Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette's long public career in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a U.S. representative, three-term governor, and U.S. senator set precedents for generations of state and federal programs.
La Follette worked on two fronts. He sought institutional changes to place government more directly in the hands of citizens, and he pursued public policies to improve the lot of farmers, workers, children, and women.
On the first front, he dismantled political machines by replacing closed nomination processes with open primaries and by substituting civil service for party patronage. Like other Progressives, he favored short ballots, and popular referenda and recall. He also placed major administrative agencies under the control of citizen boards. On the second front, he advanced programs for unemployment compensation, Social Security, progressive income taxation, and the regulation of the railroad and banking industries. Through his leadership, along with the tireless work of his wife, Belle, Wisconsin became one of the first states to adopt child labor laws and to pass the women's suffrage amendment.
The innovations that characterized the La Follette era frequently arose from discussions among state officials and University of Wisconsin faculty. This interaction became known as the Wisconsin Idea — that public leadership in combination with academic expertise will improve the performance of government. Today, the mission of the La Follette School of Public Affairs is to foster the Wisconsin Idea at all levels of government — and throughout the world.
Learn more in La Follette and His Legacy.