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Book Review: Michael Wolraich, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

[ 10 ] June 7, 2015 |


Robert La Follette

I tend to choose books for review here rather randomly, often picking something off the new book shelf at my university’s library. So when I saw Michael Wolraich’s new book, I knew nothing about it. I was intrigued and a bit worried I would dislike it. I had two basic reservations. The first is the all too common worry the professional historian has for the popular history: that it would be a hagiography focusing strictly on outsized personalities and ignoring the larger and complex context of the time that creates change. Second, the title worried me, as it could have turned out to be a partisan book making Republicans themselves out to be the inherent creators of positive change in society.

While my first concern was only partially allayed, the second certainly was. Unreasonable Men is a very good book. Yes, it is personality driven and doesn’t really get into much detail about the tumult for reform at the grassroots in this country. But given that, Wolraich gets at the right personalities in the right ways. The cast of major characters are as follows: First, Rhode Island senator Nelson Aldrich. The prototypical Gilded Age senator, Aldrich stood as a leader of the Standpatters, the group of conservative Republicans determined to let no reform change the era of corruption and corporate rule they presided over. The classic Aldrich move was the a provision he inserted into the Payne-Aldrich Tariff removing the tariff on imported art so J.P. Morgan could bring his art collection to the U.S. without paying taxes. Now that’s senatorial service!

Second there is Joe Cannon, the dictator of the House. Cannon became Speaker in 1903 and inserted himself as the head of the Rules Committee, granting himself complete control over everything that went on the in the chamber. As conservative as Aldrich, Cannon determined to not allow the growing reform movements to make any meaningful change in the country.

Third is Theodore Roosevelt. Wolraich accurately portrays Roosevelt as a conservative with an innate sense of shifts in public opinion and who could switch positions himself without even realizing it. Distrustful of Populism and distrustful of the other reformers in Washington, Roosevelt believed himself a true moderate, bringing just the right amount of change to the political system. His outsized personality made him a very popular figure through his highly publicized actions, but he frustrated most progressives by his close relationships with corporate leaders and his highly restricted ideas of how much change should happen.

Fourth is William Howard Taft. A member of the Republican Old Guard and a man deeply committed to law and order, on some issues like trustbusting he would prove more effective than Roosevelt, but Wolraich portrays him as completely out of his depth as president. An utterly inept politician who completely misread the times he lived in, he quickly became unloved soon after taking the Oval Office, not only alienating Roosevelt but making himself a nonentity for reelection, probably even before Roosevelt decided to run on the Progressive Party ticket.

Finally, the hero of the book is Robert La Follette. Fighting Bob was an iconoclast, willing to attack anyone who stood in the way of the reform he demanded. He began leading a group of Midwestern Republicans determined to stand up to Aldrich, Cannon, and the rest of the aging Gilded Age elite. With his opponents underestimating him in his early years, he managed to move from governor to the Senate, bringing the winds of reform to Washington.

Describing all the details of how the reformers led by La Follette transformed the Republican Party and the nation could make for a very long post. In short, La Follette’s uncompromising long game approach to politics meant that by not worrying much about the next election, he slowly built allies and took positions that appealed to the growing reform demands among the American people. His attacks on corporate power first divided the Republican Party, undermining hardliners like Aldrich and helping to lead to the ousting of Cannon by George Norris through creating space for reformist Republicans and Democrats to unite on certain issues. This moved the Republicans as a whole to the left, but by 1912 created a highly fractious party where conservatives like Taft and Elihu Root desperately tried to hold off Roosevelt and La Follette. These two had bitterly split over their mutual presidential ambitions, especially since even a popular figure like La Follette could in no way hold off the Roosevelt tide after he threw his hat in the ring.

La Follette helped create the atmosphere of 1912, when even Taft was relatively reformist compared to the Republicans of fifteen years earlier. Woodrow Wilson of course won that election, with Taft just giving up after Roosevelt left the party. Wilson’s own rise summed up the era, as  the New Jersey conservative Democratic establishment believed he was one of them and then the governor completely turned on them. Wilson was a Progressive in his own right, albeit one who did not really trust government much more than he did corporations. At least in Wolraich’s telling, 1912 is not possible without all the work La Follette accomplished over the previous decade. Not that the Democrats nominating a Progressive was inevitable. Wilson came quite close to losing the nomination to Missouri’s Champ Clark and only won on the 46th ballot when William Jennings Bryan threw his support to Wilson due to his disgust with Tammany Hall working for Clark.

