Q & A with Jonathan Kasparek
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: How did you become interested in the La Follette family in general and in Phil particularly?
Jonathan Kasparek: I started studying the La Follette family when researching a paper on isolationism for a diplomatic history seminar. I became intrigued by Phil and Bob Jr. arguing against American involvement in World War Two between 1939 and 1941. It seemed so strange that two liberal reformers would be so opposed to Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy, but it began to make sense when they wrote about their father, Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Sr. He had opposed World War One in 1917 because he believed that Americans were being led into a war to protect the selfish interests of European nations like Great Britain and France and because he believed that war would jeopardize Woodrow Wilson's reformist domestic agenda and possibly even democracy itself. Twenty years later, Phil and Bob were convinced that their father had been right and that the war had curtailed civil liberties, cut short the progressive movement, and contributed to the Great Depression. Phil had traveled in Europe and despised the Nazis, but he was terrified that if the United States spent billions of dollars on another foreign war the nation would be never recover economically or politically.
WHS Press: Why is Phil a significant historical figure? Why should we read about him?
JK: Phil is important for several reasons. He was governor for six years in the 1930s, and during his time in office, he made Wisconsin an innovator in dealing with the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Unemployment Compensation, for example, was enacted first in Wisconsin, and later adopted by other states.
He also reshaped Wisconsin politics. Fighting Bob led the "progressive" faction of the Republican party until his death in 1925. After that, Phil and Bob Jr. kept the faction organized as best they could. In 1934, after many former Progressives started to drift to the Roosevelt-led Democratic party, Phil organized the Wisconsin Progressive party to bring liberals together into one party. The Progressive party dominated state politics until 1939 and remained competitive into the early 1940s.
Phil was also a national figure in that he was often critical of the New Deal and believed that Roosevelt misunderstood the fundamental nature of the depression and its solution. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, with its policy of setting limits on crop production, made no sense to Phil when there were people starving. He believed that problem was not over-production, but distribution. The nation was more productive and had more resources than any other nation in history, and the issue was how that wealth could be spread more equitably and how to maintain economic growth. He was an academic at heart and presented one of the most thoughtful liberal critiques of the New Deal. Roosevelt never trusted him!
WHS Press: How is Phil relevant/important today?
JK: Phil remains a compelling figure today because he was so driven to improve society. His parents burdened him and his siblings with an obligation of public service, and Phil took his role as reformer very seriously. Especially in his first term, he really inspired people to believe that if we thought carefully about problems of unemployment and recession, we could come up with solutions. And he made people want to come up with solutions.
I think many people will find Phil relevant today. The ability he showed in his first term to convince voters and politicians that major changes had to be made — and could be made — was really remarkable. The major complaint about politicians today is that they offer sound bites instead of ideas and pander to whatever groups of voters will get them reelected. Phil and the Progressives were different in that they carefully crafted proposals to address specific problems and then went out and convinced voters that they were right. Phil believed that educating the voters was the most important task a politician had: people had to understand the problems facing society and the solutions the Progressives offered.
WHS Press: Phil became a very controversial figure in the 1930s — did your opinion of him change as you researched this book?
JK: Most of the controversies in his third terms come from a quirk in his personality. He was convinced that he knew what the people wanted or needed and that those who opposed his policies did so for the selfish interests of big business. As a result, he believed he could act in ways that looked dictatorial — reorganizing the state government, engineering the dismissal of University of Wisconsin President Glenn Frank, ramming legislation through the legislature — but would ultimately be vindicated by popular opinion and make the political system more democratic and more responsive. His father had taken very controversial stands in the past and was always vindicated. Phil believed — incorrectly — that the people had a similar faith in him. They did not. In 1938 Phil believed he was acting as a tribune, but his opponents compared him Mussolini and Hitler. As a result, the national Progressive Party he tried to start failed and he lost his bid for reelection.
My opinion? Phil never lost his deep-rooted faith in democracy, but he badly misjudged how much the voters were willing to trust him.
WHS Press: What exactly is Progressive politics, and how does Phil fit in?
JK: The Progressive movement was a diverse collection of reform efforts that develop in the late 19th century and peaked in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Self-labeled "progressives" pursued many different reform goals and did not always agree among themselves. Some promoted prohibition, others did not; many supported woman's suffrage early on, others very reluctantly; few said anything about race. What seems to have given these people a sense of belonging to a movement was a shared sense that the emergence of an industrial economy was at odds with the idea of democracy. Too much wealth and economic power was concentrated in too few hands, and money seemed to be corrupting politics. The La Follettes — Phil thought about this the most thoroughly — believed that reform was necessary to make traditional American rhetoric about liberty and freedom and opportunity real again in the face of unprecedented economic change.
For Phil, the Progressive Era did not end in 1917. It was a struggle that continued. The Great Depression was the latest manifestation of the conflict between those who believed in maintaining democracy and economic opportunity and those who pursued their selfish profit. I think this is a very similar idea that many liberals espouse today.
WHS Press: During the Depression, Phil came up with an alternate plan to Roosevelt's New Deal. Can you talk a bit about this?
JK: The Roosevelt administration tried to stabilize the economy through the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Both these programs regulated production, wages, and prices, but Phil believed that Roosevelt and his advisors misunderstood the problems. They viewed it as a problem of overproduction, which drove down prices and brought about unemployment; their efforts focused on maintaining wage levels for workers and crop prices for farmers. Phil believed this was at best a temporary solution. The fundamental problem was one that progressives had talked about for decades: wealth was being concentrated in too few hands, leaving working people and farmers struggling with low wages and low prices. The solution was for the state to invest in the economy through "useful" public works — forestation, transportation infrastructure, public power — that would have helped working people in the short run and spur economic growth in the long run. The biggest part of his plan was the Wisconsin Development Authority, which he proposed in 1935. It would have been funded by a massive federal loan and would have pumped millions of dollars into the state economy by funding construction and agricultural production. But because a key part of the program was the creation of a new circulating currency — a kind of scrip — that would have been used to pay workers, for purchases, and to pay taxes, some thought it too risky. The plan failed in the state senate, and when Phil tried again in 1937, the federal government was cutting spending rather than increasing it. Phil had lost his chance, and he remained bitter about it for a long time.