The Past, Present, and Future of Wisconsin Politics

Wisconsin Solidarity

(and what it can tell us about the current political climate of the United States)

The state of Wisconsin, located just south of Canada and west of Lake Michigan, has a complicated and contentious political past—one marked by the longstanding coexistence of progressive and regressive elements.

And while such a schism is hardly unique, the dichotomies in Wisconsin’s political past and present are particularly divided and divergent, making Wisconsin an extreme example of the political divisions presently wreaking havoc in the United States. With an ascendant Tea Party and other right-wing movements assuming increasing prominence and power, left-wing movements are finding themselves increasingly marginalized and powerless.

Appleton and Milwaukee—my birthplace and my adopted hometown—serve as especially useful examples of Wisconsin’s political divides. This essay will follow my own trajectory from Appleton to Milwaukee, reflecting the equally shifting political landscape.

Milwaukee holds the distinction of being both the first and last major American city to claim a Socialist mayor, the last of whom served concurrently with Appleton’s Joe McCarthy and his tenure in the United States Senate, where he busied himself ruining lives and careers by deploying the epithet “socialist.” Milwaukee’s tradition of electing Socialist mayors for nearly 40 of 50 years in the early and mid-twentieth century now seems rather astonishingin the early decades of the Cold War, “socialist” was a pretty serious term of opprobrium. (But even in this post-Cold War era, that hasn’t changed all that much, and “socialist” is still quite the political insult in the United States. Barack Obama has been called one pretty regularly, and the accusation has inflicted some pretty serious damage to his reputation. But really, come on folks, any President who responds to a major financial crisis by propping up Wall Street and financing the free market is resolutely not committed to collectivism. If President Obama is in fact a Socialist, he’s mucking up the job pretty severely.)

We’ll return to Milwaukee’s political past soon enough, but first, discuss some of Wisconsin history’s uglier bits, in particular, Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society. So, it seems fitting to ask, who was Joe McCarthy and what is the John Birch Society? Let’s start with Joe McCarthy. Following the Second World War, as the Soviet Union was spreading its totalitarian strain of Communism across Europe, Klaus Fuchs was smuggling details of atomic weaponry into Russia, while Mao Zedong initiated the transformation of China into “Red China.” As these foreign dangers increased in intensity, Joe McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he made highlighting the dangers of Communism his top priority. But McCarthy didn’t paid scant attention to any of the aforementioned issues. To McCarthy, the real Communist threat was not foreign aggression. It was internal disloyalty.

McCarthy first gained national attention in 1950 when he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists employed by the State Department. Within days, this figure was amended to 57, and later changed to both 81 and 116. Obviously, McCarthy was throwing numbers and generalizations around, but names and specifics were not his specialty, although
he displayed a willingness to smear Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson by name, claiming Acheson inhabited the center of a vast Communist conspiracy, a “sinister, many-headed and many-tentacled monster,” one “conceived in Moscow and given birth to by Dean Gooderham Acheson.”[1] 

With the benefit of historical hindsight, McCarthy appears to be more of a demagogue interested in tumult and attention than any sort of ideologically motivated anti-Communist. As Richard Rovere writes in what is still one of the most insightful books ever written about McCarthy, “I know of nothing to suggest that he ever really thought the government was riddled with Communists; had he really believed this, had he really cared, he would not have abandoned investigations merely from ennui or because of their failure to produce the headlines he had expected. He was a political speculator, a prospector who drilled Communism and saw it come up a gusher. He liked his gusher, but he would have liked any other just as well.”[2]

McCarthy’s wild speculations actually uncovered very little—his most clearly delineated “success” was an Army dentist named Irving Peress who had once belonged to the American Labor Party and had recently been promoted from captain to major for reasons of length of service. And this lone “success” occurred during a period when the Soviets really did have spies hidden throughout the U.S. Government. So although McCarthy could have found plenty of actual Communists, he failed miserably at his chosen task.

In 1954, after four years of headlines, fame and infamy, McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and quickly plummeted toward a lonely death as an alcoholic.

