Nader and La Follette: History Repeats Itself

News & Politics

As an increasingly crude 2000 election campaign clawed its way toward what could well be a dispiriting conclusion, I buoyed my spirits with a visit to the political graveyard. There, I sat for a bit with the last presidential candidate to take so sustained a political battering from the powers that be as the one now being administered to Ralph Nader.

Robert M. La Follette is buried in Madison, Wisconsin's Forest Hill Cemetery, beneath a simple marker that pokes out above the fallen leaves. This has been his resting place since 1925. La Follette died in June of that year, just four days after his 70th birthday. Friends and family identified the cause as exhaustion from his 1924 campaign for the presidency,

The Wisconsin senator's 1924 campaign as an independent Progressive challenged a conservative Republican and an only marginally less conservative Democrat. La Follette's purpose in making that race was starkly similar to the 66-year-old Nader's rationale for mounting this year's challenge to Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

"Senator La Follette did not expect to win," recalls historian Roger T. Johnson. "He made the race as a matter of principle, and as a matter of practical politics, hoping that a strong showing would generate the popular support necessary to the formation of a new political party." As La Follette said upon launching his campaign, "I stand for an honest realignment in American politics, confident that the people in November will insure the creation of a new party in which all Progressives may unite."


Like Nader, who today seeks to build a progressive force in the form of the Green Party, La Follette had soured on a two-party system that he saw as having fallen entirely under the influence of Wall Street. A maverick throughout his career, he broke ranks with his own Republican Party to mount that 1924 challenge, which was backed by progressive unions, prominent African-American intellectuals, social reformers and other freethinkers in a time of stark repression against those who dared challenge political orthodoxies. (Just four years earlier, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Eugene Victor Debs, had been forced to campaign from the jail cell where he was imprisoned for having spoken out against the profiteering of defense contractors during World War I.)

La Follette was able to campaign in 1924 as a free man. But that does not mean that he was given a free or fair shot at winning the presidency. Running on an anti-corporate platform quite similar to the one on which Nader campaigns this year, and pledging himself to restore democracy by banishing powerful special interests from positions of political influence, La Follette offered a radical alternative to the rule of the robber barons. The barons and their minions promptly set out to destroy not just the candidacy, but the man.

As Philip La Follette recalled in his wonderful book, "Adventure in Politics," when efforts to prevent his father from gaining ballot status failed, his opponents attempted to ignore "Fighting Bob." But then the elder La Follette began to draw larger crowds than his foes -- just as Nader has with his "super rallies" -- and the knives came out. "These great meetings gave our supporters tremendous encouragement," wrote Phil La Follette. "But they likewise roused the enemy -- especially the Republicans. The checkbooks came out, and the heat was turned on labor and farmers. By the end of October one could feel the vast, spreading tentacles of organized economic power beginning its squeeze to drive people -- especially labor -- by fear into voting for (President Calvin) Coolidge."


La Follette was condemned as everything from a radical to a bitter old man on an ego trip. He was dismissed as inept and even insane. And, at every turn, his supporters were warned that a vote for the man they wanted as president would be "wasted" or, worse yet, would tip the race to the eviler of two lessers.

Seventy-six years later, in another late October, the knives are out again. The tentacles are spreading toward another maverick candidate who has built a coalition of progressive labor unions such as the United Electrical Workers and the California Nurse Association; prominent African-American intellectuals such as Cornel West, Manning Marable and Randall Robinson; social critics such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Noam Chomsky; and freethinkers such as John Anderson, Phil Donahue, Michael Moore and Patti Smith. The enthusiastic support displayed at Ralph Nader's rallies across the nation has roused his enemies; they attack him as radical, bitter and inept, and they dismiss his supporters as vote-wasting dupes and foolish dissenters from lesser-of-two-evilism. They even dare to suggest, as did the foes of La Follette, that the challenger of the powerful interests is himself the dupe of those interests.

It is enough to turn a voter away from the polls -- and, sadly, that may be the effect of the increasingly venomous attacks on Nader, not to mention the fierce and absurdly incendiary assaults Bush and Gore are mounting upon one another. In 1924, the voter turnout hit record lows -- as millions of La Follette supporters simply abandoned the process in confusion and disgust.

There is much to be confused about this year, just as there is much with which to be disgusted.

But what needs most to be said in these final days before the election is that voting -- that most pivotal act of the true democrat -- does matter. La Follette would chastise today's cynics, as he did his compromised contemporaries, telling them that no believer in democracy will ever dismiss the sincerely rendered choice of a citizen on Election Day as anything less than the most noble of all statements.

On Nov. 7, wise and decent Americans will cast their ballots for Al Gore, George W. Bush and Ralph Nader. No vote will be wasted. Some votes may be cast out of fear; yet even the frightened are forgiven by Robert M. La Follette -- when young Phil complained of fair-weather backers, particularly workers and farmers, who abandoned the candidacy in the face of fear mongering, old Bob replied, "Don't blame the folks. They just got scared."


To his forgiveness of this year's fearful voters, however, it is fair to presume that La Follette would offer a reminder that millions of votes are likely to be cast Nov. 7 on behalf of the dream that a great progressive movement can yet be forged in America. And the casters of those votes can take comfort in the fact that, even if their faith is now maligned, it may eventually be rewarded.

Phil La Follette recalled how, on the cold November night of his father's 1924 defeat, he went to bed embittered at the treatment of "Old Bob" and his Progressive supporters. As the years passed, however, the bitterness faded. He came to recognize that "Dad's campaign was a baptism for thousands of Americans. Ten years later, in the days of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the activists who flocked to Washington had one sure and certain password among themselves to prove they were not 'Johnny-come-latelies': They had fought for 'old Bob' in 1924."

Three-quarters of a century have gone by. Yet most things remain the same. Powerful interests are still inadequately challenged by Republicans and Democrats. And there are still young progressives willing to earn battle scars as they learn the passwords for a day when the politics of hope replaces the politics of fear.

John Nichols is the editorial page editor at the Madison Capital Times.

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