Frank Zeidler would be delighted.
The last Socialist Party leader of a major American city, Zeider died in 2006 at the age of 93. But, to the end, the man who served three terms as the “red mayor” of Milwaukee always believed that it was only a matter of time before America began to renew its interest in socialism.
It seems that Zeidler was right.
A new Gallup Poll finds that socialism is now viewed positively by 39 percent of Americans, up from 36 percent in 2010. Among self-described liberals, socialism enjoyed a 62 percent positive rating, while 53 percent of Democrats and independent voters who lean Democratic gave socialism a thumb’s up.
Needless to say, this provoked the predictable fine whine of right-wing media. The conservative Washington Times newspaper declared: “Yes, Democrats, liberals favor socialism.” The Business Insider website announced: “Everything Republicans Fear About Democrats Is True.” William F. Buckley’s old magazine, National Review, allowed as how there is “much that is peculiar, and much that is worrying” about the new polling data.
That reactionary Republicans get a little hysterical at the mention of the word “socialism” is not news. But the reaction to their reaction is. No two groups of Americans talk so much about socialism in so many public settings these days as Republican candidates and conservative commentators. And this appears to be influencing the discourse.
Indeed, it is fair to say that nothing has done more to promote the cause of socialism than the ranting and raving of Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It’s not just that the right has spread the word about socialism, raising the ideology’s profile to levels rarely experienced in recent decades—if ever—and associating the ideology with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, President Obama and a lot of other programs and people that Americans actually like. The fact that so many agitated, angry and—at least in some cases—politically toxic characters go apoplectic at the mere mention of the ideology has undoubtedly caused millions of Americans who don’t know much about socialism to say to themselves, “Anything that Paul Ryan does not like must have some merit.”
But I have to agree with the National Review assessment that the Gallup survey information “is worrying”—at least for conservatives. The most significant increases in sympathy for socialism over the past two years—since the last time Gallup polled on economic and ideological terms such as “socialism” and “capitalism”—have been among self-identified “conservatives” and “Republicans.”
In 2010, only 20 percent of conservatives viewed socialism favorably. Today, the number is 25 percent. That’s right: one-quarter of American conservatives view socialism favorably.
Among Republicans, the increase has been slightly more notable. In 2010, only 17 percent of self-identified Republicans had a positive view of socialism. Now, that number had increased to 23 percent. So if you meet four Republicans, one of them is harboring socialist sentiments.
Socialism has deep America roots—going back to when Tom Paine used his final pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, to outline a social-democratic model for establishing a just and equitable society. Socialist communes and political movements flourished in the United States during the first decades of the republic’s history, and the advocates for those movements found a home in the radical experiment that came to be known as the “Republican” Party.
Founded at Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854 by utopian socialists and militant abolitionists, the early Republican Party included many German-American immigrants who arrived in the United States after the European revolutions that stirred in 1848 were repressed. The man who issued the call for that meeting in Ripon, and who is to this day frequently identified as a founding figure for the Republican Party, was Alvan Earle Bovay, a veteran radical who had led militant movements for land reform that urged the poor to organize politically and “Vote Yourself a Farm.”
Among the first Republicans were many allies and associates of socialist causes, and even of Karl Marx. Among their number was Joseph Weydemeyer, a former Prussian Army officer who would continue to correspond with Marx as he rose through the ranks as a military officer during the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, like most of the leading Republicans of his day had read Marx and Engels in the pages of the Horace Greeley’s New York Herald Tribune (for which the two men wrote for many years as European correspondents). The sixteenth president spoke often about the superiority of labor to capital and was highly critical of concentrated wealth. Toward the end of the Civil War, the White House accepted the congratulations of Marx and his fellow London Communists after Lincoln’s 1864 re-election.
Lincoln was no Marxist. But, like a good many of the initial leaders of the Republican Party, he had been exposed to the ideas of Marx and Engels in the Tribune. In fact, Lincoln chose as one of his closest White House aides (and eventually as his assistant secretary of war) Charles Dana, Marx’s long-time editor. Famously, Dana once declared, “Everyone now is more or less a Socialist.”
In fairness, that’s not the case today.
There are still substantial numbers of Americans who do not view socialism positively, just as there are substantial numbers who do not view capitalism positively. But Americans are less inclined to be troubled by mentions of socialism, or by socialist and social democratic ideas today than in the past—just as Americans are less inclined (according to a recent CNN poll) to be unsettled by the mention of libertarianism, or by libertarian and libertarian-lite ideas. This is healthy. A republic is best served by differing ideas and ideals with regard to economic and social arrangements.
There will always be reactionaries like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who try to make ideas scary. But when one in four Republicans have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” it is pretty clear that the reactionaries are not doing any better in framing the economic and intellectual debate than they did on Election Day.
And, yes, that would have made Frank Zeidler, who was at once a great believer in socialism and a believer in the American experiment, a very happy man.
John Nichols is the author of The “S” Word:A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism (Verso).
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