For the first half of the 20th century, Milwaukee was a bastion of socialism, so much so that aspiring leaders elsewhere verbified the Wisconsin city, running on platforms of “Milwaukeeizing” their own hometowns. Now, modern-day Republicans are using that history to raise a familiar specter.
On Monday, after the Democratic National Committee announced it would hold its 2020 presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee, the state’s GOP issued what amounted to a warning: Liberals are trying to Milwaukeeize America.
“No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” said Mark Jefferson, director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, in a statement. “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.”
John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian, fact-checked Jefferson’s claim. And yes, he said in an interview, that’s mostly true — especially when it comes to socialists in the mayor’s office. Milwaukee has had three, more than any other major American city. But, Gurda said, today’s Republican Party and Milwaukee’s ex-mayors probably would have a very different definition of socialism.
For Republicans, socialism is the perpetual boogeyman, an ever-looming threat to democracy. But for Milwaukee residents, especially from 1910 to 1960, socialists were the good-government reformers, Gurda said, the ones cleaning up the corruption that had run rampant in city halls across the country. (In the early 1900s, one Milwaukee city administration faced 276 grand jury indictments.)
“The socialists here were the ones carrying the flag of reform in reaction to the miscreants in office,” he said.
And, at least on an ideological level, the socialists of that time had a surprising amount in common with today’s Republicans. They supported low taxes and opposed public debt. They believed in a “pay-as-you-go” form of governance and, Gurda said, they had an entrepreneurial streak. “They had the same kind of energy as the capitalists,” he said. They built public parks, public schools and a public water system, the last innovation earning them the nickname “Sewer Socialists.”
The movement had its roots in a Milwaukee population that included German intellectuals, immigrants who grew up reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and a large working class that churned out much of the country’s machinery. In 1886, a Milwaukee demonstration in support of the eight-hour workday ended in bloodshed when National Guardsmen shot and killed seven protesters. That day, Gurda said, catalyzed a political faction that would eventually evolve into the Socialist Party.
About 25 years later, the Socialist Party had its biggest election year. In 1910, Milwaukee chose Emil Seidel to be the city’s first socialist mayor, voted a socialist majority to the council and to the county commission, and elected the first socialist congressman, Victor Berger.
“It was a landslide,” Gurda said.
Daniel Webster Hoan, elected in 1916, was the city’s second socialist mayor, presiding until 1940. Historians, Gurda included, consider Hoan Milwaukee’s best leader. Time Magazine featured him on its cover and wrote that, during his administration, “Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U. S.”
In 1948, Frank Zeidler became the city’s third (and most recent) socialist mayor. Even though socialists had by then lost much of their political power, Zeidler won reelection twice, a special feat considering the candidate for Senate who also won Milwaukee during that span: Joseph McCarthy, famous for his red-baiting political scare tactics.
Aims McGuinness, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said in an interview that Zeidler’s and McCarthy’s parallel victories exemplify a mostly forgotten piece of political history: Even as conservatives sought to conflate socialists with the Soviet Union, Zeidler and his contemporaries were deeply anti-communist, something even McCarthy seems to have known at the time.
But the political attacks did come, then as now.
“Socialism has always been the S-word,” Gurda said.
The latest jab, from the Wisconsin GOP, is just a continuation of that, he said. But it would’ve been easier, and perhaps more effective, for Republicans to point out the likelier motivation behind Democrats choosing Milwaukee: If they’re going to defeat President Trump, they’ll probably need to win Wisconsin, a state Hillary Clinton infamously neglected during her 2016 campaign.
“We’re a swing state,” Gurda said. “It makes perfect sense. Hillary Clinton was loudly and roundly criticized for not appearing here. In a small way, it’s amends.”
In a Monday news conference, DNC Chair Tom Perez said as much.
“Where you hold a convention is a very strong statement of your values,” he said. “A very strong statement of who we are as a party.”
If that’s true, then the Wisconsin Republican Party may need to do some soul searching. The location of the GOP’s 2018 state convention: Milwaukee.