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Tough Luck, Buffalo: Milwaukee Had a Socialist Mayor First

A cityscape of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (AlenaMozhjer/Getty Images)

In response to A Socialist Comes to Power Elsewhere in New York

Jim’s Morning Jolt was a pleasure to read, as it always is. With plenty of fun references to the city’s football team, he wrote about Buffalo electing a socialist mayor. India Walton is her name, and she is a self-described socialist who ran in the Democratic primary. Jim notes that the last socialist mayor of a major American city was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who left office in 1960.

As someone who grew up in the Milwaukee area, I’ve got to say to Buffalo: This is weak sauce. Milwaukee didn’t just have Zeidler. It had three Socialist mayors — yes, that’s Socialist with a capital “S,” they were all members of the Socialist Party of America — who served a combined total of 38 years in office in the early to mid 20th century.

What did those years of socialist government get the city? Not what today’s socialists would want. Milwaukee’s socialist mayors practiced what was called “sewer socialism.” Basically, it’s socialism without any of that yucky class revolution stuff, which Americans have never been too fond of. The idea of sewer socialism was to be an alternative to the party-machine politics that dominated America’s big cities at the time. The sewer socialists emphasized quality public services (like sewers, thus the name), welfare programs, anti-corruption, trade unions, and public parks. The most lasting part of the sewer socialists’ legacy is Milwaukee’s plethora of public parks.

The sewer socialists also had a member of the U.S. House. Victor Berger represented the Milwaukee-area House district for one term from 1911–1913, then was elected again in 1918, during World War I. Berger vocally opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, which upset that era’s progressives, led by President Woodrow Wilson. Berger was convicted under the Espionage Act that Wilson had signed into law for speaking out against the war. The House refused to seat him, citing the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on House members having “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. (disagreeing with Wilson’s war policy was considered insurrectionary). So, there was a special election for Berger’s seat — which Berger ran in and won again. The House again refused to seat him, and the seat was vacant until the 1920 general election. That cycle, 1920, was a Republican wave year — a reaction against Wilson’s draconian wartime overreaches — and a Republican defeated Berger and occupied the seat. Berger’s conviction was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 1921 — not because his conviction was a plain violation of the First Amendment, which it undoubtedly was, but rather on the grounds that the trial judge was prejudiced against Berger because of Berger’s Austrian heritage. Berger won his seat back in 1922 and served in the House until 1929 as a Socialist.

The sewer socialists didn’t want to fundamentally transform America. They didn’t control any prominent institutions in American public life. They were persecuted and harassed by the progressives of their era. They just wanted a clean city, a strong safety net, and a functioning city government. They had varying degrees of success in that regard, and there’s something to be said for avoiding the big-city machine style of politics that still makes nearby Chicago ungovernable to this day.

That’s not to say they were conservatives or that sewer socialism was good. They were socialists, and in case you haven’t noticed, we’re against that sort of thing around here. But it is worth noting that the most successful run socialists had in American political history wasn’t by ideological purists who wanted to dismantle systems of oppression and soak the rich or what have you. It was by a group of nice, mild-mannered Midwesterners who built a bunch of parks.

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