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PBS Documentary Explores Why Milwaukee Was 'America's Socialist Experiment'

Throughout United States history, Milwaukee and Wisconsin have been politically significant. And Milwaukee has an interesting political past you may not know about: socialists ran the city for nearly half of the 20th century. One of the most notable was Mayor Daniel Hoan, who served for a consecutive 24 years — the longest socialist administration in U.S. history.

The new PBS documentary America’s Socialist Experiment looks at what made Milwaukee an ideal place for the Socialist Party to have such an impact. The film tells Milwaukee's socialist story through local historians, political observers, family members of past socialist leaders, and life-long residents. It will air at 8 p.m. Monday on PBS Wisconsin and Tuesday on Milwaukee PBS.

Socialism in Milwaukee was a "European experience," according to Mike Gousha, one of the film's producers. He's a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, and former Milwaukee television news anchor and reporter. 

He says these key elements allowed the political movement to take hold: a wave of immigrants in the late 1800s, an explosion of the labor movement in an industrial city, and poor health and sanitary conditions along with corruption that allowed the socialist platform to excel.

"The socialists swept into power in 1910 running essentially as reformers — we will clean up government, and we will clean up the city," says Gousha. "The thing that the socialists tapped into was the public's desire for honesty and integrity in government, and that was a hallmark of the socialist years."

READ: How Socialist Mayors Impacted Milwaukee

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Emil Seidel was the first socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1910-1912.

Part of the Socialist Party's lasting success in Milwaukee can also be attributed to their pragmatism, Gousha says. Daniel Hoan made a point to exist within a capitalist free market system, they were fiscally conservative, and they worked with other parties to accomplish their goals. 

Their pragmatism drew criticism from other socialists around the country, who called Milwaukeeans "sewer socialists" for not being revolutionary enough, according to Gousha. 

"As Gene Zeidler said, 'The socialists of Milwaukee took that as a badge of honor. And they said, well you may think we need to be more revolutionary but you could not be elected dog catcher and we’re winning elections,' " Gousha notes. 

As time went on, socialism became equated with communism and couldn't survive in the political atmosphere in America. Gousha notes that the Democratic Party also adopted many socialist ideals and as the city became more prosperous, people didn't see as big a need for socialist leaders. 

Milwaukee's socialist leaders restored honor and integrity to city and government, created the parks system, and created a second lakefront for the working class to access. Those are just a few of their lasting impacts we can still see today.

"The socialists succeeded for a time because they listened to the needs of the people," says Gousha. 

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.