Socialism is once again on political lips, as both epithet and ideal.
ANDY LITZENBERG grew up in Hales Corners as the child of a deeply conservative family. His first experience of political protest came in junior high, when his parents took him to a tea party rally in Madison. Fox News infused the family’s household and political identity.
As a student at Whitnall High School, Litzenberg was assigned a short article in the newspaper about the school’s namesake, Charles B. Whitnall. He learned that, beyond the timeless stamp Whitnall put on the region’s parks and urban landscape – he served as secretary of Milwaukee County Parks Commission from 1907 to 1941 – there was another key piece to Whitnall’s identity.
“He was really hardcore Socialist,” says Litzenberg.
That history has faded somewhat from the minds of most in Milwaukee, remaining unknown to some and unremarkable to others. A “fun fact,” Litzenberg calls it.
But, if Republicans have their way, fun fact will transform into scary moniker. In their dreams, that somewhat faded piece of Milwaukee history will be known to everyone, trumpeted into every living room and tied, in the most unflattering of ways, to current Democrats. The GOP zeal for a required Milwaukee history lesson became very clear in March, when Democrats announced the city as the host for next year’s Democratic National Convention.
The Wisconsin Republican Party immediately put out a statement headlined, “Milwaukee’s Socialist History Made Convention Site an Obvious Choice.” Sen. Ron Johnson soon piled on with a tweet to the same effect, and national Republicans and their mouthpieces have wasted few opportunities to label Democrats the party of socialism. They’ve been aided somewhat by the sudden prominence of leftist young leaders – think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and the enduring popularity of Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist polling well in his second run for the presidency, this time in 2020.
Before Charles Whitnall became the legendary urban planner shaping Milwaukee’s park, street and highway landscape – much of it with a socialist bent – he was a kid from then-rural Riverwest who took over his father’s retail seed and floral business. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Mayors Collection/Milwaukee Public Library
“We say tonight that America will never be a socialist country,” President Donald Trump thundered to a crowd of roughly 10,000 in Green Bay in April, a rally designed to shore up support for his re-election in the state that handed him an unlikely victory in 2016.
The rhetorical war has revived interest in socialism, a term off most Americans’ radar since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, while also putting Milwaukee’s history squarely in the national debate.
One significant problem has emerged for Republicans with their strategy: It works best with the older voters who lived through the Cold War and would vote for Republicans anyway. While polls show that socialism generally doesn’t enjoy broad-based support, it’s a very different picture for younger voters. For a sizable chunk of them, their only problem with socialism is that there’s not enough of it. A Gallup poll in August 2018 found young people ages 18 to 29 actually favor socialism over capitalism, by 51 percent to 45 percent.
Count Litzenberg among them. During college at American University in Washington, D.C., his politics drifted leftward, which led him to take a summer job at a Democratic-aligned consulting firm back home in Milwaukee. He enjoyed the experience but found himself not satisfied by the solutions to big problems – climate change, employee working conditions and wages, equal rights for the LGBTQ community – being offered by the Democratic Party.
“There was that political incongruity, and I remember just kind of stewing over it and finally deciding that I needed to try something else,” he says. The 2016 presidential election served as a tipping point that led him to his first meeting of the Milwaukee branch of Democratic Socialists of America, which itself formed just two months after the election. That next step actually didn’t alarm his parents, he says.
“My parents already think that liberals are socialist,” he says, “so it wasn’t that much of a step from, ‘I’m working in Democratic politics,’ to, ‘I’m literally a Socialist.’”
If Democrats want his support and activism this coming cycle, he says, they’d best follow Beyoncé’s advice and move “to the left, to the left.”
Milwaukee’s socialist mayors
The Pennsylvania native helped form the Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee. He became the first Socialist mayor to run a major U.S. city, focusing on minimum wage, unemployment, housing and public health.
The Waukesha-born namesake of Milwaukee’s most famous bridge was city attorney for six years before helming the longest consecutive Socialist mayoral administration in U.S. history. He was known for doing honest and efficient work, and established the country’s first public housing project, Garden Homes, in 1923.
The postwar run of the last Socialist mayor to run a major U.S. city was a boon for Milwaukee: significant increases in population due to Zeidler’s annexation policy, the establishment of UW-Milwaukee and advocacy for the creation of Channel 10, Milwaukee’s public television station.
