Interview with the Umpire

    Having put off reading Michael Wolraich's "Unreasonable Men" on the Roosevelt/La Follette saga for almost 3 years, the following exchange sprung from my wish to snapshot my reactions before I forgot, as well as take advantage of having the author in our midst. Being historical but somewhat akin to our times, the book provides the opportunity to look at a more crystallized version of today's issues, institutions and personalities. Rather than trying to keep the cross-hairs on a confusing, ever-moving target, we can evaluate these events more leisurely, with the luxury of hindsight and room to contemplate, without getting mired down in too much "he said, she said", thus avoiding the trap of “having a dog in that fight”. Sometimes our emotional attachment to events seems to be our biggest hindrance to grasping them.

    This "Entrevista" took place over email on Michael's return from Mexico ("don't destroy Dagblog while I'm gone!") largely as a single block of questions focused on the book's events and a couple followups. Many thanks to Michael for playing along and giving us a chance to play hookie from the exhausting current political chaos. A followup installment is expected to dig more into contemporary parallels.

    For readability, my questions and comments are in bold or brackets, Michael's in normal type.

     – Peracles Please


    PP:  Again nice job on the book – I wouldn’t have the patience for all the references and continuity. Some of the depictions of people’s thoughts and events are quite stylized – how much of this was you using a bit of poetic liberty vs. availability of this in historical documents?

    MW - Thanks, PP. To create an engaging narrative, I provided as many descriptive details as I could. Though I avoided attributing specific thoughts without direct quotes to back them up, I sometimes described what people believed when the historical record was clear. All the stylized descriptions of events come from news reports and first-hand accounts. They're historically documented, but that doesn't ensure that they're historically accurate, since these documents are not always reliable. I occasionally highlighted inconsistent accounts, such as La Follette and Steffens's diverging recollections of their late-night meeting with TR. There was also an amusing discrepancy between two descriptions of Taft's inaugural. One newspaper described jam-packed, ecstatic crowds; another reported empty seats and unenthusiastic cheers. Sound familiar?


    I was relieved that World War I didn’t appear at all in the book. But I’m curious if you know anything of Europe’s impressions of these American events at the time, and what parallel movements there may have been? 

    The U.S. was less powerful and more remote back then, so Europeans generally paid us less attention than they do today, especially once the drums of August began to beat. They were fascinated by TR because of his celebrity and rugged American-ness but didn't really follow the ins-and-outs of Congress and the parties. And although there were parallel liberal/labor movements occurring in Britain and Europe, I didn't come across much evidence of cross-pollination. But I did find a fascinating quote by British novelist H.G. Wells after he visited Congress during the railroad bill deliberations. I'll provide it in full because it's so resonant today:

    "And here in Washington is the result, a Legislature that fails to legislate, a government that cannot govern, a pseudo-responsible administration that offers enormous scope for corruption, and that is perhaps invincibly intrenched behind the two- party system from any insurgence of the popular will. The plain fact of the case is that Congress, as it is constituted at present, is the feeblest, least accessible, and most inefficient central government of any civilized nation in the world west of Russia. Congress is entirely inadequate to the tasks of the present time.

    "I came away from Washington with my preconception enormously reinforced that the supreme need of America, the preliminary thing to any social or economic reconstruction, is political reform. It seems to me to lie upon the surface that America has to be democratized. It is necessary to make the Senate and the House of Representatives more interdependent, and to abolish the possibilities of deadlocks between them, to make election to the Senate direct from the people, and to qualify and weaken the power of the two-party system by the introduction of "second ballots" and the referendum....

    "But how such drastic changes are to be achieved constitutionally in America I cannot imagine. Only a great educated, trained, and sustained agitation can bring about so fundamental a political revolution, and at present I can find nowhere even the beginnings of a realization of this need."


    I mentioned the garment district fire as a seemingly obvious event left out – did you do this on purpose or by omission? I imagine there’s a lot of paring down to keep a sparse relatable pace going. Are there any other significant items you felt you had to leave out, and any you wish you’d put in in retrospect? 

    I wasn't quite sure how to fit the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire into the narrative, unfortunately. The immediate repercussions were mainly felt in New York state politics and the labor movement, neither of which were the focus of the book. Though the labor movement is closely intertwined with the progressive movement, I just didn't have the time and space to do it justice. Woman's suffrage, race relations, and foreign affairs also received short shrift.


     As your title would imply, this is all about men. Are there any women of the time who come close to being a “power figure”, mattering at all in the pulling of strings, behind the scenes or doubtfully in front?

