Provenance of Progressivism: Robert La Follette and Franklin Roosevelt
The Progressive was founded 104 years ago by the great Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette—Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator, presidential aspirant, and leader of the populist half of the Progressive Movement. Among historians and progressive activists, La Follette is widely seen as a forerunner of the even-more-iconic Franklin Delano Roosevelt. La Follette died in 1925, after his third presidential campaign. Roosevelt was elected president seven years later.
FDR enjoyed the support of many GOP progressives in 1932. Liberal Republicans like Robert La Follette Jr., Philip La Follette, Hiram Johnson, George Norris, Henrik Shipstead, Bronson Cutting, Fiorello La Guardia, Harold Ickes, and Amos Pinchot openly endorsed Roosevelt over Hoover. Peter Norbeck, James Couzens, Lynn Frazier, and Gerald Nye did not endorse Roosevelt but support for him was implied by their refusal to endorse Hoover. La Follette’s 1924 running mate, Senator Burton Wheeler, backed Governor Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic nomination.
In addition to Secretary of the Interior Ickes and Director of Civilian Defense La Guardia, notable La Follette Republicans who joined the Roosevelt administration included Felix Frankfurter (Supreme Court justice), Ernest Gruening (governor of Alaska Territory), Robert Morss Lovett (government secretary of Virgin Islands), David K. Niles (Works Progress Administration and FDR administrative assistant), Frederic C. Howe (Department of Agriculture), Basil Manly (Federal Power Commission), Frank Walsh (National War Labor Board), and Thomas Amlie (would-be Interstate Commerce Commission). This is an impressive list, but most held second- or third-tier positions, and we cannot exclude the possibility that they were chosen not so much because of ideological affinity but because of political usefulness. The most powerful and prestigious Cabinet positions went to pro-corporate appointees. In his introduction to Howe’s autobiography, James Richardson says that “Howe’s brand of liberalism was back in style” with the inauguration of Roosevelt, yet later concedes that “the New Deal’s approach to the issue of concentrated economic power was half-hearted, inconsistent, and self-contradictory.”
In their article “American Electoral History,” Peter Argersinger and John Jeffries provide a useful literature review of the origins and composition of the New Deal coalition. They quote B.M. Stave, who argued “that in Pittsburgh a ‘La Follette revolution’ in 1924 had preceded the Al Smith revolution in shaping a new urban, ethnic, working-class coalition that prefigured Roosevelt’s of the 1930s.”
In an endnote to the introductory pages of her La Follette biography, Nancy Unger mentions that Otis Graham’s Encore for Reform provides “an alternative view of the New Deal as a logical extension of progressivism,” with Graham rejecting the notion that early-century GOP progressives naturally culminated in the presidency of FDR. She does not hold the alternative view herself. Unger quotes the observation of reactionary Senator James Watson (R-IN), in the mid 1930s, that La Follette’s 1924 platform contained “very many of the identical propositions” that the Roosevelt administration was then instituting, and that “many of the very men” engaged in aiding the president were “in Wisconsin at that time helping La Follette.” Kenneth Campbell MacKay, historian of the ’24 Progressive Party, made a similar point—and quoted Watson a half-century before Unger—when he wrote, “A comparative study of the Progressive platform of 1924 and the policies enacted into law by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal indicate that, perhaps unintentionally, much of the latter was plagiarised.”
Are these perceptions correct? Was FDR more a protégé of Senator La Follette than President Wilson? First, it is worth reiterating that Roosevelt supported J.P. Morgan & Co. attorney John W. Davis—not La Follette—for president in 1924. Also, a closer look at the La Follette platform is instructive. Paraphrasing MacKay, Unger writes, “Elements found in the 1924 platform . . . that came to life in the New Deal include the Tennessee Valley Authority, progressive income and inheritance tax schedules, the Wagner Labor Relations Act, various aid programs to agriculture, the Securities [and] Exchange Commission, and the abolition of child labor.” Perhaps, but this list may give the wrong impression. More consistent and traditional progressives than FDR were arguably more responsible for most of these reforms (e.g., Norris and Wagner). Implementation of these programs is also debatable. For example, administration of AAA disproportionately benefited large farmers and food processors, to the disadvantage of small farmers and sharecroppers.
