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August 1, 2007

Feingold and La Follette

On Monday evening, I went to a party to celebrate my friend Sandy Horwitt's recently released book, Feingold: A New Democratic Party. I haven't read the whole book yet, but it's very engaging. I share Sandy's view that Senator Russ Feingold is a fitting successor to Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., who held the same seat a century ago. La Follette is the hero of my New Progressive Era, and I wrote quite a lot about him that didn't make the final cut. I spent some time with his papers and read most of the major studies of him. La Follette was a true hero, but he was a tragic hero, most of whose causes failed. The reason, I think, is that he never resolved some fundamental dilemmas of modern democratic politics: how to make government effective without making it technocratic; how to mobilize people for popular reform without reducing their capacity to deliberate and form their own views; how to appeal to common interests without losing sight of the particular interests that make us human; how to separate the public sector from private money without shielding government from innovation; how to retain the spirit of the neighborly community in a mass society.

On the basis of Sandy Horwitt's book, it appears that Senator Feingold is a serious student--and emulator--of La Follette. The modern Senator has the same moral compass as Fighting Bob. He is reacting to the current war much as La Follette responded to World War One, and he abhors G.W. Bush much as La Follette denounced Wilson. (Those two presidents are similar, I've argued.) Feingold is as independent as the founder of the Progressive Party was. But I don't think that Feingold, or anyone in our time, has resolved the problems of mass democracy that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. His agenda of political reform lacks a large and passionate constituency, and that's because of the atomization and technical rationality of modern society. Sandy evokes the small-town Wisconsin values that shaped both La Follette and Feingold (many decades apart), but he doesn't say--because nobody knows--how to make those values salient in a nation of 300 million.

August 1, 2007 10:18 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments

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