"Socialist" Is Not an Epithet
The Nation October 20, 2008
"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." --
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
* Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation
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