La Follette did not advocate widening the federal income tax net and instituting payroll withholding to shift the tax burden down to the middle class. On the contrary, he sought to “relieve the people of the present unjust burden of taxation,” in the words of the Progressive platform. If the burden was unjust in 1924, how much more so was it after the Revenue Acts of 1942 and 1943? Historically, the federal income tax was a rich man’s tax. Average Americans paid no income tax prior to the “temporary” enlargement of the tax burden to pay for the war. Jeffersonian liberal opponents of the 1943 bill, which put a 20 percent pay-as-you-go tax on wage and salary earners, included Robert Wagner, Theodore Bilbo, Elmer Thomas, and Homer Bone. New Deal Democrats on many domestic issues, these senators objected to the hardship the measure would place on the common people. Robert La Follette Jr. and fellow GOP progressive William Langer voted Nay on the “progressive” income tax that we know today.
Early on, the 1924 platform states, “The reactionary continues to put his faith in mastery for the solution of all problems. He seeks to have what he calls ‘the strong men and best minds’ rule and impose their decision upon the masses of their weaker brethren.” This reactionary description anticipates the Roosevelt administration, with its pragmatic emphasis on power; its paternalistic, top-down approach to reform; and its reliance on a brain trust and managerial elite. As mentioned above, New Deal liberalism was an ideology preeminently concerned with power, in the estimation of La Follette’s son Philip. It was exemplified by “the liberal realpolitiker, the ‘social engineer’ who Gets Things Done and thinks in terms of efficient conduct of modern mass-society,” as described by Dwight Macdonald.
When La Follette called for “public ownership of railroads,” he stipulated “with democratic operation, with definite safeguards against bureaucratic control.” The New Deal epitomized centralized bureaucracy with its proliferation of federal agencies and the use of federal power for social engineering. The administration had little apparent interest in democratic control, which would have required devolution of power and grassroots accountability. La Follette called for “Abolition of the tyranny and usurpation of the courts” and “Election of all federal judges.” In the eyes of many of his liberal allies, including a plurality of the public, Roosevelt’s effort in 1937 to enlarge the Supreme Court to prevent judicial vetoes of his laws seemed to emanate more from personal pique than democratic principle. It did nothing to address judicial tyranny on an institutional level. The extraconstitutional power and fundamental problem of judicial review was left untouched by Roosevelt’s proposal. La Follette’s Progressive running mate, Burton Wheeler, led opposition to the Court-packing plan in the Senate. On the other hand, La Follette’s sons, Senator Robert La Follette Jr. and Governor Philip La Follette, supported the plan, as did Senator George Norris. Most progressive populists, including Senator Hiram Johnson, Senator William Borah, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Amos Pinchot joined Wheeler in opposition.
A biographer of La Follette’s progressive Republican ally, William Borah, has nicely summarized the differences in perspective between Borah (also, by extension, La Follette) and Franklin Roosevelt
Walter Lippmann averred that the real key of the future would lie between the kind of liberal individualism which Borah represented and the kind of regulated monopoly in which Roosevelt seemed to believe. Many Republicans, especially in the East, thought there was no real difference between Borah and Roosevelt, but there was a very deep difference. . . . Borah was in the main a lineal descendent [sic] from the early American liberals, an individualist who opposed all concentration of power, political or economic. He was against private privilege and private monopoly, political bureaucracy, and centralized government. . . . Roosevelt, on the other hand, had no such instinctive appreciation of American liberalism in its oldest and most authentic sense. He was disposed to think that these old liberal principles no longer fitted the modern world, that they belonged to a horse-and-buggy age, and that the future would bring a highly organized society controlled by a very powerful government. He was not greatly concerned about the old safeguards of liberty. What he was really concerned about was sufficient governmental power to provide welfare and security for everybody. . . . Generally his method of reform was to create new privileges to balance old ones, not to liquidate old privileges in order to provide more equal opportunity.
Progressive, public-minded administration of state government occurred in Wisconsin under Governor La Follette from 1901 to 1906, and then continued under like-minded Republicans for the next nine years. La Follette’s reform agenda, known as “the Wisconsin Idea,” set an example for the nation and brought him to national attention. Eventually, state regulation of railroads was extended to other areas of public concern, including electricity, water, telegraph, telephone, and insurance. In addition, the La Follette political machine—disciplined but honest—and other liberal-minded legislators enacted state laws dealing with primary elections, food protection, public health, child labor, and labor working hours.
