A bulletin from an earlier era of American political paralysis.
A century ago, much of America was frustrated and angry with a do-nothing Congress held captive by wealthy interests and controlled by obstructionist Republicans led by Sen. Nelson Aldrich and the colorful speaker of the house, Joe Cannon. Wolraich (Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual, 2010) ably explores the birth of the movement within the Republican Party that broke the legislative logjam and released a torrent of reformist legislation, but at the cost of splitting the party and electing a Democratic president and Congress. The Progressives were the tea party of their day, led by Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette of Wisconsin, and they were viewed by the party establishment as unreasonable extremist nuisances. They rejected compromises and half-measures as sops intended only to delay genuine reform and campaigned against fellow Republicans who obstructed them. Their attitude exasperated Theodore Roosevelt, a moderate reformer who, during his presidency, advocated only for politically palatable incremental change before seizing the Progressive banner from La Follette during the wildly contentious election of 1912. These shifts in influence among the Progressives, moderates and conservative "standpatters" occupy Wolraich more than the personalities of the Progressives themselves; La Follette's allies appear only as spear-carriers, and their crafty opponents loom at least as large here. The author's lively prose struggles to overcome the narrative challenge presented by the points of congressional contention at the time: tariff schedules and railroad rate regulation, issues that understandably fail to hold modern readers’ passions. A clearer distinction among the platforms of the Republican Progressives, the Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan and the ultimately triumphant Woodrow Wilson would also have been helpful.
Though he breaks no new ground, Wolraich presents an engaging survey of a movement's progress from radical extremism to conventional wisdom.