Dear Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Hang Tough. History Is on Your Side
Long before AOC started raising hell with the Democratic establishment—like, oh, a century before—Wisconsin progressive Robert La Follette was proving her critics wrong.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fascinates the press and electrifies progressives, but some Democratic colleagues just want her to pipe down and behave. One anonymous Democratic rep told Politico, “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star? There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.” According to the article, Ocasio-Cortez’s colleagues are particularly dismayed by her history of backing primary challenges to Democratic incumbents, and they warn that she will have “a lonely, ineffectual career in Congress if she continues to treat her own party as the enemy.”
If Ocasio-Cortez does start to feel lonely, I urge her to visit the Senate Reception Room at the other end of the Capitol. There’s a man she should meet. His portrait hangs on the wall, the old guy with the bow tie and the enormous pompadour. Few remember him these days, but Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin was a political sensation in his day, loved by the press, hated by his Republican colleagues. They loathed him for his radical ideas, his outspokenness, and his disloyalty to the party. President Theodore Roosevelt called him “a shifty self-seeker” and “an entirely worthless Senator.” In 1907, a journalist memorably described him as “the loneliest man in the United States Senate.”
Yet Bob La Follette’s insurgency against the Republican Party was extraordinarily effective. His passionate crusade against corporate power transfixed the press, inspired the public, and lit the spark that ignited the Progressive Movement. Many of his conservative detractors were eventually thrown out of office and replaced by progressive allies who worked with him to pass landmark legislation: income taxes, labor law, women’s suffrage, election reform, environmental protection, and corporate regulation. Decades later, the Senate recognized him as one of the five “most outstanding” senators in American history and hung his portrait on the wall. If Ocasio-Cortez hopes to make an impact in Washington, she might follow Fighting Bob’s example. Who knows, maybe her portrait may one day grace the Senate Reception Room too.
La Follette was 29 when he was first elected to the House of Representatives, the same age as Ocasio-Cortez. Like her, he defied party elders and defeated the seasoned establishment choice in the primary election. But he was not yet a crusader, just an eager Republican congressman with an independent streak. Six years in Washington changed his perspective. In Congress, he witnessed up close the corporate influence that had contaminated both major parties. When Wisconsin party bosses tried to pressure him to grant legislative favors to certain lumber and railroad corporations, La Follette rebelled. Vowing to reform the Republican Party and restore democracy to Wisconsin, he launched an insurgent campaign for governor. After losing twice in corrupt primaries, he barnstormed the state to take his case to the people, sparking a populist groundswell that finally swept him into office in 1900.
As governor, La Follette frequently battled reactionaries from both parties in the Wisconsin legislature. Distrusting his opponents, he rejected calls for compromise and moderation. “In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf,” he argued. “Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.” Legislative defeat, on the other hand, served a useful political purpose. He used the defeat of popular bills to bludgeon his opponents until they yielded or lost their seats. “It is the close association of political and corporate power that defrauds the public of its rights, defeats legislation for the general good, and passes laws to promote private interests,” he proclaimed, and the voters responded. As the Wisconsin political establishment crumpled under the onslaught, La Follette pushed through groundbreaking legislation to regulate the all-powerful railroad industry, restrict corporate lobbying, and implement more democratic Senate elections. At that time, there was no conventional label for his political agenda, so he invented one. He called it the “progressive movement,” a term that would go down in history.
La Follette was ambitious. After smashing Wisconsin’s Republican machine and transforming the state into a model for progressive ideas, he returned to Washington in 1906, this time as a U.S. Senator. Like the media buzz surrounding Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional debut, the press awaited La Follette’s arrival with giddy anticipation. “And soon he will be here!” opined the Washington Post half-mockingly, “The air is electric with curiosity, and tickets to the Senate galleries are being cornered by shrewd brokers.” The press was particularly enthralled by the feud between La Follette and his co-senator from Wisconsin, John Spooner. Spooner was one of the “Big Four,” a cabal of conservative Republicans that dominated the Senate. Most Washington pundits expected Spooner and his allies to lock La Follette in “cold storage” by denying him committee assignments and ignoring his speeches.
They certainly tried. La Follette was assigned an office in the bowels of the Capitol and made chair of the “Committee on the Improvement of the Potomac River Front,” which never actually met. During his maiden speech on the Senator floor, the other senators conspicuously left their seats and departed to the cloakroom until there were only two Republicans and a handful of Democrats left in the chamber. Taking note of the empty chairs, La Follette warned that soon enough “seats now temporarily vacant may be permanently vacated.” The crowded visitors’ gallery burst into applause, prompting one of the remaining Republican senators to demand that the galleries be cleared.
As a freshman senator spurned by his own party, La Follette had no real power in Washington. Other than the occasional speech, he could only sponsor futile amendments that the Big Four easily swatted away. Yet as in Wisconsin, he took advantage of defeat. When the others senators voted down his amendments, he duly recorded their votes. That summer, he traveled by rail across the country from New Jersey to Washington State, promoting his initiatives wherever senators were up for reelection—Democrat or Republican. During each speech, he would recite the roll call, eliciting “hisses and hoots” when he revealed the name of a local senator who had voted against his amendments. The New York Times chuckled over his counterattack, remarking, “He carried Senatorial discourtesy so far that he has actually imperiled the re-election of some of the gentlemen who hazed him last Winter.” But La Follette wasn’t after vengeance; he was after change. Convinced that his colleagues would never embrace serious reform, he aimed to replace them.
