a1 University of Southern Denmark
The conundrum of Progressive Era reform flowering simultaneously with the institutionalization of Jim Crow, the establishment of the Asiatic Barred Zone, and the introduction of European immigration restriction fascinates historians, even as it agitates them. From a contemporary, post-civil-rights-era perspective there is something deeply disturbing—and disappointing—about progressivism and racial and ethnic bigotry apparently going hand in hand. Was progressivism inherently racist and ethnically chauvinistic, or are we dealing simply with a case of practically minded politicians bowing to bigotry to achieve political results? An investigation of the ethnic and racial side of Robert M. La Follette Sr. hardly promises to answer this question fully. The progressive movement remains well-nigh impossible to pin down in exact analytical terms. Still, it may be argued that La Follette was an unusually uncompromising politician who proved willing, at least during the latter part of his career, to sacrifice practical results for idealistic principles. If La Follette's progressivism was of a purer strain than that of many a result-oriented pragmatic politician, was it less bigoted?
(Online publication June 23 2011)
Jørn Brøndal is an associate professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark and president of the Danish Association for American Studies. His book, Ethnic Leadership and Midwestern Politics: Scandinavian Americans and the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890–1914 (2004), earned him a Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award of Merit.