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Lessons for the Nader Camp: ‘Fighting Bob’ La Follette in 1924

by Nancy C. Unger on Aug 20, 2000

Nancy C. Unger

            As campaign 2000 moves past the conventions, Ralph Nader, candidate of the Green Party, is again in the limelight. Some pundits predict Nader will draw enough votes away from Vice President Al Gore to give George W. Bush a victory. The potential for Nader to play the spoiler can be assessed by looking at the election of 1924, when Wisconsin Sen. "Fighting Bob" La Follette ran as an independent.

            Back in 1924, press reports predicted that La Follette would carry
Wisconsin and possibly 12 northwestern states. Journalists forecast that La
Follette's power and influence would divide the Republicans, conceivably
forcing the election of the President and Vice President into the House and
Senate respectively. Instead, the majority of citizens projected to vote
for La Follette did not do so — for essentially the same reasons much of
the Nader base will dissolve this November.

            The similarities between Nader and La Follette are legion. Despite La
Follette's long service in the Senate and a previous bid for the presidency
he, like Nader, was viewed as a political outsider. And, like Nader, La
Follette enjoyed a fervent following. La Follette was cast as a righteous
man in a sea of political corruption, a caring man genuinely committed to
protecting consumers, promoting peace and saving the environment.

            Nader is promoted as a maverick, answering only to his conscience, willing
and able to successfully challenge the status quo. A vote for Nader's Green
Party, his supporters urge, will not be a wasted effort. On the contrary,
this vote will be a real blow against corruption and complacency and a
powerful statement for the environment and fair trade practices.

            Like the incumbent party in 1924 — the Republicans seeking to re-elect
Calvin Coolidge — today's Gore supporters are urging Americans to stay the
course of peace and prosperity and not be diverted into voting for a
candidate who can't win.

            There are other similarities between the three candidates in 1924 and
today. Coolidge, like Gore, had striven to distance himself from his
predecessors' scandals (the stories of Harding's personal transgressions,
including an illegitimate daughter conceived in the White House, had yet to
break, but there were already political scandals aplenty). John B. Davis,
the Democratic candidate, was, like George W. Bush, a member of the
establishment elite. "The time has come," declared La Follette in a
statement nearly identical to those issued by today's Green Party, "for a
militant political movement, independent of the two old party
organizations, and responsive to the needs and sentiments of the common

            Like Nader, La Follette's appeal was strengthened by impatience with the
conventional parties' inability to meet ongoing challenges. The press of
the day called the regular party candidates "two colorless, time-serving
political straddlers." "The forces behind La Follette," Supreme Court
Justice Felix Frankfurter concluded in another phrase that could be easily
adopted by today's Nader supporters, "are, at least, struggling and groping
for a dream." Only La Follette offered "fidelity to the interests of the

            La Follette had a miniscule campaign chest but enjoyed the support of many
well known and admired activists, from African-American leader W.E.B Du
Bois to conservationist Gifford Pinchot to humanitarian Helen Keller. La
Follette was the first independent presidential candidate to be backed
officially by the American Federation of Labor. Nader has a similarly small
campaign chest today.

            Democrats today are conjuring up the specter of a conservative triumph if
liberals defect to the Nader camp. Similar tactics were used in 1924. As
the election drew near, the press reported that La Follette's campaign had
"become so important that it has taken precedence over every other issue
presented." This view was encouraged by the two major parties. Each found
it to their advantage to assert that La Follette was showing great strength
at the expense of the other; both credited him with more support than he
really had.

            But what of the outcome? La Follette suffered a sharp decrease in support
just prior to the election. As scholars of third-party movements assert,
voters often flirt with minor party candidates. By Election Day, however,
other considerations prevail: the pull of partisanship, the wearing off of
the third party novelty, and the conviction that a vote for a candidate who
can't possibly win is a wasted vote. In a period of peace and prosperity,
La Follette won only Wisconsin in the Electoral College.

            In this fall's election, Nader will not be bereft of support come Election
Day. He is bound to receive votes from dedicated environmentalists, as well
as from Americans convinced the two major parties have nothing to offer.
But for most disgruntled liberal voters, the satisfactions of their
flirtation with the Nader candidacy will not, in the end, supercede the
imperative of defeating the Republicans. Predictions of an independent
gaining a crucial portion of the vote will once again not be realized.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).