Thursday, February 01, 2007

Everything old is new again

On January 30th, 2007, the always essential Arthur Silber lamented that we seem to have no contemporary equivalent to Robert La Follette in our current crop of elected representatives. The reference is a passing one, most of the way down the essay, which is yet another of Silbert's marvelously lucid, yet simultaneously utterly impassioned, pleas for the U.S. government, and, more important, the U.S. citizenry, to rethink U.S. international policy from an actually moral viewpoint, instead of using the calculated real-politiks embodied in our ongoing, century and a half old "Open Door" strategy.

Reality is reality, and the world has always pretty much sucked, and nations being comprised of men, it seems to me to be wildly idealistic and borderline delusional to expect anything except the most naked self interest from any group of humans, especially rich humans with lots and lots of mindless, gun totin' lackeys. Still, Silbert's reference to La Follette led me to another article on the former Senator, and what I found there reminded me yet again that however dark things may be now (and they undoubtedly are) on the world and U.S. national stages, and however poisoned and corrupted our current national dialogue between citizenry, media, and elected officials may seem, there really is nothing new under the sun. We've been here before; in fact, we've been here over and over again -- led into unnecessary war by the charismatic elected figureheads of shadowy corporate interests whose only interests in American military engagement abroad are strictly monetary.

Yet, when an entirely media manufactured 'war fever' swept over America in 1917, Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin stood up against it:

By the time he was elevated to the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette was already a national figure. He soon emerged as a leader of the Senate's burgeoning progressive camp and by 1912 was a serious contender for the Republican Party's Presidential nomination. The fight for the nomination exposed divisions within the progressive camp, however, as La Follette's more radical followers battled supporters of a more centrist reformer who also claimed the progressive mantle: former President Teddy Roosevelt.

The Roosevelt/La Follette split grew more pronounced five years later, as the nation prepared to enter World War I. While Roosevelt urged U.S. participation in the war-the position supported by the nation's political establishment-La Follette emerged as the leading foe of a war he described as a scheme to line the pockets of the corporations he had fought so bitterly as a governor and Senator.

La Follette personally held up the declaration of war for twenty-four hours by refusing unanimous consent to Senate resolutions. From the Senate floor, La Follette argued: "We should not seek [to] inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war." He painted the impending conflict as a war that would benefit the wealthy of the world but not the workers, who would have to fight it. And he warned: "The poor . . . who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power.... But oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard.... There will come an awakening. They will have their day, and they will be heard."

Those words sounded treasonous to some, and La Follette's constant efforts to expose war profiteers only heightened the attacks upon him. He was targeted for censure by the Senate, portrayed in Life magazine as a stooge of the German Kaiser, and denounced by virtually the entire media establishment of the nation-including the Boston Evening Transcript, which announced, "Henceforth he is the Man without a Country."

As mounting domestic oppression sent more and more anti-war activists to jail, La Follette emerged as their defender, berating his colleagues with the charge that "Never in all my many years' experience in the House and in the Senate have I heard so much democracy preached and so little practiced as during the last few months."
His critics declared that La Follette would never again be a viable contender for public office.

And yet, less than four years after the Armistice, running on a platform that explicitly recounted his opposition to the war and his opposition to imperialism, La Follette won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in Wisconsin. And two years later, he earned one out of every six votes cast for the Presidency of the United States.

The bolding is my own emphasis; to me, that paragraph more than any other brought home that, indeed, those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. For the past six years, we have seen our entrenched corporate media repeating the Administration's most jingoistic, pro-war lies without so much as a twitch of so called journalistic ethics, while simultaneously attacking anyone who dared to dissent from the party line like a pack of ink stained jackals.

And we have seen, to our even greater shame, that our current crop of elected representatives and national leaders responds to this propaganda bombardment with the most scurrilous and cowardly displays of fawning, lickspittle toadyism imaginable. The apparent fear that they might be accused of 'cutting and running', or failing to 'support the troops', has all but paralyzed our newly elected Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

While it is clear that the American people want to see definitive action taken -- our troops recalled from Iraq immediately, our economic woes directly addressed, and our criminal executive and legislative leadership impeached, indicted, arrested, tried, and imprisoned for their crimes -- the representatives we have sent to Washington to carry out this mandate are far too terrified of what the Washington Post or the New York Times might say about them on their op-ed pages, and what impact this might have on their Presidential election hopes in '08, to stand up decisively and take the actions they know they should, and must, if they are to truly serve their electorates.

And, again, those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. From that same article on Fightin' Bob La Follette:

In March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or - at best - an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

Where is the contemporary politician with this kind of guts today? Let Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton even suggest in some locked and shuttered back room that they make a similarly unequivocal public statement of their own personal political principles, and a thousand so called 'wise and knowledgeable' campaign operatives would have simultaneous aneurysms. This is not how we do it in politics today, such chin-strokers and hand-flutterers would caution. The presence of the modern electronic media, with its instantaneous capacity to communicate across the nation to members of every different type of special interest group, makes it impossible to get elected to a national office with such uncompromising statements. You will offend too many people, alienate too many powerful interests. You must swaddle yourself in comforting, non-specific aphorisms and emotionally powerful but semantically meaningless buzz phrases. You must always unite, never divide; you must continually reassure, and never, ever offend.

Well, Bob La Follette would have had two words for that sort of political advice, and those two words would not have been "Happy Birthday":

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

...It was this militant faith in the people that enabled him to win reelection to the Senate in 1922 by an overwhelming margin. And this faith guided the Midwestern populist as he embarked on the most successful left-wing Presidential campaign in American history.

