Fighting Bob La Follette horizontal

Robert M. La Follette, a young La Follette in 1906.

My roots render me incapable of suggesting that Wisconsin is anything but the greatest of America’s 50 states.

Not everyone is comfortable with so blunt a claim to greatness.

But when I expressed the old faith last Friday night to the crowd of folks who gathered at Hodag Park in Rhinelander, they got it. The same went for the folks at the Labor Temple in Racine, and Echo Lake Park in Burlington, and the Al Ringling Theater in Baraboo on Saturday.

Everywhere I went last week, Wisconsinites were standing proud. Even in the midst of a bitter recall election that had seen the state flooded with tens of millions of dollars from Texas, Florida, California and wherever else the robber barons are hiding out these days, the true believers in the Wisconsin idea and the Wisconsin ideal were gathered on our common ground.

And they had a message.

Elections come and go. They are won and lost. But nothing about Wisconsin has ever been defined on a single voting day.

The Wisconsin story is an arc of history. It is long. But that arc has always been bent toward justice by a movement — progressivism — that had its roots in the Republican Party of the pre-Civil War days.

The radical abolitionists and socialist immigrants who founded the Republican Party at Ripon enjoyed an almost instant success, as they forged a party that opposed not just the sin of slavery but the corruption of politics and the economy by those who would monopolize wealth and power.

Alvan Bovay, who called the meeting that gave birth to the Grand Old Party, had previously organized a militant movement that urged the landless to use their superior numbers to force a redistribution of the land. Their slogan was an expression of radical faith in the power of the ballot to transform not just politics but economics: “Vote Yourself a Farm.”

Bovay and his compatriots believed in democracy with a passion that terrified the elites of their day, and that terrifies the elites of this day. When all those Texas oilmen and New York speculators wrote checks to try to buy a Wisconsin election, they did not do so out of hope. They did so out of fear that Wisconsin might reject the economic fantasy that is austerity.

What has played out in Wisconsin over the past year and a half is not something new. It is what Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette — who took his inspiration from those first Republicans and used it to lay the markers for what would become the New Deal — referred to as “the old fight.”

The battle lines had been defined in 1873 by Edward Ryan, the fiery chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who warned: “There is looming up a new and dark power. ... The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power. ... The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: ‘Which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?’ ”

La Follette heard in Ryan’s words a call to forge what would become the progressive movement. That movement would, in turn, define Wisconsin as what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to as America’s “laboratory of democracy.”

But, of course, in even the best laboratories, experiments go awry. That is the nature of the pursuit of progress. And that has been the nature of Wisconsin. For every Robert M. La Follette, there is a Joe McCarthy. For every John Blaine, there is a Julius Heil. For every Gaylord Nelson, there is a Scott Walker.

The political tides rise and fall, usually as a result of the pressures placed on Wisconsin by what La Follette referred to as “the money power.” But what distinguishes Wisconsin is the steadiness of the progressive faith.

When it prevails, Wisconsin bends the arc of history toward justice. When it does not prevail, progressives reorganize themselves as a stronger force.

After he got beat in his fight for the Republican nomination for governor in 1898 — at a convention where the money power bribed delegates to block his popular insurgency — La Follette declared: “Temporary defeat often results in a more decided and lasting victory than one which is too easily achieved.”

La Follette was right. Barely two years later, he won the nomination and the governorship. It was then that the progressive era began. It has not ended. And it will not because, while Wisconsinites may settle for temporary mediocrity, we invariably strive — as La Follette said we must — for greatness.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com

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