Oddly, the only point I was ever really that unhappy with the book was in the last couple of pages. Wolraich gets Roosevelt’s death date wrong (he says it is January 5, 1920 when it is January 6, 1919). Not a big deal maybe but something that should have been fact checked somewhere along the line. Second, he claims that Aldrich “is the forefather of a progressive political dynasty” that includes Jay Rockefeller and Nelson Rockefeller. The claim for this rests not on policy grounds (as despite his somewhat unintended influence on major Progressive legislation such as the income tax, which he originally offered as a constitutional amendment to avoid it passing Congress and which he thought would never be ratified, and the groundwork he laid late in his life for the Federal Reserve, the man was a rock-ribbed conservative until the end), but that his daughter married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. I’m not sure that the random fact that his daughter married into the Rockefeller family gives him anything more than a family connection to later Rockefellers in public service.

Wolraich claims that “history offers a solution to our modern political dysfunction.” (x) If that’s true, which is arguable, what is the lesson here? I would argue that strident opposition to the current system combined with thinking about long-game politics, visualizing the change we want to see and working toward it through the political system but regardless of the next election, may be a useful lesson. That doesn’t mean elections don’t matter, but they don’t solve our problems and focusing only on that goal, as Theodore Roosevelt did and as a whole lot of progressives do today, can make creating long-term change much harder. Ultimately for Wolraich, that’s why La Follette is the more noble political leader, even if Roosevelt has his face blasted into a South Dakota mountain.


FIFA Labor Standards

[ 28 ] June 6, 2015 |


Minky Worden argues at Human Rights Watch that while corruption is a major issue, the new FIFA director needs to prioritize worker safety in building World Cup facilities.

FIFA’s (non-corruption) problems are legion. Migrant workers shouldn’t toil in deadly heat to construct monumental stadiums: no sports fan wants to watch from seats that workers died to build. Sponsors shouldn’t want to promote games in repressive countries that threaten and jail critics. Journalists shouldn’t be beaten and jailed for reporting on abuses tied to the World Cup. Women shouldn’t be banned from watching football matches.

Whoever takes over in FIFA’s top job should act fast to end the abuses against migrant laborers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where workers are bound by an oppressive sponsorship system known as kafala. The new leadership should also insist that ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia prevents the rampant exploitation of migrant workers that the government tolerated for years before last year’s Sochi Olympics.

The recent trend of repressive leaders wanting to host mega-sporting events is one to stop. China, Qatar, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan want to host global contests because it brings the chance to burnish reputations and divert media attention from domestic problems.

As democratic states move away from hosting giant sporting events thanks to the enormous burdens they place on local infrastructure, taxpayers, and the everyday lives of those who live around them, repressive states are becoming more attractive to FIFA and the IOC. That portends a real risk of workplace deaths for those laboring on these sites. The international sporting community must make labor standards a priority in assessing the suitability of a nation to host these events.

Of course, not deciding on these sites by which nation gives voting members the biggest bribes wouldn’t hurt.

Baby Cages

[ 61 ] June 6, 2015 |


If there’s one reason to study the 19th century, it’s to learn lessons on how to raise children. Today’s children are so spoiled, what with their education and not working and playing sports and 8th grade graduation parties and the like. Parents today pay for babysitters instead of just locking the kids in the bedroom for the night. Craziness. If the baby won’t go to sleep, why not dose it with opium? And if the child is in the way, how about hanging it in a cage outside your tenement house window?

Why study the past if we can’t learn lessons for the present?

Corporate Standards

[ 8 ] June 6, 2015 |


Patagonia is receiving some kudos for taking steps to clean up its supply chain. After investigating conditions in its supply chain, mostly at factories in Taiwan, it discovered all the usual problems, including forced labor and slavery. It has set new standards for its suppliers although a compliance mechanism is not really in place yet. Inspections are promised at least.

That’s all a positive step, but I must remain pessimistic that it will lead to much. Patagonia itself bragged that the Obama administration called them in to talk about these new plans, but Walmart was at the meeting as well and we know that it has taken a lead among American industry to do nothing about sourcing problems, including refusing to sign on to standards adopted by European companies in the wake of Rana Plaza. Walmart refused because it feared being held legally accountable.