Polling: Socialism vs. Capitalism
Gallup Poll has been tracking Americans’ impressions of socialism and capitalism since 2010, and its 2018 poll was conducted during the congressional primary season that saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, defeat a Democratic incumbent in her New York City district. (Several other Socialist candidates lost primary bids.) Socialism has long been more popular with young people and Democrats, but those ratings have been increasing in recent years, as views of capitalism have declined somewhat. The poll in 2016 was the first to find more Democrats having a positive view of socialism than they do of capitalism.
But it was in asphalt, a hot commodity as the growing city rushed to pave its roads, where the corruption of Milwaukee’s political establishment manifested itself most dramatically. Mayor David Stuart Rose, a Democrat, and cronies from both parties had rigged the bidding process so that, for 17 years, one company had a monopoly. They did so by requiring that only “Trinidad Lake Asphalt” be used on city streets, which conveniently could be sourced by only one company, Barber Asphalt. It was estimated that the city paid 60 cents in graft on every square yard of paving.
“Of all the corrupt U.S. cities, Milwaukee in the early 1900s was one of the most corrupt. Under Mayor Hoan’s 24-year administration, Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U.S.”
— Time magazine in 1940
At the first bid, six companies put in bids for three paving jobs, at prices roughly half what the city was used to paying. In 1911, the first full year of Seidel’s administration, the city commissioned 370,000 square yards of paving work, at a savings of $386,000 from previous costs, or $9.9 million in today’s dollars.
These details come from a 1981 book, The Sewer Socialists, by Elmer Axel Beck. It chronicles how Milwaukee’s huge population of German immigrants brought with them positive associations with socialism, and how the city’s staggering corruption in the early 20th century made it possible for the party to seize control and hold it for most of the next several decades.
They earned the “sewer Socialists” nickname because they remained less interested in carrying out pure socialist ideology and more concerned with the practical duties of ensuring clean air and water, good schools, vibrant parks and good wages for workers. These and other priorities, while unsexy, mattered to voters.
“The title is not to be considered a derogation by the author,” writes Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee’s third Socialist mayor, in the introduction. “Rather it reflects a time when the practical Socialists of Wisconsin were held in some derogation by Socialist theoreticians, especially in the Eastern states, who said the Milwaukee Socialists were incapable of great theoretical thinking and were content to see that rubbish was collected and sewers installed. The Milwaukee Socialists readily accepted the label as an answer to their detractors whom they considered impossibilists who could not win any elections.”
In 1940, Time magazine wrote this about the city: “Of all the corrupt U.S. cities, Milwaukee in the early 1900s was one of the most corrupt,” to explain how the city’s fed-up voters gave Socialists a chance. It continues: “Under Mayor Hoan’s 24-year administration, Milwaukee became one of the best-run cities in the U.S.” In 2009, John Gurda, Milwaukee’s foremost current historian, gave a talk with the title “Public Enterprise: How the Socialists Saved Milwaukee.”
Both point to a historical reality that would seem to be at odds with current Republican scare tactics.
ANDREW SOURS, looking professorial in a blue Oxford shirt over black pants, calls the monthly meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America, Milwaukee branch, to order. The two dozen or so members who’ve showed up today, with a wicked April snowstorm forecast to start any minute, sit quietly in this corner meeting room of the Milwaukee Public Library’s Tippecanoe branch on the South Side. The room is encased in windows, which look out at a Mobil station to one side and Gingerz sports bar to the other.
It’s a mostly male, mostly young crowd seated around the horseshoe-shaped table. A plaid flannel shirt, multiple hooded sweatshirts and multiple beards color the scene. If there’s a stereotype about Bernie Sanders’ supporters, this crowd does little to defy it.
Sours lays out some ground rules. No. 1: “We want to assume good faith in our fellow comrades.” No. 7: “Have a sense of humor.”
One of the young bearded men gives the day’s first presentation, about an upcoming bowl-a-thon for abortion rights. He tells them the chapter needs three or four members to commit to raising $100 each for the cause.
“How does a bowl-a-thon work?” asks Mary Steffenhagen. “Is there actually bowling?” The question draws laughs before the conversation turns more serious, about why they support abortion rights.
“This is a tool of patriarchy,” Sours says of efforts at the state and national levels to restrict or outright ban the procedure.
Next, Robert Miranda, a middle-aged man in slicked-back hair and a Harley sweatshirt, presents on the drinking water situation in Milwaukee, claiming that his group is “disrupting the narrative of the city” about lead paint being the prime source of lead poisoning among the city’s children. He announces a coming trip to Madison in which he will present jugs of Milwaukee tap water to state lawmakers, daring them to take a swig.
