“The great issue before the American people today is the control of their own government. In the midst of political struggle, it is not easy to see the historical relations of the present Progressive movement. But it represents a conflict as old as the history of man — the fight to maintain human liberty, the rights of all people.” — Robert M. La Follette, 1912
More than a century ago, on a Fourth of July in Mineral Point, Robert M. La Follette sounded the call against corporate power.
“So multifarious have become corporate affairs, so many concessions and privileges have been accorded them by legislation -- so many more are sought by further legislation -- that their specially retained representatives are either elected to office, directly in their interests, or maintained in a perpetual lobby to serve them,” declared the founder of the progressive movement.
“Hence it is that the corporation does not limit its operations to the legitimate conduct of its business. Human nature everywhere is selfish, and with the vast power which consolidated capital can wield, with the impossibility of fixing any personal or moral responsibility for corporate acts, its commands are heard and obeyed in the capitals of the state and nation.”
La Follette saw unrestrained corporate power as the great threat to representative government.
When corporations are allowed to engage in political competition, using their vast resources to warp our electoral processes, La Follette warned that certain results would be guaranteed by a government no longer representative of the people but instead beholden to paymasters in distant boardrooms.
“When legislatures will boldly repudiate their constituents and violate the pledges of their platforms, then indeed have the servants become the masters, and the people ceased to be sovereign -- gone the government of equal rights and equal responsibilities, lost the jewel of constitutional liberty. Do not look to such lawmakers to restrain corporations within proper limits. Do not look to such lawmakers to equalize the burden of taxation,” warned La Follette.
This language sounds prescient at a moment when Gov. Scott Walker pockets checks from billionaire out-of-state campaign donors, then accepts a call he presumes to be from one of those donors and laughs about their shared “vested interest” in breaking public employee unions.
But the progressive movement, founded by La Follette to tip the balance back toward government of, by and for the people, was also prescient.
The power struggle now going on in Wisconsin, between Walker and his billionaire donors on one side and public workers, teachers, private workers, farmers and students on the other, is not a new one. Nor is the response to it.
It has been a good long time since we have seen this sort of exercise of our rights to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances, this sort of mass mobilization of working people, this sort of uprising against corporate power and corrupt politicians.
But the struggle has roots, in this state’s history and its present.
La Follette died in 1925. But the progressive flame has been kept burning since by institutions and individuals. The Madison-based Progressive magazine, which Robert and Belle La Follette began with a circle of allies in 1909, has been the steady champion of its founding faith, often working in conjunction with this newspaper in Wisconsin but also providing a national and international platform for progressive ideals and struggles.
Over the past decade, Ed Garvey and a community of volunteers from across the state built the “Fighting Bob” projects -- Fighting Bob Fest, www.fightingbob.com, the Peoples’ Legislature -- which renewed an interest in the La Follette legacy and renewed the tradition of mass gatherings.
Along with unions and farm groups that have maintained progressive traditions, as well as individuals who have remembered what made Wisconsin great, these institutions kept a consciousness that underpins and strengthens our state’s remarkable response to the assault on worker rights and representative government that Walker has launched.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, at the Barrymore Theatre, The Progressive will sponsor a free “Speak-Out for Workers’ Rights: Say NO to Union-Busting” rally, featuring Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and Texas populist Jim Hightower. They’ll be joined by Garvey and The Progressive’s Matt Rothschild and Ruth Conniff.
If you hear an echo, it will be that of La Follette saying: “Think of the heroes who died to make this country free; think of their sons who died to keep it undivided upon the map of the world. Shall we, their children, basely surrender our birthright and say representative government is a failure? No, never, until Bunker Hill and Little Round Top sink into the very earth. Let us here, today, under this flag we all love, hallowed by the memory of all that has been sacrificed for it and for us, dedicate ourselves to winning back the independence of this country, to emancipating this generation and throwing off from the neck of the freemen of America the yoke of the political machine.”
La Follette and the progressives of another century fought the rail barons and their stalwart Republican pawns. The progressives of this day fight the Koch brothers and their Walker spawn. The conflict is nothing new. And it remains as it has ever been: “the fight to maintain human liberty, the rights of all people.”