Bernie Sanders at Monona Terrace

When Sen. Bernie Sanders sought the Democratic nomination for president, he proudly touted his socialist credentials, and evidence indicates that he has sparked a resurgent interest in socialism across the nation. Last October, about 1,200 people filled a meeting room at Monona Terrace to hear him supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A century ago, Wisconsin — and Milwaukee in particular — was a stronghold for socialists in this country. PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

When a thousand socialists from across the United States gathered in Chicago over the weekend for the biennial convention of the Democratic Socialists of America, DSA national director Maria Svart declared: “What we're seeing today is historic: the largest gathering of democratic socialists in an era.“

Since the 2016 election, Svart is delighted to report, “tens of thousands of democratic socialists have come together to build a future for this country in which everyone has the right to a decent job, a good home, a free college education for their children, and health care for their family. For years, we've been sold hope and promised change by Wall Street politicians — now we're taking matters into our own hands.”

DSA got a big boost from the surge of interest in democratic socialism that extended from the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who upended decades of right-wing histrionics and media neglect bordering on malpractice when he declared: "Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word. When I ran for the Senate the first time, I ran again st the wealthiest guy in the state of Vermont. He spent a lot on advertising — very ugly stuff. He kept attacking me as a liberal. He didn’t use the word ‘socialist’ at all, because everybody in the state knows that I am that."

Far from being harmed by his embrace of the S word, Sanders benefited from the fact that he was not another apologist for a capitalist experiment that had produced market instability, cruel austerity and scorching income inequality. Young people, in particular, were excited about alternatives.

DSA has invited them into the fold, and thousands joined. The group’s membership has tripled over the past year — to 25,000. It now has 177 local groups in 49 states and the District of Columbia. And DSA members are running for and winning local offices across the country.

This is a striking development.

But it has happened before.

Socialists once governed great American cities, helped to define the politics of states across the country, and played a critical role on the national stage. The Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas had many bases of strength (and exists to this day, along with DSA, Socialist Alternative and a burgeoning array of socialist organizations).

From 1910 to 1960, the strongest of these bases was in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee was not just a “hotbed of socialism.” What was then one of the largest and most prosperous of American cities was run by Socialists. The first member of the Socialist Party to govern a major American city, Emil Seidel, took charge of Milwaukee in 1910 (with the poet Carl Sandburg as his aide), two years before he would run for the vice presidency on a Socialist ticket headed by Debs. The Debs-Seidel ticket pulled close to 1 million votes nationally — 6 percent of the total cast in an election year that saw Democrat Woodrow Wilson, “Bull Moose” Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and even Republican William Howard Taft borrow ideas from the Socialists. By the end of 1912, the Socialist Party had elected mayors, city councilors, school board members and other officials in 169 cities from Butte, Montana, to New York City. In several states, the Socialists were so successful that they were no longer seen as a “third” or “minor” party.

Wisconsin was one of those states. Republicans held the majority of state legislative seats during the 1910s and 1920s, while Socialists usually formed the major opposition caucus; Democrats were an afterthought. When those legislatures ushered in many of the reforms that would define Wisconsin as America’s “laboratory of democracy,” progressive Republicans associated with Robert M. La Follette worked with the Milwaukee Socialists to advance the agenda.

The Milwaukee Socialists did not just influence Madison. They influenced Washington. The first Socialist elected to the U.S. Congress, Milwaukeean Victor Berger, took his seat in 1911 and held it, on and off, until 1929. Far from being marginalized, Berger worked closely with the “insurgent” Republican caucus that included La Follette, New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia and the great progressive leaders of the era.

When La Follette mounted an independent progressive campaign for the presidency in 1924, the Socialist Party endorsed his candidacy and Debs hailed the campaign’s calls for supporting public ownership of utilities, strengthening labor unions, protecting the rights of women and minorities, defending civil liberties, and preventing wars and war profiteering.

La Follette carried Wisconsin, finished second in 11 Western states and won more than 5 million votes nationwide (17 percent of the total). When some comrades questioned endorsing a lifelong Republican, the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Daniel Hoan, said of La Follette: “He says the supreme issue is whether the wealth of the nation shall remain in the hands of the privileged few … Is not that the thing we have been ding-donging for 40 years?”

The Socialist Party faded as a national force after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal stole many of its ideas and much of its thunder. But democratic socialism never disappeared from the American landscape.

Seventy years after Emil Seidel took charge of Milwaukee with a declaration that “socialists are prepared to govern,” Bernie Sanders took charge of Burlington, Vermont, as a proud democratic socialist.

Sanders went on to serve as an independent socialist member of the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, caucusing with Democrats but positioning himself to their left on issues ranging from health care reform to trade to economic democracy.

His presidential candidacy confirmed the appeal of such a politics in a 21st century that has been characterized by rampant inequality and the corrupt excesses of crony capitalism.

DSA's growth confirms that the appeal of democratic socialism extends beyond any one campaign.

“In the early 1900s, Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party rose in a grass-roots movement against the forces of nationalism, oligarchy, and authoritarianism,” recalled DSA’s Svart. “One hundred years later, today’s democratic socialists stand in that same tradition, at a time no less perilous.”

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

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