“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.
So my “Zeidler for President” pin, presented to me by the candidate himself, is more a rare artifact than a record of consequential electioneering.
Like the man whose name it heralds, the pin is a reminder of a politics of principle that has mostly existed on the periphery of postwar America’s stilted economic and political discourse.
Beyond the borders of the United States, Zeidler’s contribution — a humane, duty-driven, economically responsible version of socialism that is reflective of the man as much as the philosophy — has always been better recognized by foreigners than by Americans.
Zeidler was the repository of a Milwaukee Socialist tradition with German radical roots and a 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.
With 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.”
On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1999, the contribution that Zeidler made to Milwaukee and to the world was honored by people who well understood the significance of what this American socialist did and what he continued to do as someone whose activism slowed only slightly as he passed through his 80s and into his 90s.
At a gathering at the main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a favorite haunt of the man who as mayor battled to expand it, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation recognized Zeidler for his many years of public service and his unique contributions to the socialist cause.
Based in Bonn, Germany, the foundation was established in 1925 as a political legacy of Friedrich Ebert, Germany’s first democratically elected president. A socialist, Ebert became president of a devastated Germany in the years after World War I, and he struggled to rebuild it as a free and responsible nation.
Banned by the Nazis in 1933, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation began its work anew in 1947 and today operates educational programs and other activities in more than 100 countries. It awards thousands of scholarships in Germany and around the world and maintains an internationally recognized library on the history of labor.
Dieter Dettke, executive director of the foundation’s Washington office, came to Milwaukee to present Frank Zeidler with a bound volume of German constitutions — a text that the former mayor, whose facility with languages was one of his many political assets, could read without the assistance of a translator.
American politics being what they are, Zeidler was never accorded the full measure of honor due him in his own land. But the rest of the world will continue to take inspiration from the recollection of the white-haired Milwaukee socialist whose faith in the possibility of a better world withstood the batterings of depression, war, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Nixon, Reagan and Bush eras,
“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Zeidler told me not long before his death, still raising the red flag he carried across the 20th century and into the 21st. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”