“One of the reasons DSA is so involved in this fight is because we believe in public control of public utilities,” such as the water supply, Sours explains wit
Steffenhagen says, in a later conversation, that water quality issues form one important “through-line” connecting Milwaukee’s Socialists of today to their sewer Socialist forebears. The next topic of discussion – DSA’s support for Marquette University adjunct faculty and staff to form a union – also aligns squarely with the founding Socialist ethos from its earliest days.
Later in the meeting, Sours announces a new DSA working group around organizing for the Democratic National Convention in 2020. He calls the Dems bringing their national party to Milwaukee a great opportunity for his group to get a spotlight on its message, and to be both “educational and agitational.” Steffenhagen chimes in, saying their goal should be to draw attention to socialism in Milwaukee – not to be supportive of the Democrats.
She later clarifies that, although she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she finds little to like with the current bumper crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“It seems like a lot of candidates are all about promoting a kinder, gentler capitalism,” she says. “I feel like these candidates are kind of embodying this performative, ‘woke capitalism’ where they can pay lip service to what they think is just identity politics without addressing the material issues of class that keep people from succeeding and living to their potential.”
And that’s why the people in the room are here today – to protest and ultimately remake or outright dismantle capitalism, even if it means disrupting Democrats’ chances to take back the White House in 2020.
“The Affordable Care Act is Democratic policy,” Sours says. “Medicare for All is Socialist policy: state control over health care, over a human right, making sure that everyone has it and are not paying for it at the point of service.”
Milwaukee’s DSA branch formed in 2016, just a few months after Trump’s election. If Sanders, in his surprisingly strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, put socialism back on the map and in the political conversation, Trump’s election seemed to galvanize young voters even more.
“He’s a good expression of how capitalism is forming a crisis in America,” Sours says. “The wealth gap is continuing to grow, and things keep getting worse and worse for the working class. But he is a symptom of the disease, not the cause of it.”
Nationally, DSA’s membership has grown by a factor of nine since 2015. The median age of members, which stood at 68 in 2013, dropped to 33. The 3-year-old Milwaukee chapter of DSA has seen similar upward trajectory fueled mostly by voters too young to remember when socialism hit its low points in public opinion, tied to the totalitarianism and failed state economies of the Soviet Union.
“I was born in 1990,” Sours says, “so I was unable to talk by the time the Soviet Union fell. I’ve never really had a boogeyman to have people point to in order to say, ‘This is why socialism is bad.’ I think Venezuela has taken that role. But for some reason it doesn’t stick as well as the USSR did.”
But the movement in Milwaukee still remains a mere shadow of its early 20th century self. Sours acknowledges that the Milwaukee branch sits about in the middle of the national pack, or below, in terms of membership and activity level. The midterm elections in 2018 saw small but significant gains in the number of DSA elected officials – but none of them in Milwaukee or Wisconsin.
“America’s most socialist city” has work to do to live up to its historical reputation. But party members have time, and see the dawning of a long struggle that transcends the politics of the moment.
“We’re not just here because we’re Bernie fans,” says Steffenhagen. “This is about building a movement made of all of us, not an election. Even though a lot of us were galvanized by the election, it’s not about one person, it’s not about one election.”
A few places connected to Milwaukee’s Socialist legacy
Around since 1883, this Cream City brick beauty of a building was built by the Milwaukee Turners, an American offshoot of the Socialist-identifying German group of the same name. Turner Hall for decades hosted party gatherings and served as home base for Socialist luminaries.
Access to much of Lake Michigan’s citybound shoreline once existed mainly for well-heeled landowners. Socialist politicians approved a zoning scheme and redevelopment to make broad swaths of the lakefront publicly accessible. It required filling in some shoreline to create land where there was none. By completion in 1929, and ever since, the rest of us can walk the shore without paying admission or sneaking into rich guys’ backyards.
The Hales Corners oasis is the namesake of Charles Whitnall, longtime parks director and devoted Socialist, and part of a parks system that was often described as the best and most extensive in the nation in the mid-1900s.
Interstate 794’s span over the mouth of Milwaukee’s rivers began life as the Harbor Bridge before being renamed to honor Daniel Hoan, Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor from 1916 to 1940.
Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor, championed and helped start Milwaukee Vocational School (now MATC), using a then-innovative, now common practice of opening a school for adult learners funded by a municipality.