“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
One of my favorite political artifacts is a “Frank Zeidler for President” campaign pin.
Zeidler, an old-school American socialist who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, and who died last Friday at age 93, never got very far as a presidential candidate. In fact, like so many of the great civic gestures he engaged in over nearly eight decades of activism, Zeidler’s 1976 campaign for the nation’s top job was more about “keeping the red flag flying” than actually winning.
In 1976, when the Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas was struggling to get its bearings after a series of internal struggles, splits and resignations, Zeidler presented himself as its standard-bearer. 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.
The Socialist ticket won only 6,038 votes in 1976 4,298 of them from Wisconsin, where Zeidler retained a substantial personal following. Despite the paucity of support, Zeidler’s candidacy renewed interest in a great old political party, which once was a key player in the politics of his native state of Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, of the nation.
Had Zeidler been born in another land — perhaps Germany, where the roots of his family tree were firmly planted — his national campaign at the head of the ticket of the Socialist Party would have been a much bigger deal. Indeed, he might well have been elected.
After all, in most of the world, the social-democratic values that Zeidler has 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 Spain, Italy and Britain head political parties that are associated with the Socialist International, of which Zeidler’s Socialist Party is a U.S. affiliate.
Yet, outside of Milwaukee, New York City, Reading, Pennsylvania, and a few other outposts, America never took to socialism with the same energy that Europe and much of the rest of the world did. And by the time of his death, even Zeidler, the last Socialist Party activist to lead a major city in the U.S., was deemed worthy of only a wire-service “brief” in the obituary section of the New York Times.