So whatever Patagonia is doing may in fact be positive. But the point is that a) we won’t know except whatever the company tells us and b) it does not seem that workers themselves will have any power to demand dignified lives. The whole system exists upon the goodwill of Patagonia executives. No fundamental change to injustice can take place if it rests on the goodwill of the powerful. It must be codified into the legal code. If Patagonia really wants to take responsibility here, it needs to also work toward creating a system where not only it but its rivals will have their supply chains be accountable to legal frameworks to ensure that forced labor, unsafe working conditions, sub-minimum wage pay, and other terrible realities of the global race to the bottom are fixed.

I certainly hope Patagonia is taking real steps to improve the lives of the workers making its apparel. But we should not accept the company at its word, nor should we take comfort in the belief that corporations can meaningfully reform supply chain exploitation on their own.

Why Ag-Gag Bills Exist

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |


Above: Pig waste lagoon

While Out of Sight is primarily about international production and how the global race to the bottom protects companies from accountability for their sourcing practices because consumers don’t see them, I have a chapter on food that makes the point that a lot of agriculture can’t leave the U.S. for a variety of reasons, including that some crops only grow in certain places, the cost of shipping meat around the world, freshness issues, etc. But agribusiness still tries to conceal the costs of their production. The most heavy-handed way they have tried to do this in recent years is through ag-gag bills that make it a crime to record the treatment of animals in factory farms, which has been a method animal rights activists have used to publicize the horrors of animal treatment. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent because if agribusiness can make it a crime to have evidence of what happens in their facilities, why can’t every employer do the same?

Anyway, as you might guess, the leaders behind these efforts are not nice people. One is Andy Holt, a farmer and representative in the Tennessee legislature who sponsored that state’s failed attempt to pass an ag-gag bill, a bill which I am sure will be reintroduced in some form. Why would he support such a bill? To protect himself from his own bad behavior.

Tennessee representative Andy Holt, former hog farmer and sponsor of the state’s failed ag-gag bill, created quite a stink when he dumped 800,000 gallons of pig manure into the streams and fields surrounding his hog farm. Holt’s lagoons were apparently overflowing with waste and Holt’s response was simply to dump the waste in the waters and lands nearby, with no regard for the environment or the law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently sent a letter to Holt indicating that absent good cause it would take formal civil enforcement action against him. According to a Memphis news source, Tennessee state officials were considering taking action against Holt at the time this happened, but were “discouraged by upper management” from doing so.

Shocking that the state would fail to prosecute one of their own…. It’s examples just like this why corporations prefer state-level regulation to federal. The states are just easier to buy off and control.

Mapping LA Sprawl

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |


If you like cool visualizations of how sprawl in Los Angeles occurred by noting the age of every building in the city, then this is for you.

Can We Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership?

[ 8 ] June 5, 2015 |


Probably not at this point, but we have to try. Maybe the fact that the Senate fast track bill funded assistance for workers who will lose their jobs thanks to the TPP from Medicare money will convince House Democrats to unite with the Obamahaters to torpedo it. I suspect that won’t work, but maybe.

Focusing on the actual labor conditions of the nations we are encouraging companies to move American jobs to in this agreement certainly can’t hurt. I rarely agree with Bob Menendez about much of anything concerning American foreign policy, but his recent conversion to including minimal labor standards like not engaging in human trafficking is welcome. The recent discovery of mass graves at human trafficking camps on the Malaysia-Thailand border has convinced him that Malaysia should be dropped from the TPP. Given that it is one of the most important nations in it, evicting Malaysia would be a very big deal and would set precedents for nations to uphold labor standards in trade deals that could be expanded to include more stringent policies on goods that will then be sold in the United States.

It’s a hard fight, but we have to try anything to kill the TPP.

What a Glorious Anniversary!

[ 60 ] June 5, 2015 |

Andrew Cuomo

A year ago this week, the Working Families Party decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo for governor. He made “promises” to promote parts of the WFP platform. Guess how that worked out!

From a strict scorecard perspective, the fact is that none of the legislative items that were supposed to have been part of it—from a full women’s equality package, public financing of elections and decriminalization of marijuana, to the Dream Act and a statewide minimum wage indexed to local markets—have become reality.

