With the announcement of Milwaukee as the site of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, political opponents wasted no time in raising the specter of the city’s socialist past. Even Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who should be thrilled that his state landed a big event, instead asserted that the city offers the public a “firsthand look” at “Democrats’ extreme policies that would reverse the economic progress made under the Trump administration.”
This attempt by Republicans to make political hay out of the convention announcement might have made little sense to a lot of Americans. After all, many Americans weren’t even alive when Milwaukee’s last socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, left office in 1960. But this history is relevant — and not in the way conservatives think. Long ago though it was, Zeidler’s administrations offer a look at how his brand of socialism, which has been resurrected by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), offered real-life solutions to problems strikingly similar to those facing our country today.
In 1947, Zeidler, a quiet, bespectacled autodidact, bested a field of more than a dozen candidates running for Milwaukee mayor. He proudly embraced the moniker of “Sewer Socialist,” a term bestowed by other members of the Socialist Party of America on socialists who emphasized clean sanitation and other healthy living conditions over a revolutionary change of government.
As Zeidler put it during his first campaign, he did not seek to “socialize the corner grocery store.” Nor did his goals encompass municipal public ownership beyond that which transpired under Democratic leadership in Pittsburgh, Seattle and New Orleans. Socialism for Zeidler expanded upon Franklin Roosevelt’s style of liberalism but rejected revolutionary or extreme measures.
But Zeidler’s municipal governance set high standards for the time. Acclaimed by Fortune magazine (appreciate the irony) and cited approvingly by political scientist Edward Banfield, he accomplished much during his 12 years in office.
Zeidler inherited a city decaying from years of neglect by his caretaker predecessor, a city “sitting in a complacent shabbiness on the west shore of Lake Michigan like a wealthy old lady in black alpaca taking her ease on the beach,” in the words of a local reporter.
Coming into office after World War II, Zeidler also faced a massive housing crisis, as the needs of returning war vets and their growing families outpaced the city’s deteriorating housing stock.
Zeidler’s bread-and-butter achievements breathed new life into Milwaukee, expanding the city’s geographic base from 46 square miles to 98. He established the Milwaukee branch of the University of Wisconsin System, completed the construction of a civic center, paved hundreds of miles of streets and added dozens of miles of street lighting, gutters, curbs and sidewalks.
He faced stiff resistance, however, especially in addressing the housing crisis. Opponents decried government expansion and touted free-market solutions. Zeidler answered such alarms over government’s role in providing fundamental necessities such as housing by highlighting the inherent hypocrisy of these accusations:
“The real estate broker sees ‘creeping socialism’ in federally assisted housing, but he does not see it in federally assisted financing of his own operations. The industrialist sees creeping socialism in Social Security, but not in the new plant built for him with government assistance; the farmer sees creeping socialism in union security, but not at all in federal price supports for milk and farm produce.”
As he addressed crumbling infrastructure, Zeidler was also guided by a deeply considered philosophy of good governance. The mayor envisioned government not as an impersonal machine but as a living entity made up of individuals, each of whom ideally would be dedicated to carrying out the solemn duties of helping fellow citizens. Zeidler embodied his vision of government leadership, which especially at the local level he saw as having one purpose: public welfare.
“Let no one call us materialists,” Zeidler said at a 1956 Socialist Party convention. “We are more concerned with men, their rights, their privileges, their responsibilities to one another, and we believe that when these are solved in the framework of justice and equality, the material advantages will follow.”
At a time of white backlash against growing numbers of African American migrants from the South to Milwaukee, Zeidler’s broad-based vision of the common good set him apart from most local officials as he championed black families’ access to affordable housing and denounced redlining and other discriminatory tactics. He was so viciously attacked for his stance on race that he and his family required round-the-clock police protection during his final run for office in 1956.
Zeidler’s overwhelming reelection victories in the midst of the nation’s “red scare” offer a lesson for his political descendants today. His popularity spoke to voters’ thirst for more than the ability to check off a municipal repair list. In his speeches, detailed election platforms and one-on-one conversations with residents, he drew on the language of universal rights, individuals’ shared humanity and the impermanence of measures not rooted in a virtuous foundation. The ultimate test of a successful democracy, he knew, was far more lasting.
As Zeidler put it, “The many physical improvements we develop today will perish with time. The most magnificent building we can devise will decay. Lasting government therefore cannot be built with brick and stone. It must be built on faith in democracy, on justice, on vision, on honesty and respect for the dignity and rights of our fellow citizens.”
Today we confront similar problems to those that faced Zeidler. Deep racial inequality still plagues the United States. Our infrastructure is decaying with more than 50,000 crumbling bridges and more than 4 million miles of road in need of repair. Like the housing crisis Zeidler worked to combat, obtaining basic necessities such as health care and housing is a struggle for many Americans. And like Zeidler, a new breed of democratic socialist is pushing more of a visionary liberal agenda than a classically socialist one. They, too, have been decried and derided by those who argue that their objectives could not or should not be carried out.
But their vision and its echoes of Zeidler speak to an image of America that transcends the pandering to narrow, self-interest by mainstream politicians, whose pledges are often tightly circumscribed by the size of their corporate donations, an America in which government works for the public welfare. As it was in Milwaukee decades ago, that’s far from a bad choice.