La Follette-backed government activism at the state level opened him to the charge of government-by-bureau and infringements on liberty and democracy. Plutocratic, reactionary big business interests naturally resented government regulation on behalf of the public and their denunciations of La Follette and his allies were strident and, at times, disingenuous. Over the years, La Follette received criticism and lost some of his support from those who genuinely believed in commonwealth but objected to high levels of state government spending and taxing, as well as unelected administrative officials wielding great power over the lives of Wisconsin citizens. In the 1914 election, corporate conservatives gained the governorship partly because progressives were split in the GOP primary and partly because the accusation that “‘tax-eating commissions’ that constituted the Wisconsin Idea formed an elitist, unresponsive ‘bureaucracy’” struck a chord with many voters. La Follette publicly argued “that the commissions saved more than they cost but he was privately angry at his lieutenants for raising state budgets so fast.” It was an ongoing concern, recognized by La Follette’s own son. Referring to 1937, three-term Governor Philip La Follette, later recalled, “Under my father’s tenure, Wisconsin had pioneered in establishing boards and commissions that were aimed at giving the public inexpensive, speedy relief in their grievances against the railroads and other public utilities. Thirty years later it seemed to me that these boards and commissions, as well as the administration of education and taxation, had become bureaucratized and needed to be streamlined.”
Unlike his Democratic counterpart William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette made extensive use of experts, especially during his years as governor. Intellectuals were part of his state political organization (including University of Wisconsin president Charles Van Hise and professors Richard Ely, John Commons, and Edward Ross). Gabriel Kolko writes, “Perhaps to a greater degree than any contemporary political leader, it was La Follette who adopted the cult of expertise, science, and rationality. As Governor he exploited the combined talents of a great university, and let the political decision-making process increasingly fall into the hands of the presumably positivistic academics.” In Kolko’s judgment, La Follette’s reliance on experts and emphasis on “clean, impartial, and fair government run by a competent bureaucracy” made him a great political reformer and a less-than-great economic reformer. While there is truth in this assessment, Kolko seems to be focusing too much on La Follette’s gubernatorial years and not enough on his senatorial years. By 1910, he had developed a strong critique of monopoly capitalism and was willing to name names. At times, La Follette’s reliance on experts may have diluted his populism, but it did not negate it. He was a staunch supporter of democracy and of procedures designed to democratize the American political system (e.g., primary, initiative, referendum, recall).
We can conclude that there were some similarities between La Follette’s brain trust and bureaucracy at the state level and Roosevelt’s equivalents at the federal level. This fact should not be overlooked. At the same time, there is no evidence that the latter consciously patterned his administration after the former. There is considerable evidence that FDR instead emulated Woodrow Wilson, who was by nature an elitist, not a populist. Historian Ronald Schaffer points out, “Wilson became the world’s most celebrated champion of democracy. In private, he was a snob, bored by the ordinary citizens of his country. He told his fiancée during his first term that the great majority of people who came to his office, the majority or even the minority of congressmen, and most American voters were ‘not of our kind.’” In this, as in many other ways, Wilson was very different from Bryan and La Follette. Overall, there was also a substantial difference between the philosophies and affiliations of the individuals who staffed the La Follette administration in Wisconsin versus those who worked at the highest levels for Wilson and FDR in Washington. For instance, it is unlikely that La Follette would have appointed Paul Warburg to the Federal Reserve Board or Edward Stettinius Jr. to the State Department.
The Groves Bill, backed by Governor Philip La Follette and designed by several of his friends on the University of Wisconsin faculty, was an unemployment insurance law that was the first of its kind in the nation when it passed in 1932. It helped to inspire the Social Security Act of 1935. Historian John E. Miller notes that while the “Wisconsin Plan” was innovative, it was not “radical” because it was “basically a preventive rather than compensatory measure.” An academic mentor of the Wisconsin professors, economist John Commons, praised it as “an individualistic and capitalistic scheme.” Another protégé of Professor Commons, University of Wisconsin economist Edwin Witte also played a role in creating the Wisconsin Plan and became known as the “father of the Social Security Act.” During discussion over the nature of the Social Security bill, Governor La Follette and some other traditional progressives objected to the rival Ohio Plan for being too centralized and too much like a “dole” (financial handouts by the federal government—i.e., welfare).
