Retrospect
Journal.

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

‘Fighting Bob’: Attempting an American Labour Party 

Following the First World War, the powers involved fell into a series of economic depressions that caused a paradigm shift in the political spectrums of all connected countries. Because of these depressions, several European countries experienced a growth of left-wing politics that altered the political spectrums of each respective country throughout the 1920s. With the success of Ramsey MacDonald’s British Labour Party in the 1923 general elections and French President Gaston Doumergue of the Radical Party, the Western world appeared to be growing a stronger left-wing camp that countered their right-leaning inclinations. This was not the case in the United States and a key moment in which the European political spectrum began to change from the United States. 

The perception of the 1920s in the United States is almost the exact opposite of what it was like in Europe. Whereas Europe was marked by post-war destruction and economic depression, the United States saw booming economic and social prosperity. The “Roarin’ 20s,” as it was known, was a period of immense economic growth and prosperity in the United States following World War I. President Warren G. Harding won the 1920 presidential election in a landslide on his more right-leaning economic policies. The US was prosperous, and the incumbent president was widely respected. Still, the left-wing of American politics had been gaining steam. 

In 1923, President Harding died suddenly of a heart attack, opening up possibilities for potential regime changes in the 1924 presidential election. On top of that, a series of corruption scandals emerged about both Harding’s personal life and his administration, creating further competitiveness in the election. While progressive Republicans were prominent contenders to receive the party’s nomination, Harding’s conservative vice president turned president, Calvin Coolidge, swept the primary fields and received the nomination. The Democratic Party had a catastrophic series of events that left their party without any major frontrunners. Following the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, progressives, populists, liberal, and conservative democrats battled fiercely for the direction of their party. After 103 ballots held at the convention, the Democratic nomination process selected John W. Davis, a conservative Democrat more sympathetic to policies based on individual liberty.   

The platforms of both candidates in the election had alienated progressives from both parties. Rather than capitulate to this era of conservatism, the progressives banded together to form a third party with the aim of disrupting the current political trends in the US. 

In 1922, a group of union leaders, inspired by the successes of the British Labour Party, banded together to form the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA). This organisation united a series of left-wing parties, socialist groups, and trade unions to gain more political prominence. The party hosted a series of conferences throughout the early 1920s, gaining various parties under their banner for stronger endorsement power. The CPPA held it’s first national convention from the 4th to the 5th of July 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, where it nominated Robert M. ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette for the presidency. 

A member of the Republican party, La Follette served as a representative, governor, and senator from Wisconsin collectively for over two decades and was a champion of the progressive movement throughout his time in politics. As governor, La Follette introduced the ‘Wisconsin Idea’: a series of reforms that would make Wisconsin a blueprint for a national effort based on progressivism. He helped establish commissions aimed to regulate transport, the environment, and monopolies. He introduced greater election integrity methods such as a direct primary, allowing voters to select their party’s candidate for office, and campaign spending limits to combat patronage. When the state legislature had adjourned, La Follette gave a series of 57 lectures across the Midwest advocating for the ‘Wisconsin Idea.’ This saw him gain national interest and lead to his election as a senator in 1906. 

 As a senator, La Follette gained national prominence as a progressive leader and often deviated from his conservative counterparts in the Republican party to vote for progressive legislation. In both positions he successfully pursued railroad company regulation that saw restrictions placed on the number of consecutive hours workers could work and taxation of railroad companies based on property rather than profit. His energy and uncompromising enthusiasm while in office earned him the nickname ‘Fighting Bob.’ 

Despite numerous attempts by conservatives Republicans to unseat him, La Follette remained incredibly popular in his home state. He continued to win his Senate elections in landslides under the progressive cause. His attitude, political background, and unwavering devotion to the progressive cause made him the perfect candidate for the new third party. 

At the time of his campaign, La Follette was 68 years old. Still, he was a formidable opponent who galvanised his supports with his energetic delivery. He called for a plethora of progressive reforms that included ending imperialism in Latin America, outlawing child labour, government ownership of utility companies, and providing credit to farmers to aid the economy. His platform had aimed “to break the combined power of the private monopoly system” and reinvigorate ideals of trust-busting. 

