Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Posted from The Nation

"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time. Maybe that's true. 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." -- Frank Zeidler

John McCain hopes to revive his campaign by suggesting that Barack Obama is some kind of socialist.

The Republican nominee for president says that his Democratic rival's plan for stimulating the economy sounds "a lot like socialism."

"At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are up front about their objectives. They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Senator Obama," the Arizona senator claimed over the weekend.

Asked if he thinks Obama is a socialist, McCain offers an insinuating raised eyebrow and a shrug non-response: "I don't know."

McCain is not really concerned about socialism. He is trying to suggest that Obama is somehow un-American.

Obama's no socialist.

But, as a Wisconsinite, I can't buy the basic premise of McCain's argument.

I grew up in a state where socialism was as American as my friend Frank Zeidler.

Zeidler, an old-school American socialist who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, died two year ago at age 93. His passing was mourned by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, who recognized the gentle radical as one of the most honorable men ever to cross the American political landscape.

Zeidler actually ran for president in 1976 as the nominee of the American Socialist Party. In fairness, it was more an educational campaign than a serious bid for an office that the former mayor never really coveted. Like so many of the great civic gestures he engaged in over eight decades of activism, Zeidler's 1976 campaign promoted the notion that: "There's nothing un-American about socialism."

Campaigning on a platform that promised a shift of national priorities from bloated defense spending to fighting poverty, rebuilding cities and creating a national health care program, Zeidler won only a portion of the respect that was due this kind and decent man and the values to which he has devoted a lifetime.

Had Zeidler been born in another land -- perhaps Germany, where the roots of his family tree were firmly planted -- his Socialist Party run would have been a much bigger deal. Indeed, he might well have been elected.

In most of the world, the social-democratic values that Zeidler advanced throughout his long life hold great sway. Latin America has been experiencing a revival of socialist fervor in recent years. And virtually every European country has elected a socialist government in the past decade. Indeed, the current leaders of Britain and Spain head political parties that are associated with the Socialist International, of which Zeidler's Socialist Party was a U.S. affiliate. In the recent Canadian elections, the socialist New Democratic Party experienced a substantial boost in its parliamentary delegation.

In Zeidler's youth, America's Socialist Party was a contender. During the 1920s, there were more Socialists in the Wisconsin legislature than Democrats, and a Wisconsin Socialist, Victor Berger, represented Milwaukee in the US House. When Norman Thomas sought the presidency as a Socialist in 1932, he received almost a million votes, and well into the 1950s Socialists ran municipal governments in Reading, Pennsylvania; Bridgeport, Connecticut and other quintessentially American cities – including Zeidler's Milwaukee.

For millions of American voters in the past century, socialism was never so frightening as John McCain would have us believe. Rather, it was a politics of principle that added ideas and nuance to a stilted economic and political discourse.

For the most part, Zeidler and his compatriots campaigned along the periphery of presidential politics, especially as the Cold War took hold.

But they earned respect in communities such as Milwaukee, where voters kept casting ballots for Socialist candidates even as Joe McCarthy was promoting his "red-scare" witch hunt.

Years after he left the mayor's office, Zeidler's contribution -- a humane, duty-driven, fiscally responsible version of socialism that is reflective of the man as much as the philosophy –- was always recognized by Wisconsinites as a very American expression of a legitimate and honorable international ideal.

Zeidler was the repository of a Milwaukee Socialist tradition with a remarkable record of accomplishment -- grand parks along that city's lakefront, nationally recognized public health programs, pioneering open housing initiatives, and an unrivaled reputation for clean government -- that to his death filled the circumspect former mayor with an uncharacteristic measure of pride.

Because of its emphasis on providing quality services, the politics that Zeidler practiced was sometimes referred to as "sewer socialism." But, to the mayor, it was much more than that. The Milwaukee Socialists, who governed the city for much of the 20th century, led a remarkably successful experiment in human nature rooted in their faith that cooperation could deliver more than competition.

"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," Zeidler told me in an interview several years ago. "And I think our record remains one of many more successes than failures."

Would that John McCain – and, frankly, Barack Obama -- had the intellectual honesty to assess those successes, and the ideals that underpinned them. The candidates would not, necessarily embrace socialism. But they would recognize the absurdity of tossing the "S" word around as an epithet.

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