October 21, 2008


John Nichols, Nation - The Republican nominee for president says that his Democratic rival's plan for stimulating the economy sounds "a lot like socialism.". . .

Obama's no socialist. But, as a Wisconsinite, I can't buy the basic premise of McCain's argument.

I grew up in a state where socialism was as American as my friend Frank Zeidler.

Zeidler, an old-school American socialist who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, died two year ago at age 93. His passing was mourned by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, who recognized the gentle radical as one of the most honorable men ever to cross the American political landscape.

Zeidler actually ran for president in 1976 as the nominee of the American Socialist Party. In fairness, it was more an educational campaign than a serious bid for an office that the former mayor never really coveted. Like so many of the great civic gestures he engaged in over eight decades of activism, Zeidler's 1976 campaign promoted the notion that: "There's nothing un-American about socialism."

Campaigning on a platform that promised a shift of national priorities from bloated defense spending to fighting poverty, rebuilding cities and creating a national health care program, Zeidler won only a portion of the respect that was due this kind and decent man and the values to which he has devoted a lifetime.

Had Zeidler been born in another land -- perhaps Germany, where the roots of his family tree were firmly planted -- his Socialist Party run would have been a much bigger deal. Indeed, he might well have been elected.

In most of the world, the social-democratic values that Zeidler advanced throughout his long life hold great sway. Latin America has been experiencing a revival of socialist fervor in recent years. And virtually every European country has elected a socialist government in the past decade. Indeed, the current leaders of Britain and Spain head political parties that are associated with the Socialist International, of which Zeidler's Socialist Party was a U.S. affiliate. In the recent Canadian elections, the socialist New Democratic Party experienced a substantial boost in its parliamentary delegation. . .

For millions of American voters in the past century, socialism was never so frightening as John McCain would have us believe. Rather, it was a politics of principle that added ideas and nuance to a stilted economic and political discourse.

For the most part, Zeidler and his compatriots campaigned along the periphery of presidential politics, especially as the Cold War took hold. But they earned respect in communities such as Milwaukee, where voters kept casting ballots for Socialist candidates even as Joe McCarthy was promoting his "red-scare" witch hunt. . .

"Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a 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," Zeidler told me in an interview several years ago. "And I think our record remains one of many more successes than failures."

Would that John McCain - and, frankly, Barack Obama -- had the intellectual honesty to assess those successes, and the ideals that underpinned them. The candidates would not, necessarily embrace socialism. But they would recognize the absurdity of tossing the "S" word around as an epithet.


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