Republicans did not view John W. Davis as much of a threat due to his inability to reconcile various democratic factions and targeted La Follette. Republican President Calvin Coolidge was perceived as the opposite of La Follette in every way. Known as ‘Silent Cal,’ Coolidge had a reputation for his incredibly quiet demeanour and belief that ‘the American public wants a solemn ass as a president.’ He promoted laissez-faire economic policies and low regulation on economic matters. La Follette engaged in a modern campaign by travelling across the country and making gracious speeches while Coolidge ran a subdued campaign from the White House. Around the same time of this election, the UK and France had elected left-wing leaders into office in an unprecedented way. However, the US would not follow suit and changed course from the expanding political spectrums in other Western democracies. 

Once the results were in, Calvin Coolidge won in a landslide carrying 54 per cent of the popular vote and the majority of electoral votes. Davis carried 136 electoral votes, all from southern states which was typical of a Democrat at the time, and 29 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest percentage of the popular vote a Democratic presidential candidate had ever received. La Follette received 17 per cent of the popular vote and only carried his home state of Wisconsin. The election overall had the lowest voter turnout rate since records were begun, at 48.9 per cent. Following the election, the CPPA disbanded due to internal struggles and La Follette passed away in 1925. No clear leader emerged to carry on the progressive movement, and it had largely died by 1924. 

Despite being a relatively forgotten election with a lack of importance placed on it, the 1924 U.S. presidential election served as a divergent point for Western political spectrums. 

From the Enlightenment era in the seventeenth century to the labour movements in the 1920s, Western democracies have generally based their politics on a spectrum of conservatism to liberalism. The 1920s and 30s introduced socialist philosophies to the political spectrum. With the acceptance of a capitalist economy with strong welfare safety nets, mostly in social democratic forms, these decades expanded the left-wing area of political realm. Discussions surrounding major welfare policy became more common and stronger bastions of support came from labour unions. 

The defeat of La Follette kept the US political spectrum away from socialism and boosted its liberal and conservative roots. As European states began to move into a wider range of political discussion, socialism and left-wing ideologies were unable to find sufficient power structures. No major political party in the US was driven by labour groups and much of the progressive legislation proposed by La Follette never came to reality. This relationship remains present to this day. 

Under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s, liberalism was revitalised, as the welfare-oriented “New Deal” policies became nationally supported. These policies largely met La Follette half-way yet were a far cry away from labour movements in the rest of Europe. While the pension fund of Social Security and Medicare health policies became permanent in the US, the conservative opposition towards these policies kept progressives in waiting. Meanwhile countries like the UK had established national health services and had given greater strength to labour unions through more consistent worker-oriented policy. 

La Follette served as one of the last great bastions of progressivism in the United States. The failure of his campaign marked the still present differences between the US political climate along with the rest of the world. Still his inspiring personal character and strong support for causes he stood for has made him an inspiration to people of varying political beliefs. 

 
Written by Sam Marks 

Bibliography 

Berman, Sam. 1972. “‘I Think the American Public Wants a Solemn Ass as a President– and I Think I’ll Go along with Them’ –Calvin Coolidge.” Still image. 1972. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010643539/

Buenker, John D. 1998. The Progressive Era, 1893-1914. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. 

Daily Mercury. 1924. “U.S. DEMOCRATIC LEADER.,” August 4, 1924. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168136887

Follette, Robert Marion La. 1913. La Follette’s Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. Robert M. LaFollette Company. 

“La Follette’s Wisconsin Idea.” n.d. Dissent Magazine (blog). Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/la-follettes-wisconsin-idea

Sobel, Robert. 2006. “Coolidge and American Business.” March 8, 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20060308075125/http://www.jfklibrary.org/coolidge_sobel.html

“Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections | The American Presidency Project.” n.d. Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/voter-turnout-in-presidential-elections

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