"In truth we are likely to miss the unsettled character of things in American political life if we focus obsessively on particular elections and parties."
The Career of Robert M. La Follette (from The Wisconsin Historical Society, with emphases and annotations provided by me).
Born in Primrose township, Dane County, in 1855, La Follette worked as a farm laborer before entering the University of Wisconsin in 1875. After graduating in 1879, La Follette launched his political career as district attorney the following year. Elected to Congress in 1884, La Follette was defeated in 1890 by Democrat Allen Bushnell. While for some people a defeat might have signaled the end of a political career, for La Follette it marked the beginning of a lifelong fight for political reform. [Annotation: shades of the young Bill Clinton, who responded to his defeat for reelection to the governorship of Arkansas with a tenacity that led him ultimately to a two-term Presidency and beyond in his work with the William J. Clinton Foundation.]
La Follette's career as a reformer began in earnest a few months later when the state Republican leader, Senator Philetus Sawyer, offered him a bribe to fix a court case against several former state officials. Furious that Sawyer would try to use money to influence the legal system, La Follette refused the bribe, angrily denouncing the use of money to shut out the voice of the people. For nearly ten years, La Follette traveled around the state speaking out against the influence of crooked politicians and the powerful lumber barons and railroad interests that dominated his own party. Elected governor in 1900, La Follette pledged to institute his own form of political reform.
Until that time, the candidates whose names appeared on ballots were selected by party leaders in private caucuses. [Annotation: caucuses - never have been, never will be good for democracy] Drawing on the ideas of other reformers to make politics more democratic, La Follette successfully pushed the legislature to pass measures instituting direct primary elections, which gave voters the right to choose their own candidates for office. [Annotation: too bad this year's DNC couldn't get behind this concept.] He supported measures that doubled the taxes on the railroads, broke up monopolies, preserved the state's forests, protected workers' rights, defended small farmers, and regulated lobbying to end patronage politics. La Follette worked closely with professors from the University of Wisconsin to help the state become "a laboratory of democracy." [Annotation: Shades of Senator Clinton's ideas about engaging leading institutions in higher education in the work of political change and American innovation and invention.] By the time he joined the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette had become a national figure.
In Washington, La Follette pushed for the same kind of reforms he had promoted in Wisconsin. [Annotation: Demonstrating the power of a powerful and respected Senator with a reputation of accomplishment.] He often spoke at length on the corruption of government and the abuse of industrial workers. Arguing that the entire nation's economy was dominated by fewer than one hundred corporate leaders, La Follette supported the growth of unions as a check on the power of large corporations. In 1909, La Follette and his wife, Belle, founded "La Follette's Weekly Magazine," a journal that campaigned for woman [sic] suffrage, racial equality, and other progressive causes. [Annotation: La Follette understood that opposing sexism and misogyny was entirely compatible with opposing racism and bigotry and spoke out against both.]