Beginning in the 1900s, the political history of the United States has been the story of the two mainstream political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, and the third party movements that have grown and receded in their wake. Between 1912 and 1948, progressivism, a broadly based reform movement, had three national incarnations as the Progressive Party.
Progressivism began as a response to the transformation of American society from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one. Many American workers, both native-born and immigrant, found themselves hindered by long hours of work in dangerous conditions, low pay, and unsafe and unsanitary housing. Reformers in the largest cities began to lobby for safer working environments, improved tenement housing, and public ownership of utilities. Others fought political corruption and the cronyism that was part of the established political machines of both parties.
In 1908, President theodore roosevelt, who had sought to find a balance between capitalists and working people and had gained fame as the nation's chief "trustbuster," declined to run for another term. With Roosevelt's support, his friend and colleague william howard taft was elected president, a move that at first was hailed by a number of Progressives. The conservative Taft turned out to be a huge disappointment to the Progressives and to Roosevelt, who challenged him for the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. After losing the nomination to Taft, Roosevelt left the republican party and gained the nomination of the Progressive Party that had been launched in 1911 as the National Progressive Republican League by Wisconsin Senator robert m. la follette. Although La Follette had hoped to be the new party's candidate, he was outpolled by Roosevelt for the nomination.
Roosevelt campaigned vigorously on a platform that called for multiple social, economic, and political reforms, including woman suffrage, the institution of a minimum wage and child labor laws, environmental conservation, direct election of U.S. senators, and procedures permitting initiative, referendum, and recall. Although Roosevelt's Progressive Party, popularly known as the "Bull Moose Party," polled 600,000 more votes than Taft, he lost to Democratic candidate woodrow wilson.
In 1924, a group of Progressives, including former members of the Bull Moose Party, united with railroad union workers, an organization called the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA), the american federation of labor, and the American Socialist Party to support the presidential candidacy of Robert M. La Follette. A liberal Republican, "Fighting Bob" La Follette was a three-term Wisconsin governor who broke with the Republican establishment to lead the fight for tax reform, control of railroad rates, the establishment of the direct primary, and other reform measures that were collectively labeled the "Wisconsin Idea." In 1906, La Follette, whose wife Belle Case La Follette was an attorney and champion of women's suffrage, began the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate, where he championed reform along the lines of the Wisconsin Idea and also displayed an isolationist streak, opposing U.S. entry into world war i and also into the league of nations.
Running against Republican calvin coolidge and conservative Democrat john w. davis in 1924, La Follette and his running mate, Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler, crusaded for the dismantling of monopolistic corporations, equitable taxation of businesses, the right to collective bargaining, state ownership of public utilities, public control and protection of the country's natural resources, and an end to fraud and corruption in public offices. Coolidge, who had become president in August 1923 after the death of President warren g. harding, was reelected in a landslide victory. La Follette and the Progressive Party polled close to 5 million popular votes and 13 electoral votes. The only state the Progressive Party carried was La Follette's home state of Wisconsin.
Worn out by his extensive efforts at campaigning, La Follette died in June 1925. With La Follette's death, many members of his followers rejoined the Republican Party and the second materialization of the Progressive Party movement passed from the national political arena.
In 1948, the cold war policies of President harry truman caused a group of disaffected Democrats and others to reconstitute the Progressive Party. The new Progressives nominated former U.S. vice president and commerce secretary Henry Wallace for president and Senator Glen H. Taylor from Idaho for vice president. They campaigned on a number of issues including opposition to the marshall plan, support for civil rights and welfare legislation, and
repeal of the taft-hartley act that had placed a number of restrictions on labor unions. Support from the U.S. Communist Party caused a political backlash, and the Progressive Party's third presidential bid garnered only 2.4 percent of the national vote. In the early 2000s, the Progressive Party existed not as a national entity but as a collection of local and state organizations still championing liberal causes and reform issues.
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Thelen, David. 1986. Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.