But McCarthy did much more than lend his name to a political epithet. He also managed to inspire some of the more ideologically pure anti-Communists to carry on his work. In fact, the John Birch Society’s move to Appleton was a largely symbolic move conceived in his honor. Founded in 1958 by Robert H.W. Welch, and named after a missionary-turned-soldier who was captured and executed by Chinese Communists nine days after the end of WWII, the John Birch Society saw the Communist conspiracy everywhere, and sought to root it out.

As one quick example of the levels of paranoia the Society achieved, consider Welch’s 1963 publication
The Politician, a pamphlet claiming to prove that none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist stooge and a Kremlin tool. Welch analyzed Eisenhower’s every military move throughout Europe as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces to reveal a constant underlying motive—more and more post-war land for his Soviet overlords.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the John Birch Society has turned its attention to the United Nations, claiming the organization is a force for evil on par with Stalin (UN plans to create a one-world police state remain the greatest fear). You can read all about such theories on their website, where you can also “support freedom” for as little as $48.

But Wisconsin is not just populated by right-wing paranoiacs. At the same time that McCarthy and the Birchers were ruining lives and careers with terms like “Communist” and “Socialist,” Milwaukee, situated roughly 100 miles (160 km) south of Appleton, had a Socialist mayor. In fact, Frank Zeidler, the last Socialist mayor of any major American city, was elected in 1948, just two years after Joe McCarthy entered the Senate.

Milwaukee has a long history of trade unionist Socialism—a history driven largely by various waves of German immigration. The failed German revolution of 1848 brought a mass of politically progressive Germans to the city. Later, Otto Von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878 spurred another wave of political refugees. These immigrants, along with post-Civil War industrial expansion, helped fuel the creation of the city’s Socialism.

Exempting events like the Bayview Massacre—which occurred on May 5, 1886, exactly one day after the Haymarket Riot in Chicago—in which the State Militia opened fire on workers striking for an 8-hour workday, killing seven, Milwaukee’s Socialist history is much more reformist than revolutionary, marked by parliamentary procedures rather than direct actions and violent conflicts with the government. In fact, Milwaukee Socialists were often derided by more radical groups as “Sewer Socialists” for their focus on building projects and social services.

Socialists dominated Milwaukee politics for much of the twentieth century. In 1910, the Socialist Emil Seidel was elected mayor, while Victor Berger became the first Socialist sent to the United States Congress. 1910 also saw the election of a Socialist city attorney, a treasurer, aldermen, judges, and county supervisors. Among those brought to Milwaukee by the sudden presence of these Socialists’ surprisingly clean and progressive governance was the poet Carl Sandburg, who worked as one of Seidel’s secretaries.

One of the most interesting reforms of these early Milwaukee Socialists was the decision to undertake their many municipal building projects without loans from private banks, utilizing the city treasury instead, thus reducing the power of private banks over city government.

The Socialist Daniel Hoan later served as mayor from 1916-40, and it would be interesting to know how Hoan would feel upon discovering that the bridge that bears his name has a history of falling into disrepair and just about shaking all your fillings loose if you drive across it. Sadly, the “Sewer Socialist” love of solid infrastructure is a thing of the past. Hoan was unseated by Carl Zeidler, a Republican who served from 1940-42, and made headlines when he resigned as mayor, joined the Army, and promptly died in a shipwreck. Whether he was delighted or turned over in his watery grave when his Socialist brother Frank was elected mayor in 1948 remains a mystery.[3]

Frank Zeidler served as mayor from 1948-60, and oversaw the construction of County Stadium, library and park expansions, and the creation of a public television station. In 1955, he refused to let a ship with materials bound for the Kohler plant in Sheboygan unload, due to the bitter strike raging there at that time.

Equally opposed to Stalinism and capitalism, Zeidler took his ideological cues more from the likes of Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs rather than the typical Marxian thinkers one might expect a self-described Socialist to follow. Zeidler was never a doctrinaire Marxist, but a pragmatic politician mostly interested in fairness. As he said of his Socialism: “I particularly picked Socialism because of several things in its philosophy. One was the brotherhood of people all over the world. Another was its struggle for peace. Another was the equal distribution of economic goods. Another was the idea of cooperation. A fifth was the idea of democratic planning in order to achieve your goals. Those were pretty good ideas.”[4]

While such rhetoric seems pretty non-controversial, local business moguls still tried to unseat Zeidler via red-baiting. But the populace was non-plussed, and Zeidler was continually reelected. Embarrassingly enough, it was race-baiting that eventually worked, with suggestions that Zeidler was making the city too appealing to blacks helping turn Zeidler’s final reelection into a narrow one. Exhausted with the political process, he chose not to run again in 1960.