In the early 1930s, Wisconsin progressives, led by Governor Philip La Follette, claimed at least parts of the New Deal as their own, boasting, “The national administration has taken its policies and principles for its recovery program direct from the platform of Progressives in Wisconsin.” At the same time, they were critical of aspects of the New Deal. In 1934, The Progressive would boast that a host of New Deal programs were at least partly inspired by Governor La Follette’s administration, including many of the federal “alphabet soup” agencies, but a historian comments, “Although the Wisconsin experience provided part of the context in which New Deal policies were established, it would be hard to demonstrate a single instance in which the state’s example was decisive, except perhaps with regard to Social Security.”
In regard to President Roosevelt, it could be argued that neither his financial nor foreign policies were consonant with Senator La Follette’s. According to his platform, La Follette wanted to “use the power of the Federal Government to crush private monopoly, not to foster it.” The National Recovery Administration and other Roosevelt initiatives fostered both private and public monopoly, making big business a partner with big government. One interpretation of the resulting system is to see it as a form of state capitalism or corporate state. Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch and General Electric president Gerard Swope were pivotal National Recovery Administration (NRA), figures, in terms of conceptualization and administration. U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Henry I. Harriman and Standard Oil of New Jersey president Walter Teagle also played important roles. The Swope Plan of 1931-32, a forerunner of the NRA supported by the Chamber, was viewed as “fascism” by figures as diverse as President Herbert Hoover and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas.
Economic journalist John T. Flynn, a self-described Bryan Democrat who voted for Roosevelt in 1932, examined the roots of the NRA, shortly after its creation, concluding, “The share of the Brain Trust in its paternity was microscopic; the share of the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests was predominant.” Flynn believed that the resulting legislation was a complete victory for big business: “They got more than they hoped—modification of the anti-trust laws, self-rule in industry, defeat of the Black and Connery bills, the right to regulate hours and minimum wages transferred to the trade associations under NRA supervision instead of by statute.”
Sociologist Michael Webber provides statistical evidence to show that business leaders who contributed to Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936 tended to be from smaller companies, and tended to be Southerners, Jews, or Catholics. Using the description of William Mayer, Webber argues that Democrats under FDR were a “party of peripheral regions and disaffected minorities.” Economic journalist Ferdinand Lundberg has provided a similar assessment, writing, “Those numerous wealthy persons who became staunch Rooseveltians were mainly of the second or third tier of wealth and nearly all in merchandising and light industry, immediately dependent upon the stagnating mass-consumption market.” At the same time, there is evidence to the contrary. Elite figures such as Vincent Astor, Francis Biddle, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Sidney Weinberg, Herbert Lehman, Russell Leffingwell, W. Averell Harriman, James Forrestal, Walter Chrysler, Paul Hoffman, William Benton, Thomas J. Watson, and Sosthenes Behn were supporters of the New Deal. The House of Rockefeller helped the administration at times and received some favors in return (e.g., role of Walter Teagle in the 1930s, role of Nelson Rockefeller in the 1940s, the 1942 decision to turn management of the Elk Hills naval petroleum reserve over to Standard Oil of California). The Council on Foreign Relations, the Business Advisory Council, and the Committee for Economic Development provided sustained institutional links between the Roosevelt administration and Wall Street (and the multinational corporations in its orbit).
Although Bryan and La Follette each had a handful of financial angels who gave large contributions to their campaigns and looked with favor upon their political endeavors, few, if any, were intimately linked to the New York financial-industrial establishment. This was not true of FDR. Both the quantity and quality of his upper-class allies were on a much higher level. Certainly many businessmen hated Roosevelt and denounced the New Deal, but these tended to be associated with smaller domestic-oriented, anti-labor companies, while executives of large international-minded banks and corporations were more congenial to many parts of the president’s agenda.
Norman Thomas, active in the La Follette ’24 campaign, not only failed to support Roosevelt, but personally ran against him in all four presidential elections. During Roosevelt’s first term, Thomas dismissed the charge that the administration was highly socialistic: “Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.” With the possible exception of the TVA, he believed that the New Deal was best described as “state capitalism.” While giving Roosevelt some credit for ameliorist measures, Thomas thought “capitalistic collectivism” was the president’s ideal and it might inadvertently set the stage for fascism. Thomas also opposed Roosevelt’s increasingly martial foreign policy during the 1937-41 period. Like Thomas, Congressman William Lemke (R-ND) was a La Follette ’24 veteran who also tried to prevent FDR’s first reelection. Even though 1936 was the high-water mark in populist rhetoric by the president, Roosevelt was challenged by two parties who ran to the left of the New Deal on domestic issues (Socialist and Union). At the time, columnist Walter Lippmann noted that there were no great issues separating Roosevelt and Landon in 1936. The sound and fury associated with FDR’s denunciation of “economic royalists” and his Republican rival’s denunciation of “socialism” evidently signified little or nothing.
