Konopacki 11/6

Eight years ago, my colleague John Nichols wrote a book titled, "The 'S' Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism."

"Socialist ideas, now so frequently dismissed not just by the Tories of the present age but by political media elites that diminish and deny our history, have shaped and strengthened America across the past two centuries," he wrote back in 2011.

That doesn't mean that America is a socialist country, he added, "but it does mean that, to know America, to understand and appreciate the whole of this country's past, its present and perhaps its future, we must recognize the socialist threads that have been woven into our national tapestry."

I was reminded of John's book while reading a recent column in the New York Times by Dan Kaufman, the Madison West High grad, New Yorker contributor and author of the best-selling book, "The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics."

Like Nichols did in his book, Kaufman recalls the the decades-long era of the Milwaukee "sewer Socialists" in a column headlined: "The City Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez Would Have Loved to Live In," a reference, of course, to Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom have been mocked by Republicans and some Democrats as dreaded socialists.

Actually, as Kaufman observes in his column, the experiments with socialism in this country weren't dreaded at all.

In fact, Milwaukee flourished under socialism. When socialists won 21 of 35 city council seats and the mayor's office in 1910 (and sent 14 socialists to the state Legislature) the city embarked on unprecedented reform.

"There was no need to go on a 'listening tour' to find out what the working class wanted, since so many of the party's newly-elected officials were workers themselves," Kaufman pointed out. "They installed hundreds of drinking fountains, prosecuted restaurateurs for serving tainted food and compelled factory owners to put in heating systems and toilets."

The city's socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, appointed an aggressive new health commissioner, whose department, Kaufman noted, "oversaw a reduction of more than 40% of cases of the six leading contagious diseases, among them scarlet fever, whooping cough and smallpox within two years."

But, what was even more significant was the socialists' integrity.

"They never were approached by the lobbyists, because the lobbyists knew it was not possible to influence these men," Kaufman quotes William Evjue, then a member of the state Assembly before founding The Capital Times.

It was a stark contrast to the corruption that had permeated so much of the state's political process at the turn of the 20th century.

The Milwaukee socialists, who became known as the "sewer socialists" because of their concentration on building and improving infrastructure, suffered a setback in 1912, but regained control in 1916. New socialist mayor Daniel Hoan was elected and served until 1940, presiding over more civic improvements, including adding miles of parkland to Milwaukee's lake front.

Socialist Frank Zeidler became mayor in 1948 and survived U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy's Red Scare, during which socialists were subjected to absurd charges about their Americanism — as some are today.

The truth is that American socialists held and continue to hold views about how government should serve the people remarkably similar to what Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, believed. Everything from Social Security to Medicare are socialist ideas. So are public housing, public parks systems, and, yes, adequate water systems and sewers.

Many of today's politicians suggest that there's something sinister about socialists, suggesting that the ideology is something akin to communism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Their bottom line is economic equality. It's what they stood for in Milwaukee's heyday, and it's what they stand for today.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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