Sewer Socialist (n): 1. Pragmatic socialist engaged in urban reform. 2. Tinkering revisionist. 3. Won’t shut up about Milwaukee’s plumbing.
On April 19, 1910, Emil Seidel took office as the first Socialist mayor of a major American city. For thirty-eight of the next fifty years, the Socialist Party would hold the mayor’s office thanks to their strong grassroots organization and their reputation for clean and efficient administration. In his inaugural address, Seidel called for radical socialist measures: an end to child labor, protection of women on the job, and better working conditions across the city. He also announced the kind of reforms we might associate with a good-government administration of any political stripe: a Bureau of Municipal Research, fair contracts for city workers, and home rule for the city. They shared this belief in clean government and rational administration with the progressive reformers of the same period: recognizable ancestors of modern liberals and urban centrists.
Two years later Seidel would be nominated as vice presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, alongside legendary labor leader Eugene Debs. Their platform (PDF) called capitalism a “soulless industrial despotism” driving Americans into a “yoke of bondage.” They demanded collective ownership of railroads, utilities, large-scale industries, natural resources, and the banking system. They called for a major program of public works to put the unemployed to work, and for shortening the work day with rising productivity, giving people more leisure time. Along with these radical measures, they included a series of political demands that would deepen democracy: stronger protections for the free press, a more parliamentary system, and suffrage and citizenship for the District of Columbia and U.S. colonies.
Squaring radical socialist demands and liberal-democratic administration was always a source of tension within the party. For the best one-hour introduction to American socialism in this era, see this lecture by historian Eric Foner. “Sewer socialism” was originally a pejorative lobbed at the Milwaukee moderates from left-wingers within the party who emphasized the more radical components of the socialist vision. The Sewer Socialists were notorious for boasting of their success at modernizing Milwaukee’s filthy sanitation system. To some in the party, this was setting the bar too low, but the Milwaukee party embraced the label. Since then, this divide between far-left radicals and practical socialists has widened, thanks largely to the politics of the Cold War. Liberals incorporated sewer socialists and left-wing trade unionists into enduring members of the New Deal coalition, while the far left evolved into its own distinct tendencies associated with Marxism-Leninism on the one hand and various decentralized strains of anarchism and post-New Left politics on the other. Conservatives and liberals broke the radicals by purging them in the Red Scares, while moderate socialists and the labor-left went from base to afterthought within the Democratic Party coalition. For their part, the Sewer Socialists’ last year in power was 1960: as Milwaukee’s Black population rose, Socialist Mayor Frank Zeidler was threatened and slandered for supporting integrated public housing, and hounded out of office.
But this is a new day, and we at Sewer Socialists think there’s something to learn from the Sewer Socialists’ example. We believe that the old schisms—between reform and revolution, between competent administration and ideological principle, between working within the system and building an alternative—are false dilemmas. We put ourselves at the center of the left, more pragmatic and policy-oriented than vanguardist radicals, but unlike liberals, willing to challenge capitalism and fight for socialism.
We are also at the left wing of urbanism. We celebrate cities and metro areas as vibrant centers of economic, cultural, and ecologically sustainable life. This does not mean that we reject suburbs and rural areas: cities and the countryside need one another. People who live in cities are no better or worse than anyone else. However, because cities put so many different people, cultures, and ideas close together, they create something that is bigger than the sum of their parts. “The U.S. Economy” is a bit of a misleading term: there are dozens of regional economies centered around large and small cities and their suburbs. Urbanists are right to champion cities as prosperous and pluralistic, but they too often combine those beliefs with a snobbish sense of superiority over rural communities and smaller metro areas. People from those areas often identify social liberalism with elites, whose values emanate from big cities to the rest of the country through media outlets, prestigious universities, and liberal scolding. But racial, sexual, and social equality must be for everyone. If people in the heartland see them as elite values—values forced on the poor by the rich—those values will be weak. We don’t need to water down demands for racial, sexual, and social equality, and we shouldn’t. But we do need to offer people in heartland communities something that addresses their stagnant wages and lost jobs. Otherwise, more will drop out of politics entirely, and the rest will be vulnerable to demagogues steering their anger towards xenophobia and racism. Our concern for cities is not simply about defending the urban way of life, but about sharing the prosperity that cities create. That means not only increasing prosperity and equality within cities, but also sharing that prosperity among different cities, and between cities and their rural regions.
Our focus on urban issues raises the question of administrative competence and ideological principle. When one of us created the Twitter handle @mayorseidel, named after the socialist Milwaukee mayor, urbanist bloggers Sandy Johnston and Alon Levy made interesting points reflecting on it. We’ll respond in depth in a future post, but suffice to say we welcome their perspective but agree most with Ryan Cooper: “experts” seem neoliberal, and leftists seem anti-expert, because technocrats tend to follow the political winds. It was not rational expertise but neoliberal ideology that gave us the untested, unworkable model of the Affordable Care Act. A dispassionate analysis would have shown that socialized medicine is the most effective way to provide good healthcare. If socialist ideology were in the political mainstream, it would put good policies like universal healthcare and other Nordic model social democratic programs back into the realm of political possibility, along with a metropolitan agenda. We here at Sewer Socialists want to contribute to these agendas.
When we discussed reviving Sewer Socialists, we thought the political situation would be different than it is. We knew that the Democratic establishment was weak. We knew that Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, unsuited to an anti-establishment moment. We supported Bernie Sanders, a former sewer socialist mayor, for President not only because we preferred his policies, but because we thought he was better-suited to fighting back against the GOP’s right-wing populism. But we also thought that Hillary Clinton’s institutional advantages and the electoral math of the 2012 election left her with a strong enough firewall to beat the fascist threat. We thought that Trump would lose to a weak candidate, and that his loss would discredit the fascist tendency within the Republican Party. We worried that Clinton might lose in 2020, but we expected to have at least four years to build a progressive alternative inside and outside the Democratic Party. We knew that the Democratic establishment was incompetent and losing legitimacy, but we made the mistake of thinking that they had the basic competence necessary to defeat the least popular person to ever run for President. We gave the Democratic leadership the benefit of the doubt, and we were wrong.
It is hard to overstate how badly they failed. Clinton didn’t set foot in Wisconsin once during the general election. Pro-Clinton forces ran seven times as many ads in Los Angeles than Milwaukee. The DNC almost completely neglected Latino outreach. The presumptive Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that it was no problem to neglect blue-collar voters, because suburban Republicans would switch to the Democratic side. The result? Trump got fewer votes than Romney or McCain, and didn’t even win the popular vote, but he won almost entirely because Democrats lost working-class voters of all races. The mythical moderates the Democrats were relying on didn’t make up the difference—and why would they have? Republican voters, by definition, vote Republican. In light of their utter failure, the professional class that hold senior management positions in every major liberal political organization must resign immediately. They should be replaced by a new group of leaders who are willing to demand the kind of policies – $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, getting money out of politics – that can drive up turnout in the cities and engage blue-collar voters in small towns and rural areas.
There is some hope. The organization most directly descended from the old Socialist Party that once held power in Milwaukee is called the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA’s membership has increased by more than 1,300 in the week since the election. And that is part of why we at Sewer Socialists are back. We hope to support a left-populist and socialist alternative, while building the urban and metropolitan elements of that coalition and its agenda. Socialists are climbing out of the sewer.
–The Sewer Socialists