In 1924, La Follette denounced “the mercenary system of foreign policy” which operated “in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists and international bankers.” On the campaign trail, La Follette pledged, “We will end the partnership between our State Department and imperialistic interests, and we will divorce it from Standard Oil and international financiers.” In the two succeeding decades, Roosevelt put the State Department under the leadership of Cordell Hull and, eventually, Edward Stettinius Jr. Although Hull had some progressive credentials from his congressional career, his appointment was welcomed by corporate conservatives within the Democratic Party, including J.P. Morgan attorneys John W. Davis and Frank Polk. One of Hull’s closest confidantes was Norman H. Davis, a fellow Tennessean. More importantly, Davis was a banker who made his fortune as president of the Trust Company of Cuba before serving in the Wilson administration, and then became president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the 1930s. (The CFR was created largely through the instrumentality of the Morgan firm.) The point is not Secretary Hull’s social or political connections to this or that person, but rather the fact that he apparently did not represent a departure from U.S. foreign policy being conducted “in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists and international bankers.” In any event, FDR often relied more on Hull’s top aides in the State Department—patricians William Phillips and, later, Sumner Welles—than he did Hull.
Stettinius was the son of a J.P. Morgan partner and was himself an executive for two Morgan-dominated enterprises: General Motors and U.S. Steel. Stettinius’s right-hand man was Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew. Grew was a career diplomat, but he came from a Boston banking family, his cousin Jane Norton Grew was the wife of J.P. Morgan Jr., and he held the same position twenty years before under Coolidge. The Roosevelt administration’s at-times friendly relationship with the Standard Oil-Chase National Bank empire culminated, on a personal level, with the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in 1940 and then Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs in 1944. Opposing his selection for the second post, Senator Robert La Follette Jr. argued that the confirmation of Rockefeller and several other State Department appointees would “tend to destroy the hope of the American people for a just and democratic peace.” Old-style Republican liberals Hiram Johnson, Henrik Shipstead, and William Langer joined “Young Bob” in voting against Rockefeller’s nomination.
It was right after the 1944 election that Roosevelt nominated Stettinius and Grew to the top two State Department posts and Rockefeller as one of their deputies. Will Clayton, millionaire cotton trader and conservative Democrat of the American Liberty League type, was given the assistantship for economic affairs. The question could be raised whether or not such individuals were mavericks within their social circles. Perhaps they represented a left-leaning fringe within the economic elite and their selections were welcomed by the heirs of Bryan and La Follette. This was not the case. Objecting to Stettinius, Senator Langer quoted then-Secretary of State Bryan in warning Wilson against allowing J.P. Morgan & Co. to make a sizeable loan to the French government. He also quoted the exchange of letters between Morgan partner Thomas W. Lamont and Senator La Follette Jr., ten years earlier, on public power and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Langer told his colleagues, “I cannot forgive a system whereby Wall Street is able to permeate our governmental system and influence the peace of the world to come.” He declared his belief that Stettinius had “no qualifications” for the high post “other than the fortune of birth and the backing of bankers whom the President of the United States, in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, promised to drive from the temple.” Langer cast the sole vote against Stettinius’s confirmation.
Concerning Grew, Rockefeller, and Clayton, the Philadelphia Record editorialized,
We cannot take them as a whole without uttering a protest that this series of appointments is neither in the character nor in the spirit of the New Deal. . . . To allow the State Department to be dominated by a single ultraconservative element, in this most critical period, is an inexcusably dangerous experiment. . . . We believe that President Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term because the majority of voters believed he would give liberals—not conservatives and reactionaries—a large share of responsibility for building the peace. One of the reasons for the defeat of Governor Dewey was that the majority of voters believed he would put the administration of our vital foreign and domestic policies in the hands of the Wall Street interests which supported him so generously. Wall Street must wonder today why it spent so much money for a futile cause—only to get exactly what it wanted for free.
Although not opposed to any of the nominees, as individuals, “Happy” Chandler (D-KY) remarked on the Senate floor, “I sometimes wonder who won the election which we recently held. I was told that the poor folks would be given opportunities as a result of the election, and it was said that the common man would be given a better chance. . . . Instead of poor folks obtaining jobs, the Wall Street boys are obtaining jobs.”