    This was still the era in which most women were expected to disappear behind husbands. Nellie Taft and Belle La Follette were deeply involved in their husbands' political careers, and Belle's role in the women's rights movement is under-appreciated, but I wouldn't call them power figures. Jane Addams was the best-known and most influential feminist of the period. I mentioned her as a delegate to the Bull Moose convention but definitely didn't give her the attention she deserves. And Ida Tarbell was as prominent as her muckraker colleagues, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, but she didn't have as close a relationship with Roosevelt and La Follette, so she played a smaller role in the book.


     Much of the pressure for reform and change came from the new West, as settlers got past settling and into actual living, including some urbanization. The scenes from Denver and San Francisco are striking, and jarring to the visitors. In view of what we might think of spurring America’s creativity and breaking out of a box, how do you view states’ rights and the electoral college, especially at that time?

    Because it was so difficult to get anything through Congress, many early progressives focused on turning states into laboratories for political reform. Thanks to La Follette, Wisconsin became the model for progressive reform, but a number of other states like Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, and California also passed laws to regulate corporations and reform the political system. One of the big battles of the day was direct election of U.S. senators. Before the 17th Amendment, senators were chosen by state legislatures, which fueled corruption because many of the state political machines were beholden to corporate money. The states couldn't change the constitution, but some passed laws requiring their legislatures to follow the will of the voters when choosing senators.


    La Follette overall comes across quite “reasonable”, except for 1 or 2 circumstances, though he was undoubtedly seen as unreasonable by many of his contemporaries. My earlier impression I thought from you was a more obstreperous character throwing wrenches in the works – do you think you overstate his relative anarchism in discussions, or is his book appearance more subdued, or have I misinterpreted something?

    I think La Follette may seem more "reasonable" today because many of his once-radical tactics and positions have become commonplace. His famous one-man filibuster was unprecedented, and his calls for corporate regulation and political reform, which seemed like pipe dreams at the time, have become the law of the land. He may also seem more reasonable today because hindsight has revealed the method behind his apparent madness. TR and other contemporaries couldn't understand why he kept proposing laws that wouldn't pass and filibustering bills he couldn't stop. After the conservatives' chokehold on power was broken, his strategy seemed more sensible. That said, La Follette was no anarchist. He wanted to reform his Republican Party, not destroy it, so I apologize if I've given you a different impression in my comments.

    Blacks appear briefly both due to the military incident and the capitulation to keeping them from voting. Who were the black power brokers of the time, and did they ever get close to having their own mini-revolution or breakthrough?  

    Booker T. Washington was the most famous African-American leader of the era (TR caused a scandal early in his first term by dining with him). But Washington was a moderate who favored compromise and accommodation. W. E. B. Du Bois, who was more radical, criticized his methods, but none of these guys were as ambitious or revolutionary as subsequent black leaders from the Civil Rights era. True equality was still a distant dream; most black leaders focused on the more pressing problems of lynching and education.


    One impression I’d always had was that the North had reduced the number of train tracks in the South both to pre-war competition/bias, and post-war revenge (especially for travel to the West), though as I look to the maps, it doesn’t look that bad. In your readings about railways, did you get any sense of divide there, such as might have played out in shipping rates instead of actual miles of track, or was it all just open price gouging and selective pricing wherever you were? Anything else to note of the South’s influence or lack of in this period? (I think it was the beginning of the great migration, but maybe off a few years) 

    I'm familiar with the track-gauge controversy, but I'm not aware of the North deliberately restricting Southern rail development. The tracks were all privately built and managed until the mid-20th century, so the federal government didn't play much role in their development. Western railroads were often built on public land, which the feds could conceivably have restricted, but they usually let industry have its way. In any case, I didn't come across complaints of North/South regional discrimination in the early 20th century. The hardest hit places were small towns and cities without competitive rail lines, which put them at the mercy of the monopolies, so Western rural areas suffered most.

    [N.B. after a bit of research, besides the destruction from the Civil War that was repaired fairly quickly, the biggest complications for the South seem to be the continued dependence on lower profit, undiversified agricultural transport along with use of a slightly wider gauge track that prevented sending trains onward to northern and western lines. This was largely corrected by the 1890’s when JP Morgan consolidated most of the tracks below the Mason-Dixon into Southern Railways – PP]


    1900-1912 is a pretty fertile period for transition and larger-than-life figures. Assuming the 20th century has been pretty well dredged to death, are there any earlier times you see as attractive to mine for real detail and explore in a similarly satisfying way? (Two I think of are the 1800-1820 - similar territorial breakthroughs, changes in philosophy, early scientific revolution - while 1912-1917 offers Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, the way out West moderating any Eastern eagerness to jump into Europe’s business, plus the chance to recycle some of your notes ;-)

    It's a good question. To your list, I'd add the Gilded Age [1870s-1900], when industrialization was exploding and political reformers fought the spoils system. Check out Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. 

