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Lessons from the Progressive Campaign of 1924

At sixty-nine and in ill-health, Wisconsin U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette made a third-party run for the White House in 1924. The long-time progressive Republican felt alienated from the party’s candidate that year, pro-business stalwart and incumbent President Calvin Coolidge. La Follette dismissed the Democratic Party candidate, Wall Street lawyer John Davis, as yet another advocate for corporate interests. The two-party system in the United States had failed, La Follette reasoned, by not providing the American people with a genuine choice regarding the great political questions of the day. He likened the two major parties to barely distinguishable twins bound hand and foot to Wall Street.

U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr. gives a campaign speech in 1924 in an early example of the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process.

Accepting the nomination of the Progressive Party, La Follette declared that the American people lived under “a dictatorship of plutocracy.” He chose a reform-minded Democrat to run with him, U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. Wheeler had gained national prominence as a relentless critic of the wrongdoing by the administration of President Warren G. Harding and Coolidge, his Vice President. In particular, La Follette denounced the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the looting of public lands for private oil interests, as the epitome of the corrupt relationship between money and legislation in American politics. After agreeing to be La Follette’s running mate, Wheeler declared with an obvious allusion to the Davis candidacy, “I am a Democrat but not a Wall Street Democrat.”

On the floor of the Senate and in the pages of La Follette’s Magazine—the precursor of The Progressive—La Follette also had been an antagonist of the Republican administration regarding the Teapot Dome scandal. In a speech before the Senate, he declared that the Teapot Dome graphically illustrated the way Washington conducted the nation’s business. An enormous amount of looting went on both at peace and in war. Private exploitation routinely prevailed over the national interest. American politics operated on the principle of a legal bribery system, La Follette argued. Lobbying by vested interests controlled the entire process. At some point in history, the country’s democracy had been subverted or had never been allowed to begin.

La Follette and Wheeler believed that government corruption gave them a winning issue in the 1924 campaign. Wheeler, nearly thirty years younger than La Follette, carried much of the campaigning burden. He developed an effective stump routine, involving his interrogation of an empty chair said to be occupied by Coolidge. He would ask the President to justify his help-the-rich tax policies and other measures designed to aid the disadvantaged residents of Park Avenue. Audiences found these performances to be enormously entertaining. 

Issues concerning race, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, also defined the 1924 Progressive campaign. After achieving its main goal, through crime and terror, of refastening the shackles of servitude on formerly enslaved people in the post-Civil War South, the Klan entered a period of relative quiescence. In the early twentieth century, however, a new phase of Klan history began as an influx of immigrant Jews and Roman Catholics threatened to swamp the Anglo-Saxon character of the country. Massacres and lynchings of Black people spiked while the Klan attacked Jews and Catholics as deadly aliens.

La Follette confronted the Klan in blunt language. “I am unalterably opposed to the evident purposes of the secret organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, as disclosed by its public acts,” he declared. Every citizen, regardless of race, class, or creed, merited equal treatment before the law. The Klan’s racist ideology posed a mortal threat to the foundational values of fair play, honest striving for the common good, and, above all, the “republican virtue” of which President George Washington had spoken in his farewell address of 1796 as the country’s golden rule. Of course, Americans had failed to live up to such exalted standards, but the country would survive so long as it strove to be righteous. La Follette thought—as did Wheeler—that the Klan had no understanding of morality. If any of the group’s plans came to fruition, democracy could never triumph in the United States.

It seemed to La Follette that the racial animosities stirred up by the Klan distracted attention from the fundamental problem of American politics arising from the economic system itself. Klan racism had inserted a wedge between many white people and progressivism, causing them to lose sight of their real economic interests. He insisted that the overriding issues in the campaign concerned economic inequality in the United States and the economic insecurity of working people. The growing gap between the controlling rich and the controlled poor meant that, more than ever, economic elites ran everything in Washington, D.C., through the machinations of their lobbies. La Follette had become a caustic critic of the way the American system of government worked for the exclusive benefit of the country’s oligarchy. Though not a socialist, he had the support of the Socialist Party—including Eugene V. Debs, one of his greatest admirers. He and Debs wanted a real democracy in the United States and understood perfectly well that they did not have one.