Twenty years after serving as La Follette’s running mate, Burton Wheeler (D-MT) said, “We now have what is supposed to be a great liberal administration. . . . Yet, we know that the heads of all the various departments are representatives of the big business interests of the country. They represent the Morgan interests, the Rockefeller interests, the Dillon-Reed [sic—should be Read] interests, and all the big corporations of the country at the present time.” In an attempt to shield FDR from criticism, Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) asserted that this slate of nominations for the State Department was “out of character with the President of the United States.” Wheeler was less inclined to allow Roosevelt to evade responsibility, replying,
If we review the last 12 years of this administration—and I say this in all kindness—we must say that it was not out of character. . . . These appointments are in line with the appointment of Mr. Stimson [as Secretary of War], who, as we all know, was a Republican and represented, when he was practicing law, big interests in the city of New York . . . These appointments are not out of character with the appointment of Mr. Knox as Secretary of the Navy. He was one of the most reactionary Republicans in the United States. . . . They are not out of character, let me say, with hundreds of other appointments which have been made by this administration, because—I submit it without fear of contradiction—this administration has appointed more men from the offices of big business and more men who have been the heads of big business than has any other President of the United States during the past 50 years. No Senator on this floor will challenge the accuracy of that statement. . . . But on the other hand, I say that the President has appointed some very great liberals. Not only has he done so, but he has done many liberal things to which I have subscribed.
The credibility of Wheeler’s assessment is enhanced by his even-handedness. Even after years of major disagreements with the president, he was still willing to say, “He has done some of the finest things that have ever been done by a President of the United States during my period of service as a Member of the Senate,” citing the “many things” Roosevelt had done “for labor and for the famers.” This was no reactionary excoriating “That Man in the White House.” Wheeler voted to confirm Stettinius (whom he judged to be a representative of the House of Morgan) and Grew, but he was tired of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington.
Conceding Grew’s reputation as an able career diplomat, Senator Johnson commented, “I shall not vote, and I have never voted in my career in any aspect heretofore, to turn the State Department over to the house of Morgan. That is the reason, and the only reason, why I shall vote against Mr. Grew.” In addition to Johnson, the seven votes against Grew included La Follette Jr., Langer, and George Aiken (R-VT), an ally of the La Follette bloc. These four, with the addition of Shipstead, also voted against Rockefeller. It was during the Franklin Roosevelt years that the first official link between the State Department and the CFR was established, in the form of the Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy. A related development was the rise of the foreign policy “Wise Men” who would move so freely between economic power in New York and political power in Washington for the next three decades.
La Follette was a non-interventionist (“isolationist”) who wanted to “outlaw wars, abolish conscription, dramatically reduce land, air and naval armaments and guarantee public referendums on peace and war” (quoting his platform). Roosevelt represented the opposite. He moved the nation toward war, instituted peacetime conscription, pushed preparedness and universal military training, and killed the popular Ludlow Amendment which would have mandated a national referendum on war after any congressional declaration. For these reasons, La Follette’s sons, Major General Smedley Butler, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the Farm Bloc in Congress, and most other Republican liberals were opposing FDR’s foreign policy by 1940.
On both domestic and foreign issues, Roosevelt was closer to the Hamiltonian camp than the Jeffersonian. As leader of the Democratic Party, the president naturally paid homage to the Sage of Monticello but that did not mean he followed his principles. Ironically, Roosevelt anticipated the New Deal during his Commonwealth Club of San Francisco address, in September 1932, when he summarized Alexander Hamilton’s thought: “Fundamentally he believed that the safety of the republic lay in the autocratic strength of its Government, that the destiny of individuals was to serve that Government, and that fundamentally a great and strong group of central institutions, guided by a small group of able and public-spirited citizens, could best direct all Government.” It may or may not have been Roosevelt’s intention to preside over an administration that operated in this manner, but that is what happened over the next thirteen years.
There are hints in the speech that Roosevelt intended to follow a far more Hamiltonian course than assumed by his progressive populist supporters. He criticized his opponent, President Hoover, for dispensing government subsidies and bailouts to big business:
The same man who tells you that he does not want to see the Government interfere in business . . . is the first to go to Washington and ask the Government for a prohibitory tariff on his product. When things get just bad enough, as they did two years ago, he will go with equal speed to the United States Government and ask for a loan; and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation is the outcome of it. Each group has sought protection from the Government for its own special interests, without realizing that the purpose of Government must be to favor no small group at the expense of its duty to protect the rights of personal freedom and of private property of all its citizens.