Milwaukee’s black population had increased by 150% through the 1940s, and racial tensions and conflicts were becoming increasingly common.[5] Near the end of his tenure as mayor, Zeidler had a lengthy report prepared on how to handle these mounting tensions. His successor, Henry Maier, made a point of dismissing and ignoring the report. Perhaps not coincidentally, Milwaukee is now one of the most segregated cities in the United States, listed second only to Detroit in this particular list.

That a single state could simultaneously produce both Joe McCarthy and Frank Zeidler is remarkable. Given this history, the persistence of similar political divides seems less surprising. Wisconsin’s current governor, Republican Scott Walker, was elected in 2010, and almost immediately unveiled a fiscally conservative budget catering to the interests of his wealthiest backers and removing many of the collective bargaining rights so dear to Frank Zeidler’s “Sewer Socialists.” Walker’s budget prompted hundreds of thousands of protesters to decamp on the Capitol Building in Madison where they occupied the rotunda and marched in circles around the building, chanting “This is what democracy looks like.” And while I doubt that picking sides in the two-party system is a particularly great manifestation of democracy, Walker’s measures were regressive and distasteful enough that I felt compelled to be there. And it was really cold.

More than 900,000 signatures were collected against Walker, and the governor faced a recall election in 2012, which he survived. (Though he only received 36% of the Milwaukee vote.) Shortly before the recall election, Walker quietly repealed the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, removing Wisconsin women’s legal power to demand equal pay for equal work. His push for a new voter ID law as well as an end to same-day voter registration are both designed to make voting harder for young, poor, and minority voters—the people least likely to vote for him. Such acts are thinly veiled, and very cynical, attempts at disenfranchisement. Similarly, a recent move to make a criminal conviction necessary for a recall election represents yet another sign of his distrust of democracy. Wisconsin, unlike some states, does not have a “peoples’ veto” to call for the repeal of laws. Without recall elections for anyone but convicted criminals, the people of Wisconsin would be left at an incredible disadvantage.

Such actions helped turn Walker into a darling of the far-right, propelling his name into the same 2016 presidential candidate ring as fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan. Mitt Romney’s Republican running-mate in 2012, Ryan is most notable as the brains behind HR 6110, or “The Roadmap for America’s Future.” The “Ryan Budget,” as it has been called, did not get far as a piece of legislation, but received a lot of press and attention for its attempt to destroy Medicare, Social Security, and pretty much stop taxing the wealthy.

But simultaneous to these guys, their patrons, and their followers trying to stomp out every political gain of the last 200 years or so, many other Wisconsinites have been trying to enact some true political progress. (Apologies, but I am about to indulge in some pretty serious civic boosterism. Consider yourself warned.) Many of these activities center around community control of the economy, particularly through the formation of cooperatively run businesses. And while the subject of whether or not cooperative businesses constitute a true economic alternative or are just kinder, gentler ways to navigate the same old capitalist economy is an interesting one, there really isn’t time or space here to give the topic the full treatment it deserves. But as a founder of one of these Milwaukee cooperatives, I do have some thoughts on the matter, and will simply state that in my experience, cooperatives mostly function as a more democratic way to navigate the existing economic milieu, and often do frustratingly little to lessen the more destructive elements of the market economy.