The Volstead Act, which provided the enforcement apparatus for the outlawing of alcohol as mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment, also seemed to La Follette to be another issue that took people’s attention away from their economic exploitation by the elites running the country. The Volstead Act passed despite President Woodrow Wilson’s veto on October 27, 1919. Yet the issue continued to spark heated debate, with one side defending the act as the thin line separating society from alcohol-induced dementia, and the other viewing it as an intolerable intrusion of state power into the private lives of American citizens. Voters wanted to know where La Follette stood. He had opposed Prohibition as a method likely to produce more harm than good. He had voted against the act.

In the heat of the 1924 campaign, La Follette declared his continued intellectual opposition to the act while recognizing that in a democracy, political opposition must be restricted to peaceful efforts to change the law, not to break it. He would obey the law and encourage his fellow citizens to be mindful of democracy’s manifold vulnerabilities.

The previous year, he had traveled extensively in Europe, visiting communist Russia, fascist Italy, and Weimar Germany, where the first stirrings of the Nazi movement made a profound impression on him. Against the extremism of the left and the right, the cause of democracy could be won only if the democratic system worked for the benefit of the people. He thought that the greatest danger to American democracy came not from external enemies but from within, as the prerogatives of oligarchy eclipsed Washington’s concern for the needs of ordinary citizens.

Although the United States did not find itself at war in 1924, foreign policy issues figured prominently in the Progressive campaign. La Follette and Wheeler promoted a “Peace on Earth” theme as the country’s rightful foreign policy. They reminded voters that in 1917, the Wilson Administration’s approval of ill-advised war loans to the Allies had drawn the United States into the slaughter pen of the Great War. Completely aligned with the arguments of such revisionist historians as Charles Austin Beard, the two candidates denounced the Versailles Treaty as a perfidious document perpetuating and augmenting the empires of the conflict’s victors. As the only country with any money at the end of the fighting, the United States would be financing the new imperialist order. The war to make the world safe for democracy had ended by making it safe primarily for Wall Street.

Wheeler also visited war-torn Europe in 1923. He reacted to the desolation there the way La Follette did, with a sense of foreboding about the next war sure to come from the order devised at the Paris Peace Conference. In their campaign speeches, they called for war to be outlawed, conscription to be abolished, and armaments to be reduced and used for defensive purposes only. One of their pamphlets read: “We denounce the mercenary system of foreign policy under recent administrations in the interests of financial imperialists, oil monopolists, and international bankers.” Powerful economic groups controlled foreign policy. The State Department had become “a trading outpost for those interests and concession-seekers engaged in the exploitation of weaker nations.”

Latin America furnished the most glaring examples of the kind of financial imperialism that the two Progressive candidates had in mind. Wheeler condemned U.S. foreign policy in general. It was La Follette, however, who distilled the essence of the Progressive campaign’s position on Latin America when he charged, “Both parties dominated by special interests have used the American Treasury, the State Department, the Navy, and the Marines ruthlessly to carry out the designs of American bankers, oil kings, sugar magnates, and other exploiters.” He identified Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Honduras as important Latin American countries where the United States exercised economic control for the benefit of American financiers and corporation tycoons. Whenever local disturbances threatened to disrupt the cash flow from these prime investment fields, the Marines intervened. It was the American way of shouldering the white man’s burden.

For expressing such criticisms, La Follette and Wheeler came under attack as Marxist revolutionaries. From his time as Montana’s attorney general while fearlessly opposing the war hysteria that gripped the state, Wheeler already had the reputation that accompanied his nickname, “Bolshevik Burt.” In reality, as a pro-labor reform Democrat, he had criticized the Marxist-Leninist regime in the Soviet Union as a tyranny that made him grateful to be an American. His ridicule of this rightwing smear proved unavailing. His nickname retained currency throughout the campaign.

