 1/2/2014

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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