Progressive Party, Wisconsin

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PROGRESSIVE PARTY, WISCONSIN. Officially established during a convention held at Fond du Lac on 19 May 1934, the Progressive Party of Wisconsin was primarily the creation of erstwhile Governor Philip F. La Follette and U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr. The La Follettes were sons of the state's most legendary political figure, "Fighting Bob" La Follette, who founded and led the "progressive movement" within the Republican Party earlier in the century, and in 1924 ran for president under the Progressive banner. Upon Fighting Bob's death in 1925, "Young Bob" inherited his senate seat and rejoined the GOP, following in his father's footsteps as a severe critic of the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. With the advent of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Young Bob quickly emerged as a frequent supporter of New Deal measures, but a supporter who staunchly resisted blandishments to become a Democrat. Philip La Follette had been elected governor as a Republican in 1930, but was then defeated for reelection in the Democratic sweep of 1932. He conceived of the new party as a vehicle that would not only return him to the state house, but also secure his brother's reelection to the Senate. After much persuasion, he finally convinced his brother that running together as candidates of a new party was the surest way to tap into the state's progressive tradition without being swallowed up in Roosevelt's scheme to subsume all the country's liberals under the Democratic tent. Philip La Follette further overcame his brother's qualms that such action would cause many voters to reject "too much La Follette."

Bulking equally large in the decision of the La Follettes to form a third party was the desire to co-opt a movement being galvanized by former Congressman Tom Amlie and labor leader John J. Handley composed of Socialists, organized labor, and such militant agrarian organizations as the Farmers Union, the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, and the Farmers' Holiday Association. Backed by the national Farmer Labor Political Federation (FLPF), their organizing efforts paralleled those that led to the establishment of the powerful Farmer-Labor Party in neighboring Minnesota and of the Wisconsin Farmer-Labor Progressive Federation. Although considered "radicals" in many conservative circles, both generations of La Follettes and their progressive supporters had consistently eschewed class politics in favor of broad-based appeals to Wisconsinites as consumers, taxpayers, and citizens. As Philip La Follette told the Fond du Lac convention, the new party aimed to attract voters "as Americans and not by reason of their occupation." Much of the credit for holding together the tenuous coalition between the La Follette Progressives and FLPF belonged to Thomas Duncan, a Milwaukee Socialist who also served as Philip's right-hand man.

Although hastily cobbled together and internally conflicted, the new party swept the 1934 election, winning not only the Senate seat and the governor's chair, but seven of the state's ten Congressional positions, thirteen of the thirty-three seats in the state senate, and forty-five of the one hundred places in the assembly. However, their victory was more apparent than real, given the increasing dissatisfaction of the party's left wing, Roosevelt's over-whelming popularity, and disagreements between the La Follettes and among their respective advisers. Deciding to back Roosevelt during the 1936 presidential campaign and having persuaded the Socialists to withdraw from the ballot in Wisconsin, Philip La Follette was reelected with 48 percent of the gubernatorial vote, additionally the Progressives captured all statewide offices, seven of ten Congressional seats, and working majorities in both houses of the state legislature. But, as Philip La Follette's biographer, John E. Miller, has observed, the "election of 1936 marked the political apogee of both the New Deal and the Wisconsin Progressive party" (Governor Philip F. La Follette, p. 92).

Having resisted the temptation to form a national third party in 1936, Phil succumbed in 1938, despite growing factionalism, ideological splits, urban-rural conflict, the open skepticism of his brother, and escalating charges that he had become a virtual "dictator." Before a crowd of 5,000 at the University of Wisconsin stock pavilion, he proclaimed the National Progressives of America, unfurled its banner featuring a red circle surrounding a blue cross on a white background in the center of a blue field, and enunciated the party's six basic principles: public control of money and credit, the "absolute right" of every American "to earn a living by the sweat of his brow," reorganization of the federal government along lines of Wisconsin's newly adopted Government Reorganization Act, the guarantee of "a decent annual income" for all based upon "the contribution they were making," the use of government to restore opportunities for individual initiative," and the solidarity of the Western Hemisphere in the face of the coming European war.

Opposed by a de facto coalition of Republicans and Democrats in 1938, the Progressives lost every single state office, the U.S. Senate race, five of their seven House seats, five of their sixteen positions in the state senate, and sixteen of their forty-eight seats in the assembly. Philip La Follette himself was decisively repudiated, receiving only 36 percent of the gubernatorial vote and effectively retiring from politics. Although Young Bob was reelected to the Senate in 1940 and individual progressives continued to win elections over the next four years, more and more voters deserted to the two major parties. In a final irony, Orland S. Loomis was elected governor in 1944, only to die before he could take office. In 1946, Young Bob, running as a Republican, lost in the primary to a virtual unknown named Joseph R. McCarthy.


Glad, Paul W. The History of Wisconsin, Volume V: War, A New Era, and Depression, 1914–1940. Edited by William F. Thompson. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1990.

Maney, Patrick J. "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of Robert La Follette, Jr. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Miller, John E. Governor Philip F. La Follette, The Wisconsin Progressives, and the New Deal, 1895–1940. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

John D.Buenker

See alsoProgressive Movement ; Third Parties .

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Progressive Party, Wisconsin

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