Roosevelt is speaking like a laissez-faire, special-privileges-to-none Jeffersonian here. Similarly, he warned, “Put plainly, we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”
Yet late in his speech, Roosevelt gingerly turns against the Jeffersonian tradition:
The responsible heads of finance and industry instead of acting each for himself, must work together to achieve the common end. They must, where necessary, sacrifice this or that private advantage; and in reciprocal self-denial must seek a general advantage. . . . Whenever in the pursuit of this objective the lone wolf . . . declines to join in achieving an end recognized as being for the public welfare, and threatens to drag the industry back to a state of anarchy, the Government may properly be asked to apply restraint. Likewise, should the group ever use its collective power contrary to public welfare, the Government must be swift to enter and protect the public interest. The Government should assume the function of economic regulation only as a last resort, to be tried only when private initiative, inspired by high responsibility, with such assistance and balance as Government can give, has finally failed.
On the heels of populist rhetoric that would be understood by the average voter, when disseminated by the national press, Roosevelt closes with a proposal contradicting the free-enterprise, anti-monopoly tradition of his party that would be understood by the sophisticated voter. He was urging a rejection of competition (“anarchy”) and an embrace of German-style corporate cartels (“work together”). These would be public cartels, exempt from antitrust laws and enforced by the power of the federal government, which would be the sole determiner of what is and is not in “the public interest.” Roosevelt implemented this approach after becoming president. As the political scientists who include the Commonwealth Club address in their anthology note, “Some of his speeches consist of mere rhetoric for purposes of holding popular support, but many provide rich substance and the rationale for a government-business partnership in which the executive branch and the corporate community would be the key elements.”
There were superficial similarities between the platform of Robert La Follette and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt but the differences were not only of magnitude but of kind. There was an underlying ideological kinship between pragmatic, power-centric forms of mid-century statism—Soviet, German, and American. There was some convergence between La Follette liberalism and the New Deal when it came to populist language, administrative reliance on experts, and, in a few cases, specific personnel, but they embodied two different species of politics.
A perusal of the 1920 book The Political Philosophy of Robert M. La Follette shows how far removed La Follette was from Roosevelt. The details of history are important, but an overview is also valuable. The kind of language that came naturally to La Follette—including the quote on the book’s cover: “The will of the people shall be the law of the land”—was occasionally found in the speeches of FDR but was almost entirely absent from his administration, in terms of policy implementation. In fact, the opposite was often the case. Roosevelt was no champion of democracy, civil liberties, or peace. He was no enemy of monopoly, machine politics, or militarism. As with Bryan, La Follette was a hero to millions of Americans, including a substantial wing of one of the two major political parties. It was natural that Roosevelt would seek this support by using relevant language and making minor appointments. Ever the poser and pragmatist, Roosevelt seemed to have few core political principles. The principles he apparently did have—for example, militarism—were foreign to La Follette.
In comparison to traditional liberals such as La Follette and Bryan, modern liberals like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt entered far more fully into the elite zeitgeist (spirit of the age). La Follette and Bryan were progressive in the sense of wanting to make the world a better place—specifically, more just, more free, and more peaceful—but they did not belong to the cult of progress in the same way as did Wilson and the Roosevelt cousins. La Follette and Bryan recognized that not every change is an advance and they knew that some of the best American political values are rooted in the past. Unlike many modern liberals, they were not willing to sacrifice morality for the sake of efficiency. Power was not an end in itself. The corrupting nature of power was recognized—whether private or public, it was a tool with great potential for both good and evil. Early-twentieth-century elitist emphases on Social Darwinism, selective human breeding (eugenics), scientific management (Taylorism), economic modernization, and centralized government-approaching-totalitarianism were mostly missing in the thought and practice of Bryan and La Follette.
Robert La Follette was attracted to expertise but his belief in democracy and identification with the common people kept him from becoming an elitist. Wilson and FDR never personally identified with the common man so their elitism was natural and abiding.
Jeff Taylor is professor of political science at Dordt College. He can be reached at wherego [at] aol [dot] com. This article is excerpted from his new book, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism © Lexington Books, 2013.
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