Same for the political goals: The Independent Democratic Conference is still allied with the Senate Republicans, and the mainline Democrats are still in the minority.

What happened?

W.F.P. says the governor simply broke his end of the bargain.

“The promises Governor Cuomo made would have amounted to a real difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers,” the party’s New York State director, Bill Lipton said in a statement to Capital. “He didn’t keep his promises.”

Clearly no one could have seen this coming!

The WFP not only made a mistake in endorsing Cuomo, but it was an obvious mistake that many commenters noted at the time, including myself. It was terrible politics and it will take a long time for WFP to live it down.

Condiment Wars, Revisited

[ 237 ] June 4, 2015 |

What Cheer Tavern in south Providence already had a legitimate claim to the best bar in the state. And then they gave me this menu tonight:


I like this place even more.

Post-Prohibition Whiskey Raids

[ 23 ] June 4, 2015 |


I’ve long said that the passage of the 18th Amendment was the worst day in American history, but even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states and counties could continue to ban the sale of liquor. Doing so incentivized people to fill the gap by producing their own. Here’s a good series of photos of cops busting bootlegging operations in Alabama over the decades, including the photo above, from 1964.

Race, History, and Naming Buildings at the University of North Carolina

[ 57 ] June 4, 2015 |

William Saunders

The University of North Carolina has long had a building named for former KKK leader William Saunders. Public protest has finally moved to renaming the building “Carolina Hall” (which really, could you be more bland?). But the school’s Board of Trustees can’t go all the way and confront the past. UNC law professor Eric Muller:

The Board of Trustees decreed that the new “Carolina” Hall must feature a historical marker that “explains Mr. Saunders’ contributions to UNC and the State of North Carolina,” the circumstances that led an earlier Board of Trustees to name the building for him and the reason why the current board has chosen to remove his name.

What is noteworthy is the decision to perpetuate the celebration of William Saunders. His name comes down, but an explanation of his contributions to the university and the state goes up. Why does Saunders, gone for almost 125 years, continue to command this honor, an honor bestowed on the KKK leader by his grandchildren’s generation at a time when many were celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and enforcing Jim Crow? Why are we obliged, almost a century later, to perpetuate that generation’s decision to single him out for honor from among all Carolina alumni who had made contributions to the university and the state? Why must we still publicly venerate his “contributions” on the walls of a university building?

The trustees also required the university to adorn the renamed building with a plaque that reads as follows: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At first glance, the statement is pleasing in its timeless generality. But therein lies the problem. The society that Saunders lived in, and the society of two generations later that honored him with the naming, did not practice oppression as a generality. Whites oppressed blacks in the service of white supremacy. Why can this not be said? Indeed, why remember generic “injustices” when what we are actually remembering is “racial persecution”?

The statement even lets the oppressors subtly off the hook. It refers to them as people who “would” deny others their rights. The conditional word “would” strips their persecution of its terrible effectiveness. The truth is not that white supremacy merely aimed to deny blacks their rights – and at times their lives. The truth is that white supremacy actually did those things. Why the equivocating use of the conditional verb?

That’s pretty ridiculous. Whether this all means the Board of Trustees is really perfectly happy with the politics of William Saunders is an open question and one that’s especially salient given the current racism of the North Carolina state government and the Moral Mondays movement that has tapped into the state’s civil rights traditions to resist it. In any case, it’s amazing that not naming a building after a Ku Klux Klan leader is still contentious in 2015. But then an open confrontation with slavery, white violence, and Jim Crow could get awful uncomfortable for people who are doing all they can to strip the franchise from as many African-Americans as possible in the present.

Teaching Tenure Track

[ 38 ] June 4, 2015 |


Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth have a very solid proposal for create tenure-track teaching positions for what would now be contingent faculty. In part:

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

I think this is a solid way forward. I don’t know that administrations would buy into it since they are turning to cheap contingent faculty in order to save money. Providing an alternative tenure track would give those faculty power, which is probably not what the average provost wants. But as far as a just yet realistic proposal from faculty on how to create better lives for contingent colleagues, I think this is a good way forward. As far as some of the professionalization questions some faculty have risen, I basically agree with Bérubé and Ruth up and down the line on how this would improve faculty lives.

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