    [“Destiny” covers the 1881 shooting and 11-week demise of James Garfield (almost wrote “James Garner”) at the hands of a crazed rejected aspirant for French ambassador who didn’t speak French - PP]

    I also imagine the Panic of 1901 similarly fed your book’s problems, with the ruination of many small investors out west, especially for its corrupt consolidation of the rail industry, put the stink to that industry’s sheen even prior to 1907 capping off things.

    Economic insecurity and populism are related, and the Panic of 1907 spurred the discontent that was spreading across the country, but there is a temptation to blame populism on economic crisis, which is too pat. Populist movements build over decades, not months. The progressive movement grew out of rural granger movements from the 1870s, and today's conservative populism started in the 1970s. (Pat Buchanan's 1992 political campaign was a mirror image of Trump's, right down to the slogan, "America First"). Financial crises don't create populist movements; they amplify them.


    I recall you asking for help in naming the book, and I must admit I thought it curious – isn’t that the icing on the cake? I always enjoy either rounding my writing off to match the title, or coming up with a new one that fits where I’ve gone. What were your thoughts in opening this up for others’ input? 

    Little known fact: The publisher officially chooses the title, not the author (although they usually work with the author to compose it). My original title was The Oligarchy: How Progressive Rebels Smashed the Republican-Big Business Machine, but my agent didn't like it. My second title was When the War Began: Teddy Roosevelt, Republican Progressives, and the Birth of Modern Politics, but my publisher didn't like it. I spent weeks trying to come up with a replacement and sought help from anyone I could find. A friend and fellow writer suggested Unreasonable Men, which alludes to a George Bernard Shaw quote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." It's a fitting epigraph for the book, I think, and I've been very happy with the title--so much more than the awful title of my first book, which the publisher chose.

    [I suppose we can call this “throwing Grandma under the bus” – PP]


    I’ve long held that philosophies are important for defining the spirit of each age – that we neglect the importance of  philosophical movements and that we reframe our possibilities and philosophical outlook based on these changes – e.g. Heisenberg uncertainty, scientific revolution/engineering, the nuclear age, rugged individualism, etc. If you agree, how would you succinctly summarize the philosophical movement of your book and ignoring the war, what replaced it?

    That's an excellent question. One big philosophical influence was Marx. The socialist movement was strong in those days, attracting as much as 6 percent of voters. TR and La Follette were not socialists, but they positioned themselves between socialism and unfettered capitalism. TR in particular worried that if America failed to appease the public by regulating capitalism, a socialist revolution might become inevitable.

    Another influence was the rise of soft sciences--economics, sociology, political science, etc. Progressives often called for "scientific" experts to replace political hacks and corporate stooges. La Follette pioneered a policy partnership between the state government and the University of Wisconsin known as the "Wisconsin Idea."

    Both philosophies carried through into the New Deal. Think of FDR's public works projects and his "brain trust" of expert advisors. But socialist ideas fell out of favor after Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, and scientific policy-making has been undermined by partisanship, especially on the right. One of our problems in the 21st century is that we lack a coherent philosophical framework to guide our policy.


    Seeing as 1 of the 4 new amendments spawned by this era was the rather disastrous Prohibition on alcohol, and you hint at some growing religious fervor, 1) was there an actual public health crisis component that contributed to anti-drinking sentiment, and 2) was there a significant change in the country’s religious mood and belief in this period that both affected our outlook and contributed to the progressive/populist uprising? 

    There was a perceived public health crisis. I don't know whether alcoholism was any worse than it is today, but there was a lot of talk about ruined lives and neglected children, particularly among the poor--much the same way people talked about crack in the 1980s and opiates today. The temperance movement united well-meaning social reformers with religious fundamentalists.

    That said, temperance was more a populist policy than a progressive policy. The populists were mainly rural Democrats in the mode of William Jennings Bryan (of Scopes Monkey fame). The progressives were originally Republican, and the tended to be more cosmopolitan. Neither TR or La Follette were very religious, for example.


    So isn’t this where the same-old same-old comes in – a progressive resistance to an entrenched & corrupt conservative establishment teamed up with a religious-fervored populist movement? Similarly the swing-balance between rural, semi-rural (slowly getting acclimated & assimilated) and urban, where Wisconsin’s balanced precariously in the middle of next-gen’s movement politics? We’ve stopped our physical expansion, but it seems the differing rate of economic, political and cultural change produces similar fractures.

    Yes, you're right about factional divisions in the old progressive movement, and there are similar divisions between conservatives today--one reason Republicans have had so much trouble passing legislation. They include movement conservatives like Paul Ryan, populist nationalists like Donald Trump, and bible thumpers like Mike Pence. These three represent a fractious  ménage-à-trois of convenience that dates back to early days of the modern conservative movement. Barry Goldwater, for example, repudiated the nationalist John Birch Society in 1962 and later said of religious right pioneer Jerry Falwell, "I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass."

