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Milwaukee to host Democratic Convention

This 2017 photo shows the Milwaukee Art Museum, on Lake Michigan, and the downtown skyline of Milwaukee. The Democratic National Committee has selected Milwaukee to host the 2020 national convention. 

“If I owned all the real estate in the world, I wouldn’t feel so powerful as I do on the streets of this socialist city,” declared former New York City Councilman Baruch Vladek when he arrived in Milwaukee for the Socialist Party convention of 1932.

The man whom the Socialists nominated for president at the first national party convention to be held in Milwaukee, civil rights and economic justice campaigner Norman Thomas, celebrated the fact that he had been chosen in a city that was governed by Socialists. The success of Milwaukee under Socialist Mayor Dan Hoan, he announced, was proof that the social democratic “dreams will someday come true.”

That “someday” was dramatically delayed by the results of the 1932 elections. The Socialist ticket ran well, securing almost 900,000 votes nationally and winning its highest percentage of the total vote in Wisconsin. The winner of that year’s race, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, noticed. FDR met with Thomas after the election and borrowed liberally from proposals that had long been advanced by the Socialists — for Social Security, unemployment compensation, strengthening labor unions and investing in public works programs. FDR’s “New Deal” took the wind out of the Socialist Party as a force in national politics. But the party remained a force in Milwaukee for decades to come.

Now that Milwaukee has been selected as the host city for another national convention, that of the Democrats in 2020, Wisconsin’s Republicans have suddenly discovered Milwaukee’s history. “No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee,” griped Wisconsin Republican Party Director Mark Jefferson. “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.” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said the Milwaukee convention would provide a "firsthand look" at “the risk of Democrat socialistic tendencies.”

Apart from the fact that these top Republicans don’t seem to like Wisconsin — or its history — very much, the GOP response is comic. Many Wisconsinites know that this state has a long, rich socialist tradition, and that Milwaukee’s association with it is one of the coolest things about the city. It even earned mention in the movie “Wayne’s World,” where rocker Alice Cooper explained, “I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it's the only major American city to have ever elected three Socialist mayors.”

The Democratic Party is not a socialist party. But delegates to its 2020 convention might nominate a democratic socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for president. And Democrats should not hesitate to take the Republicans up on their call to highlight lessons from Milwaukee’s Socialist past.

For American Socialists in the 20th century, Milwaukee was a political mecca, a city that tested and confirmed the validity of their ideas. Vladek, the manager of the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, said Milwaukee offered an example of “the America of tomorrow.”

Socialists were proud to point to Milwaukee, a city led by party members for most of the period from 1910 to 1960, as a model for sound and equitable governance. And they were not alone in doing so. During Dan Hoan’s 24-year tenure as the Socialist mayor of Wisconsin’s largest city, Time magazine reported, “Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U.S."

Hoan also took on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, at a time when politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties were compromising with the violent racists who sought to extend their reach from the South to Northern cities. “The Ku Klux Klan will find Milwaukee a hotter place to exist in than Hades itself,” declared the mayor in 1921.

Hoan’s integrity, along with his managerial skills, would eventually earn him recognition as one of the 10 finest municipal leaders in American history. In his groundbreaking 1999 assessment of municipal governance in cities across the country, "The American Mayor," Melvin Holli wrote: “Although this self-identified socialist had difficulty pushing progressive legislation through a nonpartisan city council, he experimented with the municipal marketing of food, backed city-built housing, and was a fervent but unsuccessful champion of municipal ownership of the street railways and the electric utility. His pragmatic 'gas and water socialism' met with more success in improving public health and in providing public markets, city harbor improvements, and purging graft from Milwaukee politics.” 

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Socialist Mayors Emil Seidel and Frank Zeidler served before and after Hoan. The city’s voters also elected dozens of Socialists to the City Council, County Board, School Board, state Legislature and Congress. The Milwaukee Socialists were so fiscally and socially responsible that historians to this day hail them as exemplars of a uniquely American form of democratic socialism. Zeidler explained to me: “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.”

That worked well for Milwaukee in the 20th century. So much so that the word “socialism” ceased to be frightening for Milwaukeeans. Zeidler saw this as a form of political evolution that might eventually go national.

"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time. Maybe that's true,” explained Zeidler. “But can't people be educated? Can't people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world."

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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