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Wisconsin Progressive Party

WISCONSIN PROGRESSIVE PARTY

The Wisconsin Progressive Party provided a political vehicle for La Follette Progressives and their political allies between 1934 and 1946. The party emerged out of the peculiar political dynamics prevailing in the state after the 1932 election. Progressive Republicans in Wisconsin had frequently talked about starting a new party, and Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., had run for the presidency on a third party ticket in 1924. When his son Philip lost the governorship to conservative Democrat Albert Schmedeman in 1932, the state faction faced a difficult decision. Remaining in the party of Herbert Hoover was distasteful to many, but trying to operate within the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which was at least as conservative in orientation, held little appeal. Despite its inherent riskiness, launching a new party seemed to many to offer a better chance for winning elections while allowing the Progressives to remain doctrinally pure.

Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., remained hesitant, but when more radical movement spokesmen, such as former Congressman Thomas R. Amlie, threatened to go ahead without the La Follettes, Philip La Follette, more open to the idea from the beginning, became an active proponent of a new party. Taking the traditional name Progressive, rather than the Farmer-Labor label favored by the radicals, the new party succeeded spectacularly in the fall elections. Along with putting the La Follette brothers back in the Senate and the governorship, the Progressives elected seven of Wisconsin's ten congressmen and won healthy proportions in both houses of the state legislature. Factionalism continued to split the Wisconsin Progressive Party during its brief existence. In November 1935 a group of advanced Progressives led by Amlie, State Federation of Labor leaders, and radical farm group spokesmen established a Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation, intended to promote the interests of their memberships and to move the party in a leftward direction. While cooperating with the new organization, Governor La Follette, who continued to be the real leader of the party as long as he remained in office, sought to deflect its influence and retain his freedom of action.

The election of 1936 witnessed the apex of party success. With the active cooperation of the Roosevelt administration, Phil La Follette won a third gubernatorial term and Progressives captured enough legislative seats to forge a working majority in that body. They legislated a "Little New Deal" for the state in 1937, and in April 1938 the governor attempted to expand his influence by launching a new national party, the National Progressives of America. It flopped and he lost his bid for reelection that fall, along with dozens of other progressives and liberals across the nation. The party rapidly declined. Its last spark of hope came with the election of Governor Orland Loomis in 1942, but he died before being inaugurated. With the disbanding of the party in 1946, most of its members went back into the Republican Party, but a group of its more advanced adherents became the core of a new liberalized state Democratic Party during the late 1940s and 1950s.

See Also: ELECTION OF 1936; LA FOLLETTE, PHILIP; LA FOLLETTE, ROBERT M., JR.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Backstrom, Charles H. "The Progressive Party of Wisconsin, 1934–1936." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin. 1956.

Johnson, Roger T. Robert M. La Follette, Jr., and the Decline of the Progressive Party in Wisconsin. 1964.

Maney, Patrick J. "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895–1953. 1978.

Miller, John E. Governor Philip F. La Follette, the Wisconsin Progressives, and the New Deal. 1982.

Schmidt, Lester. "The Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation: The Study of a 'United Front' Movement among Wisconsin Liberals, 1934–1941." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin. 1954.

John E. Miller

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