HNN Editor: This excerpt features an interview with Michael Wolraich, the author of the new book, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Palgrave Macmillan).
What inspired you to write this book? Why look look so closely at this era of U.S. history?
The idea for the book started off fairly simply. There was, several years ago … a resurgence of interests … and concern about economics and economic inequality and corporate influence on government … Particularly back during Occupy Wall Street protests, there was a lot of rhetoric that mimicked the rhetoric of the early progressive movements; the criticisms of Wall Street and corporate control and the whole 99 percent echoed class arguments that Democrats hadn’t really emphasized for a long time. And what struck me was that many of the people who were employing these arguments really had little sense of where they came from and where they started. There’s a fair amount of understanding and recognition and appreciation for FDR and the mid-twentieth century. But in talking to people, both in the protests and the blogosphere, I just get the sense that people don’t really know how progressivism started.
So my original idea was just to write a book, partly for the left, partly for the country as a whole, to remind us of how that movement started, why we have a lot of the progressive laws that were passed in the first place and why it’s important today. Then just as a follow-up, as I was digging into it, figuring out what exactly I was going to write about and I started moving towards Robert M. La Follette, one of the early progressive leaders from Wisconsin, and I was fascinated with his relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, which I had only a broad understanding of before I started to write the book. I was fascinated by the story and fascinated about what it can teach us about politics today.
Let’s talk about those two guys, not only their personalities but what you feel they embodied at the time and what they still represent today. Start with the one that I’m sure people have heard less about, Robert M. La Follette. What’s his story and what about him do you think is so interesting and relevant to today?
La Follette was governor of Wisconsin. Well, he was originally a congressman and then governor of Wisconsin, and then ran for senator of Wisconsin. He was a lifelong Republican but he was very critical about the practices and ideology of the Republican Party at the time. You could call the Party conservative — they didn’t really use that terminology at the time — but he had ideas about progressive reform that were shut down. He was particularly upset with the corruption that was endemic to both parties. There was a lot of corporate influence and old-school bribes. A lot of it was very similar to today where corporations would fund political campaigns and then politicians once elected would do favors for their benefactors.
La Follette decided to lead a fight against this. And he was shut down by the state Republican Party in Wisconsin. So he mounted an insurgency against them. He was a very eloquent and inspirational public speaker and he went around the state talking about the power of the corporations, particularly the railroad corporations, and the corruption in the Party. He ran three campaigns for governor before he finally won. Then [he] had another fight the next four years where his progressive insurgents — they called them “half-breeds” at the time — took over the state party. He was in many ways the Ted Cruz of his day, particularly when he got to the Senate. He mounted primary challenges against fellow Republicans. He did sensational filibusters Roosevelt regarded as pointless. He refused to compromise. I’d say he was the mirror image of Ted Cruz because he was arguing not for conservative ideology, but progressive ideology.
Who constituted La Follette’s “base”? Cruz has the Tea Party — mostly a group of older-than-average and richer-than-average white people, many of whom could be called petty bourgeois because they own their own small businesses or property. Who did La Follette have?
La Follette’s base was very rural. It was farmers, small accounts people, people who felt at the mercy of East Coast elites, as they thought of them. There was, to a growing extent, laborers in the cities [that] became a part of his base. … He would speak often about the “common man.” That was his base. That’s who he spoke to. That’s who drove his movement.
You mentioned that he had to run three times before winning the governorship in Wisconsin. What changed in the state between his first and second runs and his eventually successful third attempt?
During the early progressive movements, many people — even Woodrow Wilson, who had been more conservative almost until he ran for election — they often use the wordawakening [to explain their embrace of progressivism]. La Follette very much saw himself as an educator, and he would help voters to understand the problems that were happening in the country and understand they could, by mobilizing, fix the problems with government that were preventing reform legislation from advancing the country forward....