Repeatedly denounced as an advocate for “Wisconsin Bolshevism,” La Follette replied that he opposed dictatorship in all its forms, whether of the proletariat or “the Republican-Democratic Dictatorship of Organized Wealth.” He had always anchored his anti-imperialism in traditional American values. His castigation of the government’s support for the depredations at home and abroad of American corporations did not make him a Marxist. Differentiating his position from that of socialists or communists, he insisted that the progressive movement did not want to discriminate against lawful wealth but to bring corporations under the rule of law. The tragedy of American life stemmed from the way economic elites controlled the law, the political process, and foreign policy.

The outcome of the 1924 presidential campaign could have been foretold by looking at the funding for the three principal parties: $221,978 for the Progressives, $903,908 for the Democrats, and $4,270,469 for the Republicans. Coolidge won in a landslide. Moreover, both chambers of Congress remained under Republican control. Campaign funding alone, however, did not decide the election. A fortuitous upturn in the economy also contributed to the Republican victory. According to many observers, Davis hardly bothered to campaign. Fiorello La Guardia, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a La Follette organizer, lamented that the political inexperience of the Progressive team contributed to their defeat.

On the positive side for La Follette and Wheeler, they received nearly five million votes, carried Wisconsin, and finished ahead of Davis in California, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Dudley Field Malone, the Farmer-Labor candidate in 1920 for the governor’s office in New York, wrote La Follette: “To have in three months put a new party with an economic program on the map running second in so many states and disintegrating the Democratic Party is an achievement unparalleled in our history.” He urged La Follette to continue the progressive fight against the government as an agent for the rich. 

La Follette tried to oblige, but the health problems that had limited his effectiveness on the campaign trail rapidly grew worse after the election. He died a little more than seven months later, on June 18, 1925. Wheeler wrote in a condolence letter to his widow, Belle Case La Follette: “When history is written, Robert M. La Follette will be recorded as one of this country’s greatest statesmen.” Wheeler, in his memoirs, looked back with pride at the 1924 campaign as an ideological forerunner of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933.

During the past century, American presidential politics have changed materially but not essentially. They cost a lot more now. According to Ballotpedia, Donald Trump raised $785 million in 2020, and Joe Biden raised more than $1 billion. Part of the reason for the dramatic increase stems from the duration of the campaigns these days. The 1924 campaign lasted approximately three months. Ballotpedia fundraising statistics for the 2020 campaign begin on January 1, 2017. Fundraising never stops now, making the campaigns more dependent than ever on the big donors. What La Follette and Wheeler envisaged as an alarming trend in campaign expenditures has become the overarching reality of a political arena in which the common good finds representation only after the clients of the commanding lobbies have their expectations met. The huge cost of presidential campaigns is the most effective way for vested interests to control the political system.

What La Follette and Wheeler feared most is what we need to fear more than we do: the kinetic energy of empire driving the country toward ruinous military spending and endless war. They worried primarily about Latin America as the main scene of economic exploitation abroad by the United States and how, in time, our appalling record of military interventions there would destroy the country’s democratic ideals and heritage. The erosion of this precious heritage was already far advanced in 1924, they believed. Imperialism and militarism would lead to the same decline-and-fall pattern that had overtaken all the empires of the past. People of their generation read serious history and knew what was coming.

The wars of empire—erupting all around us in 2024—confirm the prophetic character of the La Follette-Wheeler campaign of a hundred years ago. They wanted the country to retrace its steps to the golden age of the American Enlightenment, when Washington sagely counseled his compatriots to learn to mind their own business, to avoid entangling alliances, and to rest content with the task of bringing the nation to its full flowering as a free republic. The example of their storied 1924 campaign is as good a starting point as any for us today in trying to rescue our politics from its lobby-triggered degradation.

The article Lessons from the Progressive Campaign of 1924 first appeared on the Progressive Magazine website on April 15, 2024.

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