But because we need to challenge hierarchy in general in order to help humanity progress, perhaps the at-least-temporarily practical efficacy of cooperatives should not be underestimated. Cooperatives allow workers to organize themselves horizontally and to perform their labor in the absence of bosses and other potentially coercive authorities. After all, we need new ways of organizing and interacting, and perhaps expecting entirely new forms of being to suddenly spring into existence is expecting too much. AK Press, the anarchist publishing company, has the following statement on their website, which might help frame the incredible difficulties inherent in remaking our economic life:

There’s definitely something strange and contradictory about the concept of an anarchist business. AK Press works hard to destroy and move beyond capitalism, toward a non-exploitative, sustainable, and just economy. However, like it or not, capitalism is the only game in town at the moment. The paper that books are printed on, the building we work in, the packages we send and receive, the computers we use—all are the result of the exploited labor of the working class. Until we take power away from private economic tyrannies like corporations and investment groups, until we’re in control of our creative energies, almost every good or service we use or provide is administered by capitalism. AK Press doesn’t exist to enrich its members at the expense of consumers. We’re here to provide much needed tools for intellectual self-defense. When we call ourselves an “anarchist business” it’s with the full knowledge that the economy is not in our hands. Yet.[6]

With these caveats about the limits and promise of cooperative and collectivist capitalism in mind, it seems worth pointing out that in the past few years, Milwaukee has witnessed the emergence of a (relatively) new food co-op, the second cooperative bar in the United Sates, a cooperative bookstore, and a building cooperative. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that the Vice-President of the latter cooperative wrote this essay.) All these cooperatives are based in Riverwest, a neighborhood with one of the most active neighborhood associations on the planet, as well as its own community radio station and its own bike race. The Riverwest Cooperative Alliance (a cooperative of cooperatives) has also recently formed, with the intention to fund and facilitate the creation of more and more cooperative business, based roughly on the model of something like Mondragon in Spain.

So Wisconsin’s intense political divides persist. The state that simultaneously produced both Joe McCarthy and Frank Zeidler has now produced both Scott Walker and a bevy of egalitarian minded cooperatives intent on overwhelming the local economy with alternative businesses.

During Frank Zeidler’s run as mayor, the once-might Socialist Party had already lost most of its power and members. Since Zeidler’s passing in 2006, that history has become more of an historical oddity than anything else. But vestigial traces still remain. And maybe from these vestiges, something even better can be built. Milwaukee’s Socialists were relatively conservative, after all. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

Wisconsin’s situation highlights the conundrum currently ensnaring any would-be leftist in the United States. The political climate in the United States has spent several decades swinging resoundingly to the right. People like Walker and Ryan are setting the tone, and their often draconian ideals tend to dominate. Is it best to engage in more ordinary, non-revolutionary politics, and try to disempower such politicians through mainstream political practices before they inflict too much damage? After all, the far left has been thoroughly marginalized, and is left mostly speaking to itself, well outside mainstream discourse. So should we enter the fray of mainstream partisan politics and try to stop the far right through “ordinary” means before it inflicts too much damage?

I would argue that given the choice between partisan politics and revolutionary experiments, we ought to choose both. The far right needs to be stopped. Mainstream partisan politics is sadly the only at all promising venue currently available for accomplishing this task. But if we could simultaneously construct new political structures, based on the currently marginalized values of the revolutionary left, these could be in place and ready to go when Walker, Ryan, and all their frightening allies have finally been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.   

Historically and politically, Wisconsin has much to be ashamed of. But it also has a lot to be proud of. It is my hope that someday soon, the things we ought to (rightly) be ashamed of will be a distant memory, and all we will have left will be the sources of our political pride.

So in closing, I will simply quote Wisconsin's motto.


[1] Joe McCarthy, quoted in Arthur Herman, Joseph Mccarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (New York: The New Press, 2000), 185.

[2]Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (1959: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 72.

[3] Although, I must admit I’m not sure. Carl Zeidler’s Wikipedia page says he was a Democrat. Three of the reputable history essays on my shelf say he was a Republican, while another agrees with Wikipedia and says Democrat. Another essay simply describes him as “ideologically ambiguous,” while the Milwaukee Historical Society says he ran as a “non-partisan.”  All the older locals I polled really only remember his brother. A trip to the library and a look at some newspapers from the time of his election should clear things up. Keep your eyes peeled for an edit or change to this essay in the future.

[5]Eric Fure-Slocum, “Milwaukee Labor and Urban Democracy,” in Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, eds., Margo Anderson and Victor Greene (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 60.

Editorial Comment

Adam Krause is the author of The Revolution Will Be Hilarious and Art as Politics.