PBS documentary, America’s Socialist Experiment, tells the surprising story of a heartland city that was led by socialists for nearly half of the 20th Century. Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, is home of one of the most unique stories in American political history. This film examines America’s boldest experiment with socialists – how they rose to power, how they governed, and why the movement ended.
President Harry Truman and Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler during a 1952 campaign stop in the city (Zeidler Family Photo)
The 2020 election is renewing debate about what is means to be a socialist. Milwaukee offers some perspective. From 1910 to 1960, voters elected a series of socialist mayors, and the first socialist member of the U.S. Congress. This didn’t happen in a liberal enclave. This was a fiscally conservative city that grew to 750,000 during this era. And socialism’s success cannot be attributed to a single personality, because three mayors, a congressman, and a host of other city and county socialists were elected during this period.
What can these 20th-century heartland socialists tell us about how socialism works in practice? This film looks at both the victories and the failures of America's socialist experiment.
At the time, it was known as “the machine shop of the world,” manufacturing a wide range of industrial goods. The factories needed labor, and immigrants streamed in during the early part of the 20th century. But the unchecked industrial growth brought environmental destruction and government corruption.
The socialists promised to clean up both.
Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor Emil Seidel and second socialist mayor Daniel Hoan.
(Milwaukee County Historical Society photos)
They got their first chance in 1910, when Emil Seidel was elected mayor. He cracked down on human trafficking and illegal gambling—effectively blocking the growth of organized crime that ran rampant in nearby Chicago. Republicans and Democrats joined forces to defeat Seidel, but it was only a temporary setback—as socialist Daniel Hoan won in 1916. In office for the next 24 years, Hoan developed a reputation as an incorruptible force. His reforms included the nation’s first-ever public housing project, and massive infrastructure investments to provide Milwaukee’s working class with much-needed clean water and sanitation. His quest to improve life for working men and women expanded to include the development of dozens of parks, and an unprecedented dredging and filling operation to build hundreds of new acres of lakefront for public recreation.
Hoan lost his bid for re-election in 1940, became a Democrat, and ran for mayor again in 1948 only to be defeated by Frank Zeidler – a socialist. Zeidler continued the drive for infrastructure projects that bettered conditions for working men and women. During Zeidler’s tenure, the city’s African-American population tripled. Zeidler embraced the new Milwaukeeans. During a bitter re-election campaign, opponents claimed Zeidler was too friendly to the city’s newest arrivals. Zeidler contemplated retiring in 1956 but he was so incensed by the racial tension coming from the mainstream candidates, he ran that year for the last time. He won.