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When Socialism Was Tried in America—and Was a Smashing Success

For much of the 20th century, Milwaukee was run by socialists—and Time magazine called it “one of the best-run cities in the U.S.”

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Dan Hoan, Milwaukee’s mayor from 1916 to 1940. (Milwaukee Public Library / Historic Portrait Collection), (Milwaukee Public Library / Historic Portrait Collection)

If I owned all the real estate in the world, I wouldn’t feel so powerful as I do on the streets of this socialist city,” declared former New York City councilman Baruch Vladeck when he arrived in Milwaukee in 1932 for the Socialist Party’s national convention in that city.

Norman Thomas, the famed civil-rights and economic-justice campaigner who became the party’s presidential nominee that year, celebrated the fact that he was chosen for that honor in a city governed by Socialists. The success of Milwaukee under then-Mayor Dan Hoan, Thomas said, was proof that the party’s social-democratic “dreams will someday come true.”

“Someday” was dramatically delayed by the results of the 1932 elections. The Socialist ticket did well, securing almost 900,000 votes nationwide and registering its highest percentage of the total vote in Wisconsin. The winner of that year’s race, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took notice: He met with Thomas after the election and borrowed liberally from proposals that had long been championed by the Socialists—for a Social Security system, unemployment compensation, strengthened labor unions, and public-works programs. Roosevelt’s New Deal took the wind out of the Socialist Party’s sails in the national arena, but the party remained a force in Milwaukee for decades to come.

Now that Milwaukee has been selected as the host city for another national convention—that of the Democrats in 2020—Republicans have suddenly discovered its history. “No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” griped Wisconsin Republican Party director Mark Jefferson. “And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle. It’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee.” Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson said the Milwaukee convention would provide a “firsthand look” at “the risk of Democrat socialistic tendencies.”

Apart from the fact that Wisconsin’s top Republicans don’t seem to like the state—or its history—very much, the GOP response is comic. Many Wisconsinites know that their state has a long, rich socialist tradition, and that Milwaukee’s association with it is one of the coolest things about the city. It even earned a mention in the movie Wayne’s World, when rocker Alice Cooper explains, “I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three Socialist mayors.”

The Democratic Party is not a socialist party, but the delegates to its 2020 convention might nominate a democratic socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, for president. And when they convene in Wisconsin’s largest city next summer, they shouldn’t hesitate to take the Republicans up on their call to highlight lessons from Milwaukee’s Socialist past. Doing so will strengthen the hand of the party’s eventual nominee, whether it’s Sanders or another of the contenders, all of whom will surely be labeled “socialist” by Donald Trump and his troll army.

Instead of fearing mention of the S-word, Democrats can and should approach it as smart Republicans have the L-word—“libertarian.” Republicans frequently borrow from the libertarian lexicon and toolbox, and acknowledge as much, without abandoning their essential partisanship. Democrats ought to be similarly limber. It’s great that the party now has a strong democratic-socialist wing, which includes Sanders and members of Congress like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib. But Democrats who do not identify as socialists can still follow the lead of FDR and the late senator Edward Kennedy, who worked closely with and celebrated the ideas and ideals of democratic socialist Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, a groundbreaking study on poverty. Another 2020 Democratic presidential contender—Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana—gets it right when he says that the old Republican strategy of attaching a “socialist” label to every progressive idea is just that: old. “Today, I think a word like that is the beginning of a debate, not the end of the debate,” explains the most millennial of the Democrats’ presidential prospects.

Buttigieg says that the S-word has “lost its ability to be used as a kill switch on debate,” arguing: “If someone my age or younger is weighing a policy idea, and somebody comes along and says, ‘You can’t do that—it’s socialist,’ I think our answer is going to be, ‘OK, is it a good idea or is it not?’”

Polling tells us that young voters are more comfortable with socialism than capitalism. Older voters may still be susceptible to Republican appeals rooted in Cold War hysteria, but the challenges posed by the existential crisis of climate change and the radical transformation of our economy in an age of AI-driven automation are going to make everyone far more open to radical responses. And many of the best of these—especially those that call for expanding the social-welfare state—will draw from historic and contemporary socialist thinking.

Democrats can get ahead of the curve and disarm Trump and the trolls by embracing the opportunity that Milwaukee offers to talk about socialism as it has existed and succeeded in the United States. For American socialists in the 20th century, Milwaukee was a political mecca, a city that tested and confirmed the validity of their ideas. Vladeck, then the manager of The Jewish Daily Forward (these days known simply as The Forward), called it an example of “the America of tomorrow.”

Socialists were proud to point to Milwaukee, which had a Socialist mayor for most of the period from 1910 to 1960, as a model of sound and equitable governance. And they were not alone: During Hoan’s 24-year tenure, Time magazine reported, “Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U.S.”

Hoan also took on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, at a time when politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties were compromising with the violent racists as they extended their reach from the South to northern cities. “The Ku Klux Klan will find Milwaukee a hotter place to exist in than Hades itself,” the mayor declared in 1921.

Hoan’s integrity, along with his managerial skills, would eventually earn him recognition as one of the 10 finest municipal leaders in American history. In The American Mayor, his groundbreaking 1999 assessment of municipal governance in cities across the country, Melvin Holli wrote: “Although this self-identified socialist had difficulty pushing progressive legislation through a nonpartisan city council, he experimented with the municipal marketing of food, backed city-built housing, and was a fervent but unsuccessful champion of municipal ownership of the street railways and the electric utility. His pragmatic ‘gas and water socialism’ met with more success in improving public health and in providing public markets, city harbor improvements, and purging graft from Milwaukee politics.”

Emil Seidel and Frank Zeidler, the mayors who served before and after Hoan, were Socialists as well. And Milwaukee voters elected dozens of Socialists to the city council, county board, school board, state legislature, and Congress. Milwaukee’s Socialists were so fiscally and socially responsible that historians to this day hail them as exemplars of a uniquely American form of democratic socialism. Zeidler once explained to me, “Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for the common good can produce a greater benefit both for society and for the individual than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest.”

That worked well for Milwaukee in the 20th century—so much so that “socialism” ceased to be a scare word for the city’s residents. What frightens Republicans today is that “socialism” is ceasing to be a scare word in our contemporary national discourse.

John Nichols is The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent. He is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books, and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.

Copyright c 2019 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.

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