Running with the support of the Socialist Party, African Americans, women, organized labor, and farmers, La Follette terrified the established economic, political, and media order, which warned that his election would bring chaos. And La Follette gave them reason to fear. His Progressive Party platform called for government takeover of the railroads, elimination of private utilities, easier credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, the right of workers to organize unions, increased protection of civil liberties, an end to U.S. imperialism in Latin America, and a plebiscite before any President could again lead the nation into war.

Campaigning for the Presidency on a pledge to "break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people" and denouncing, in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan's resurgence, "any discrimination between races, classes, and creeds," La Follette told his followers: "Free men of every generation must combat renewed efforts of organized force and greed to destroy liberty."

Obviously, La Follette did not win his Presidential campaign, and that is all the lesson that contemporary aspirants to the Oval Office like Clinton and Obama are willing, or, probably, able, to draw from his example.

But La Follette's ideas were not defeated. He laid an important foundation of Socialist/Progressive thinking that greatly influenced politics over the next two generations:

The 1924 campaign laid the groundwork for the resurgence of left-wing populist movements across the upper Midwest - the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota, the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. It spurred labor-based independent political action by New York's American Labor Party and other groupings. And La Follette gave inspiration, as well, to those who swung the Democratic Party to the left in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Harold Ickes Sr., a key aide to La Follette's 1924 campaign, would become an architect of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, in the words of historian Bernard Weisberger, "completed the elder La Follette's work."

Roosevelt acknowledged the inspiration of La Follette. But the Wisconsinite's truest heirs were of a more radical bent-people like his sons, Bob Jr. and Phil, who served respectively as U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and governor of the state; Minnesota's Floyd Olson, who was very possibly the most radical figure ever to govern an American state; author Upton Sinclair, whose 1934 foray into gubernatorial politics borrowed heavily from La Follette's 1924 platform and promised to "end poverty in California"; and New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a veteran La Follette partisan who nominated the Senator for President in 1924 with the announcement that "I speak for Avenue A and 116th Street, instead of Broad and Wall."

And times do change, and indeed, there are different conditions at work in our society right now than there were in 1924, when La Follette's Presidential campaign was defeated. How hungry do you think the American people are now, after decades of steadily increasing corporate corruption on every level of our government, for a candidate who would run on such a platform?

You may point to Ralph Nader's historic failure in 2000, which common wisdom dictates did nothing except deliver the nation and the world into a six year Dark Age that we as yet see only dim signs we may ever emerge from -- but Nader was a political outsider whom the media hated, who ran as a private citizen and who had no electoral base to build from. Imagine if Obama or Clinton, or one of the other serious Democratic contenders, was to actually stand up and declare ringingly their opposition to American foreign interventionalism, to corporate cronyism, to political corruption, to everything about our current entrenched political system and its bloated, plutocratic, war profiteer campaign contributors that every American knows on some level is deeply, deeply wrong... yet that none of our politicians ever seems to want to even mention, much less openly confront?

I don't know. Maybe they wouldn't get any TV time, maybe the newspapers wouldn't cover them, maybe the people would never hear their message. Certainly, any such candidate would be denounced and derided from every political direction by every media outlet known to man.

But maybe... just maybe... the American electorate would respond to this kind of honesty and integrity in the same way as the people of Wisconsin did in 1922.

Of course, it may be that they simply can't do it... that the paranoids are correct, and that you cannot get elected to a national office anywhere in America these days without selling out, body and soul, to the powerful corporate interests that seem to control every facet of contemporary life.

It may be that no one who reaches Congress, or a State governor's mansion, really can take this kind of position, without immediately being shut down by the real powers of the world. Perhaps everyone who is allowed to hold a so called 'powerful position' of public trust is actually in someone else's pocket. Maybe there really ARE horribly compromising pictures and/or videotapes featuring every powerful man and woman currently alive, sitting in some secret safe somewhere, just waiting to be leaked to the media if anyone sets so much as one toe off the reservation.

Paranoid though such speculations are, this hypothesis would certainly explain the absolute gutlessness of every politician we have.

In which case, you have to wonder what terrible sin against power Mark Foley must have committed, to reap the punishment handed down to him last year.

Still, I have to hope that not everyone is in the bag, and that somewhere out there, we have a modern day Robert La Follette lurking on the political horizon... and that this time, should such a man or woman stand up and pound their fist on the lecturn and declare such principles in so uncompromising a way, the end results would be different.

Can you imagine what the world might be like today, if LaFollette had actually won his Presidential campaign?


At 7:14 PM, Blogger AaA said...

I didn't realize we ever had anyone like that around in the last century. I figured the spine was sucked out of our political skeleton long ago.

LaFollette sounds like a modern-day Franklin. But without the scandals.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger SuperFiancee said...

Thanks for the history lesson, Sweetie!

Excellent post and it's really heartening to think there are people in our political history who aren't self-serving liars. People who have a strength of character and more personal integrity and passion for doing what is right for a people, than they do apathy for selling themselves and everyone else out to get re-elected and do what the party tells them to do.

Would love to see more of this in my lifetime, but I'm not holding my breath.

Makes you wonder what 100 years distance will make some of our current politicians look like...

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Always Esteemed Scott said...

I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't heard of Robert La Follette before I read this post.
Thanks Handsome.

At 2:42 AM, Blogger Chuck Butcher said...

There are still voices, hell, you just did. There is one thing to remember, Follet got 1:6, that won't get you elected.

How this nation has moved so far right in the face of increasing poverty and plutocracy is somewhat beyond me. I do not understand the selling of a plutocratic agenda to people who wouldn't be allowed on the plutocrat's street, but it is real.

By today's standards of progressive (or liberal or whatever) I'm an odd duck. But I keep banging away and standing up and hoping.

(over from your Swift comment)


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