THE BLOG
10/04/2010 11:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting Bob & Loathsome Joe

Republicans are channelling Joe McCarthy for politics and profit.

What if Joe McCarthy had never been Senator? It didn't have to happen. After all, Wisconsin gave us the heroic Progressive icon, Robert M. La Follette, Sr. "Fighting Bob" LaFollette. He relentlessly went about the peoples' business, facing down trusts and bossism; fending off corporate usurpers; championing the nation's working people in factories and on farms. As governor, then as Senator, he elevated Wisconsin into a "laboratory for democracy".

"Fighting Bob" staved off corporate front-men and took on the railroads, opposed militarists and their profit-mad cronies and was a founder of the Progressive Party itself, all while his wife fought valiantly for woman suffrage. Fighting Bob. He feared nothing, despite Big Businesses' virulent, relentless attacks. My kind of guy.

Alas, Fightin' Bob died in 1925. Bob Jr. replaced him in the Senate. Over the years, Junior abandoned his father's vision of justice when the country needed it most. In fact, Young Bob left the Progressive Party. Bob Jr. became -- OMG -- a Republican. He seemed to decide the seat was his birthright. He stayed home...in Washington, D.C., when Wisconsin itself needed genuine leadership in the face of a growing reactionary threat.

In the 1946 Republican primary, McCarthy challenged "Young Bob" and beat him. The United States and the world are STILL suffering the consequences.

What happened? Young Bob left a vacuum, enjoying the fruits of his position and abandoning the authentic interests of common folk. The vicious opportunist Joseph McCarthy filled that void.

This is a story we should all know by heart, given it has never ended.* But when was the last time you heard the mainstream media telling us that these very same McCarthyites infest our politics, that they've continued to inflict wounds which fester in our political body?

Then, as now, McCarthyism was secretly backed by extremist business concerns and the status quo they represented. He made his career by exploiting the flames of wild-eyed fear, adding the fuel of lies, half-truths and character assassination. Fronting for the Republican establishment, McCarthy ignited the worst Red Scare this nation has ever seen. Those who profit most at the expense of those who can afford it least have built fear into the body politic. It's an insidious, chronic illness inflamed by Republicans and decades of crony capitalists -- Fighting Bob's enemies -- just as today's corporatists and their puppets do.

Ah! But even in the face of all this, there is always hope. In this nation, ordinary people KNOW how to fight back, without resorting to violence. I invite you to refresh -- or add -- what can be learned from the legacy of "Fighting Bob". Add LaFollette to your lexicon. Never underestimate the virulence of his nemeses.

Wisconsin may just be our very own American "Janus". We face both left and wrong, right now. Look no further than Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. He's probably the most important progressive voice fending off the siege of corporate lust. And he's in trouble because Republicans are vastly outspending him.

Courtesy of the Roberts Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, millions of corporate dollars are flowing into the campaigns of political fundamentalist. Millions of those dollars are being spent attacking anyone with a "Fighting Bob" pedigree of standing up to the corporate takeover of America. That's what Russ Feingold and other progressives face, no less than "Fighting Bob" did. He fought back. He also led ordinary people to stand up for themselves, in a nation far more troubled than now.

The result? It's known as The Progressive Era. It came into being because tens of thousands of people whose names will never be known DID roll up their sleeves.

If we can't be bothered to rule ourselves, there are others who will gladly, gleefully, greedily take up that task.

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*-- Haynes Johnson covered this subject admirably in his 2005 book The Age of Anxiety : McCarthyism to Terrorism.