In this respect, La Follette differed from his contemporary, President Theodore Roosevelt. Though Roosevelt shared many of La Follette’s progressive ideals, he didn’t see the point of those doomed amendments, and he questioned the senator’s motives. “La Follette impressed me as a shifty self-seeker,” he wrote in 1906. “He is in favor of some excellent things, but… his real motives seemed to be not to get something good and efficient done, but to make a personal reputation for himself by screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had.” Like most presidents, Roosevelt was focused on his own legacy. In order accomplish anything, he felt that he had to compromise with the Big Four. “They are the leaders,” he wrote to his friend William Taft, “and their great intelligence and power and their desire in the last resort to do what is best for the government, make them not only essential to work with, but desirable to work with.”
But the Senate leaders weren’t negotiating in good faith. They made a show of cooperating with the popular president, then quietly neutered his policies. Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, ringleader of the Big Four, was particularly adept at such subterfuge. In response to a financial crisis in 1907, he drafted a bill that purported to stabilize the banking system, though even proponents admitted that it wouldn’t have prevented the crash. President Roosevelt accepted Aldrich’s assurances at face value, but La Follette saw the plan for what it was, a “half a loaf” bill designed to appease the public while rewarding railroad corporations and investment banks. On the Senator floor, he all but accused Aldrich of secretly concocting the plan with his friend J. Pierpont Morgan, America’s wealthiest investment banker. La Follette’s sensational speech made headlines and was reprinted across the country, but Roosevelt praised the bill, which moved smoothly toward passage.
Just before the final vote, La Follette took the floor. Filibusters were still rare in those days. When they occurred, they were generally conducted by a coalition of senators who were permitted to relieve each other every few hours. La Follette didn’t have a coalition. His Republican colleagues despised him, and only two low-ranking Democrats agreed to help him filibuster Aldrich’s bill. He began his speech at 12:30 in the afternoon as the temperature climbed into the nineties. Irritable senators sweated in their wool coats and swished themselves with palm-leaf fans. As word went out about the filibuster, visitors filled the galleries to witness the spectacle, and voters deluged their senators with telegrams urging them to support La Follette. At the White House, Roosevelt fumed about the “pointless and stupid filibuster by La Follette, who is an entirely worthless Senator.”
By nightfall, La Follette was still speaking. His eyelids drooped, and his voice fell to a whisper. Not permitted to sit, he folded his arms and rested his weight against the arm of his chair. He kept it up until 7 a.m., setting a Senate record of 18 hours and 23 minutes, before finally yielding the floor to one of his Democratic allies. While La Follette rested up for yet another speech, Senator Aldrich outmaneuvered the two Democrats and broke the filibuster.
Though the bill passed, La Follette again turned defeat to his advantage. His marathon speech had captured the public’s imagination and focused attention on Aldrich’s machinations. That summer, La Follette took another speaking tour to promote progressive candidates, and the next election brought new allies to Congress. Over the next four years, he and his growing band of insurgents made steady progress in their war against the Republican establishment. The next time Aldrich tried to pass a banking bill, it collapsed in defeat.
Even Theodore Roosevelt ultimately joined the insurgency. After stepping down in 1908, he ran for a third term in 1912 on a fiercely progressive platform that borrowed much from La Follette. When Republican leaders schemed to prevent his nomination, he broke with the party and founded his own. We remember it by its nickname, the Bull Moose Party, but the official name was the National Progressive Party. As the Republicans splintered, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, another self-described progressive convert, won the election, and a bipartisan progressive majority swept into Congress. Over the next eight years, all the “radical” policies that La Follette had championed became law along with many other landmark reforms that had seemed hopeless only a few years earlier.
Today, those accomplishments are threatened by a refortified conservative bloc that dominates the Republican Party. Democrats are struggling just to preserve the achievements of the 20th century, let alone pass new landmark legislation. In order to move forward and address the pressing challenges of the modern era, America needs a new popular movement to rebuild a truly progressive majority. Unfortunately, Democratic leaders have forgotten the movement-building legacy of Fighting Bob. President Obama favored Theodore Roosevelt’s pragmatic approach, pursuing fruitless compromises with Republican opponents who didn’t negotiate in good faith. Hillary Clinton similarly presented herself as a pragmatist who “gets things done” while deriding “pie in the sky” proposals that wouldn’t pass Congress. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois downplayed the national significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s election and insisted that candidates can’t “go too far to the left and still win the Midwest,” even though Midwestern states blazed the trail for progressivism a century ago. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi concurred, “They made a choice in one district. So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that.”
Bob La Follette received similar brush-offs in his day. “Oh, pshaw!” sneered House Speaker Joe Cannon in 1905, “It seems to be coming about that this country is divided into two parts—the republic of the United States and Wisconsin.” Seven years later, voters tossed Cannon and his conservative allies out of office, and the rest of the United States followed Wisconsin’s lead. The political world is not as fixed as it sometimes seems.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets that. “We’re in the middle of a movement in this country,” she responded to Pelosi, “That movement is going to happen from the bottom up. That movement is going to come from voters.” Like La Follette, she has exploited her celebrity to promote “radical” policies like tuition-free college and the Green New Deal. Even before her election, she began campaigning across the country for progressive challengers, and she has hinted at supporting primary challenges to Democratic incumbents in 2020. Naturally, such tactics have drawn scorn from parts of the Democratic Party. Party leaders want their congress people to be unified and submissive. They will pressure Ocasio-Cortez to be “pragmatic” and “realistic,” a team player. But Fighting Bob would urge to her stay true to her convictions and accept nothing short of a full loaf, no matter how unattainable it may seem today. He would tell her that her opponents aren’t negotiating in good faith, that real progress is only possible with a strong progressive majority in Congress. As he wrote in 1906, “Publicity, discussion, and agitation are necessary to accomplish any work of lasting benefit.”