One hundred years ago, Robert M. La Follette founded his magazine, La Follette's Weekly, with the purpose of "winning back for the people the complete power over government -- national, state and municipal -- which has been lost to them."
La Follette's Weekly would, two decades into its extraordinary journalistic adventure, become The Progressive.
The name change did not alter the mission.
A copy of the La Follette's Weekly of 1909
Five years ago, when the magazine with which this newspaper has always been associated celebrated its 95th birthday, Progressive editor Matt Rothschild and his compatriots celebrated their publication's 95th anniversary under the banner of "A Progressive Tomorrow."
On that occasion, we observed: "Today, in the midst of the long night of Bush and Cheneyism, we can only imagine a progressive tomorrow. But we look forward to celebrating The Progressive's 100th anniversary in the sunlight of a new age of American enlightenment and radical advance. And when that day comes, as it surely shall, it will be right to say that The Progressive showed the way out of the darkness."
While we may still be a bit shy of American enlightenment and radical advance, it certainly can be argued that the sweeping electoral shifts of 2006 and 2008 did move this country out of the shadows of the Bush/Cheney interregnum and into the sunlight of a new age.
And it is undoubtedly true that The Progressive showed the way.
What has distinguished The Progressive from its founding has been its La Follette-inspired refusal to compromise on matters of war and peace internationally and equity at home -- and its steadfast faith that an informed and engaged citizenry is the only antidote to a self-interested media and self-serving politicians. La Follette always believed that the cure for what ailed democracy was more democracy.
But he also believed that the greatest barrier to democracy was what he and his friend William T. Evjue referred to as "the kept press," a media that did not bow to entrenched economic and political power so much as wed itself to the elites.
The Progressive was founded as a counterbalance to the kept press, and it has served that purpose well for a century -- often a solitary voice of reason in a moment of madness, sometimes on the cusp of the mainstream, always on the forward edge of what Progressive writer Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the arc of history that bends toward justice.
In the magazine's first decade, it came under attack, along with its founder, for opposing the rush to enter the United States into the European intrigues of World War I.
La Follette had warned on the floor of the Senate, as he opposed the declaration of war, that the push for U.S. involvement was the work of arms merchants and their amen corner in the media, rather than the will of the people.
But, noting that even in the face of pro-war propaganda, anti-war sentiment was spreading among the great mass of Americans -- especially those who would be drafted and sent to fight -- La Follette declared: "The poor, sir, who are the ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power, have no press to voice their will upon this question of peace or war; but, oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard."
The fear on the part of the pro-war lobby that the senator might indeed be right led to an even more intense attack not just on La Follette himself, but on La Follette's Weekly.
Even in La Follette's home state of Wisconsin, the press turned against the senator and his magazine.
When he founded The Capital Times in 1917, Evjue did so to create an editorial voice that would counter the vicious campaign that the Wisconsin State Journal and other state and national publications were then waging against La Follette and Evjue's favorite periodical.
The State Journal condemned La Follette's magazine for explaining that "this war is the creation of the rich" and suggested that, because of the magazine's challenge to the war profiteers, "America is in greater danger today" than at any time since its founding.
Evjue took a different view. He hailed La Follette's Weekly as a crusading voice for economic and social justice and for peace. And he created a daily newspaper that would echo those themes.
The Capital Times and The Progressive have stood together ever since, often in lonely opposition to the madness of new wars, new corporations and new forms of profiteering. We have differed at times on particulars, but never on principles.
As The Progressive celebrates its 100th anniversary today, we are struck by the fact that the magazine is still waging what La Follette referred to as "the old fight" against crony capitalism and imperial war-making.
The cover art may be different, but the message is as passionate, and as true, as ever.
The notable and the notorious will gather in Madison this weekend to mark The Progressive's transit of the century mark.
For 100 years, this remarkable magazine has gotten things right -- or, perhaps, we should say left. It has battled the elites who hoard this country's wealth and promise in predatory banks and corporations. It has courageously challenged racism, sexism, homophobia and the hatred of the newcomer that affronts the history of this nation of immigrants. It has cherished our civil liberties and defended them against the Joe McCarthys, the Richard Nixons and the Dick Cheneys who would diminish them. And it has, above all, held true to the Washingtonian vision that America can best remain free and strong and good by avoiding the wars and entangling alliances of empire.
The Progressive has kept the faith of the founders, and of its founder, through its first century.
This, above all, is what makes the prospect of The Progressive's second century so exciting -- and so very worthy of celebration.