    The factional fault lines create vulnerability, but they don't guarantee imminent disintegration. The progressive alliance lasted more than half-a-century before Vietnam and Civil Rights blew it apart. Notwithstanding Goldwater's comments, the conservative alliance has held together since the 1970s. For the alliance to fail, progressives would have to pry off one or more of these factions.


    That’s a wrap – thanks for virtual kaffee klatsch (I suppose I should have asked for a digital book signing in my Kindle copy as well....). Hopefully this will help to spawn some similar Creative Corner bookclub activity to fill the void sadly left by our friend Mr. Smith, plus I expect this will segue nicely into how Unreasonable Men relates to political trends and meditations on how to build the next popular movement. 






    Thank you both for this!

    Thanks. In this time of intense feelings it´s a delight to read such a sensible exchange.

    Stimulating read guys. Thanks for taking the time! 

    The Wells quote I find oddly reassuring. Like things can get this bad and we can claw our way back from the brink of the abyss. It may have taken a world war and a full-blown depression, but it is possible. Can't wait to read the details of La Follette, sounds amazing. I particularly love how his name connotes the-little-crazy-girl in French. 

    Michael's last conclusion about having to hive off one part of the right-wing coalition - bible-thumpers, white nationalists, or movement conservatives sounds really depressing. I've always suspected that Ryan-style movement conservatism has no real backing to it. No one outside of CNBC has any desire to destroy SS and Medicare. Bible-thumpers I have long suspected only care about the vagina-related and butt-related parts of the bible, and appeals to any other parts of the bible about loving thy neighbor and compassion and charity is just jibberish to them. And white nationalists are, well, just pure evil through and through. So I don't see a solution there. Not framed in that way anyway. 

    "Like things can get this bad and we can claw our way back from the brink of the abyss." That was part of my point in writing the book, to understand how the corrupt, dysfunctional Gilded Age regime gave way to the dynamic achievements of the Progressive Era. The good news is that the tide can change more quickly than anyone expects. The bad news is that achieving such changes is wrenching. As Wells put it, "Only a great educated, trained, and sustained agitation can bring about so fundamental a political revolution."

    As for splitting the right-wing coalition, I don't think it means luring entire factions. Rather you appeal to sympathetic members by emphasizing common ground. For example, you might appeal to evangelicals and Catholics by focusing on compassion and humility and downplaying the sex stuff. (It's worth remembering that before the rise of the religious right, Catholics were overwhelming Democratic, and evangelicals had no clear affiliation.) Of course, many sex/abortion-obsessed Christians will be deaf to such appeals, but you don't need to reach everyone. You just have to divide the vote. Similarly, not all "nationalists" are hard-core white-supremacists, and you can address this group's patriotism and fear of globalism without demonizing non-white immigrants. Sanders attempts to do that that by denouncing free trade and challenging the H1-B program. I'm not necessarily advocating these tactics, just pointing out how it might be done without sacrificing core principles.

    It's instructional to remember that contraception wasn't controversial for Protestants a generation ago. Much re-education went into that shift. Weirdly, everything's fungible but we don't seem to get people to shift with logic. In the good ol' white south, I fired a gun twice growing up (1 time felt like the shotgun almost took my shoulder off...) and *nobody* outside that single skeet outing showed any interest whatsoever in guns or hunting. - fast cars, booze & grass, loud music and getting laid - the movie Dazed & Confused nails it. How 40 years of propaganda turned stoners into straight-laced Jesus freaks clinging to guns and religion is a tale worth telling (and reversing).

    It is the framing of the problem and hence the solution that I would disagree with. I don't necessarily see Trump's coalition as divisible into those three parts. We like to reduce Trump's core support to white nationalism. Irrespective of the causes of the economic worries, he addressed and formulated those worries and offered a convenient set of scapegoats - anyone non-white or foreign. Meanwhile the democrats just ceded the field, not offering an alternative definition and diagnosis of their problems, at least not in any cogent manner. If you offer just *some** kind of responsiveness to the economic worries, then that will you get traction without necessarily having to demonize any particular groups. Except the banks. always demonize the banks! ;0)

    It's not Trump's coalition. George W. was elected by the same coalition, as was the Republican majority that has dominated Congress for 18 of the last 22 years. The relative strength of the various factions has shifted over years, but this coalition has been operative since the 1960s and ascendant since the 1990s. The 2016 presidential election is just its latest and most stunning victory. After Trump, there will be more--until the coalition is diminished or broken.

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