Wednesday, April 15


John Gurda, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - To many Americans, socialism means being governed by the government - suffocating under layers of bureaucracy that sop up tax dollars and smother individual initiative.

And that's the positive view. Some critics carelessly lump socialism together with anarchism or even communism. After invoking the "s" word at the recent conservative conference, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff." He conveniently forgot, or perhaps never knew, that most American socialists were sworn enemies of Soviet Communism.

The view from Milwaukee is radically different. I'm not a socialist and never have been, but I can testify that Socialism - with a capital "S"- was one of the best things that ever happened to this city. Without realizing it, even the most red-blooded capitalists are enjoying the fruits of their efforts, from spacious parks to clean streets and from a working infrastructure to an expectation, however frequently disappointed, of honest government.

Before the Socialists took charge, Milwaukee was just as corrupt as Chicago at its worst. Our mayor at the turn of the 20th century was David Rose, a political prince of darkness who allowed prostitution, gambling dens, all-night saloons and influence-peddling to flourish on his watch. Grand juries returned 276 indictments against public officials of the Rose era. . . ."

In 1910, fed-up voters handed Socialists the keys to the city. Emil Seidel, a patternmaker by trade, won the mayor's race in a landslide, and Socialists took a majority of seats on the Common Council. The election was not a fluke. Seidel served from 1910 to 1912, Daniel Hoan from 1916 to 1940 and Frank Zeidler from 1948 to 1960. No other big city in America entrusted its government to the Socialists, much less kept them in office for most of 50 years. That record makes Milwaukee unique in the nation.

What did the Socialists stand for? In his tellingly titled memoir, "A Liberal in City Government," Zeidler described the party's tenets as a hybrid of lofty thoughts and real-world concerns: "The socialist movement was inspired by the hope of a brotherhood of workers, the Cooperative Commonwealth; by a fierce opposition to war; by a belief in the rights of people; by a passion for orderly government; and by a contempt for graft and boodling.". . .

The Socialists set out to win elections, and they built a remarkably effective campaign organization. It was based on a hand-in-glove alliance with organized labor and fueled by the famous "bundle brigade," a platoon of party workers who could reach any household in the city with literature on any issue in any of several languages within 48 hours.

And what did they do once they were in office? They governed, first of all, with unimpeachable integrity. . .

Contrary to popular belief, they did not try to socialize everything in sight. With the exception of the streetcar company, whose services they felt belonged in the public domain (and eventually got there), they accepted the American premise of private ownership. When one of Zeidler's 1948 opponents charged that he would socialize the corner grocery store if he were elected, Zeidler promptly went out and got the endorsement of the Independent Grocers Association.

The key to understanding Milwaukee's Socialists is the idea of public enterprise. They didn't just manage, and they didn't just enforce laws and regulations. They pushed a program of public necessities that had a tangible impact on the average citizen's quality of life: public parks, public libraries, public schools, public health, public works (including sewers), public port facilities, public housing, public vocational education and even public natatoria.

Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith - curiously antique by today's standards - in the goodness of government, especially local government. The Socialists believed that government was the locus of our common wealth - the resources that belong to all of us and each of us - and they worked to build a community of interest around a deeply shared belief in the common good. . .

Time Magazine called Milwaukee "perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S." in 1936, and the community won trophy after trophy for public health, traffic safety and fire prevention. The health prize came home so often that Milwaukee had to be retired from competition to give other municipalities a chance. . .


At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across your blog by chance. Thanks, a great read. Informative, inspiring. Never been to Milwaukee, but now I'll have to read up on its history.


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