Awhile back, President Trump’s reelection campaign sent out an email blast with the subject line: “Are you an American or a Socialist?”
Republicans have been calling Democrats socialists since the time of William Jennings Bryan in his first presidential campaign in 1896; this is such a time-worn charge that it no longer has much shock value.
Still the Trump formulation — “Are you an American or a Socialist? — rings a certain McCarthyesque tone because it implies that one cannot be both. Now, to be clear: We are not socialists, as anyone who has paid us for either a print or digital subscription can attest. Newspapers are owned by capitalists. However, we also are students of history and have a passion for historical accuracy, so let’s explore this question a little more deeply. Learning about American history is definitely an American thing to do.
American socialism — ponder that phrase — actually goes back to at least 1825 when the Welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen tried to establish a “utopian community” in a place he called New Harmony, Indiana. Yes, the first roots of American socialism were planted in what today we’d call the heartland. Owen wrote that his community was “a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” It also failed after two years, so there’s that cautionary tale. The first outright Marxist publication in the country came off the press in 1851, published by German refugee Joseph Weydemeyer, a protege of Karl Marx. His German-language Die Revolution also lasted just two issues. Weydemeyer complained that Americans simply weren’t interested in his ideas. For the record, Marx had warned him that would be the case — that working-class Americans were too well-off to take part in any revolution, political or otherwise.
Socialism did not really become a movement in the United States until after the Civil War as industrialization transformed the nation. Often, socialism was tied up with the rise of labor movements. The nation’s first socialist party — the Social Democratic Party of North America – was founded in 1874. The Workingmen’s Party of the United States was founded two years later and enjoyed surprising success. In Louisville, Kentucky — not a place we think of as a modern hotbed of socialism — 8,850 of the 13,578 votes cast in 1877 went to socialist candidates. Five of the seven Workingmen’s Party candidates were elected to the Kentucky state Legislature. Kentucky! Across the Ohio River, a black socialist candidate won an astounding 8,000 or 9,000 votes (accounts differ) for school commissioner — not enough to win, but enough to get people’s attention, not always in a good way. In 1897, a city councilman in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, declared himself a socialist — and promptly won re-election the next year. In fact, in 1898, Sheboygan elected two socialists to its city council — and the first one, Fred Haack, went on to serve 16 years. In 1910, Wisconsin elected a socialist to Congress — Victor Berger of Milwaukee. He introduced a bill that was considered quite radical at the time — an old-age pension. It didn’t pass then, but today we know it as Social Security. If you’re getting a Social Security check, you’re benefiting from something that was once a socialist idea. Voters then weren’t impressed. Berger lost his reelection bid in 1912 and lost again in 1914 and 1916. His Austrian birth, and his anti-war views, led to Berger being indicted under the federal Espionage Act. Despite the indictment, he was elected to the Wisconsin state Senate and, despite his later conviction, he made yet another comeback and was returned to Congress in 1918. The House disqualified him; Berger ran in a special election and won again (eventually the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction). Today we think of Wisconsin as the classic swing state — one of the states that swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump, a state Democrats are so keen to regain that they’ve scheduled their nominating convention for Milwaukee. In the early 1900s, though, Wisconsin was the state most keen to elect socialists to office. Why?
Indeed, you may have noticed a geographical trend here: These early socialists, from the utopian colony in Indiana to the state legislators from Kentucky to other politicians in Wisconsin, generally hailed from the Midwest. There are two reasons: Socialism was popular with German immigrants, and that’s where many settled. And that’s also where the Industrial Revolution was taking place. Today we think of the Midwest as the quintessential “red, white and blue” America, but once that red had a different meaning. The most famous socialist politician of the day was Eugene Debs, another product of the Midwest — Indiana, to be precise. He ran for president five times — 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. Much of Debs’ platform doesn’t seem radical today: A 6-and-a-half-day work week, an end to child labor, women’s suffrage.
His best showing came in 1912, when he polled 901,551 votes, good enough for 6% of the vote in a four-way race that saw Woodrow Wilson oust President William Howard Taft and turn back former President Theodore Roosevelt. For comparison purposes, Ross Perot won 8.4% of the vote 1996 and 19% in 1992; John Anderson won 6.6% in 1980, and George Wallace won 13.5% in 1968. Or, if you prefer, the most successful Libertarian Party candidate was Gary Johnson in 2016; he took 3.28%. At one time, Americans were twice as interested in having a socialist president as they ever have been in electing a Libertarian president. In 1912, nearly 1 million Americans voted for Debs. Moreover, voters had elected more than 1,000 socialists to office in 33 different states. Today we generally think of the western states — those on the coast excepted — as being pretty conservative. But in the early 1900s, they were most receptive to left-of-center ideas. Debs’ best two states were Nevada and Oklahoma, where he took about 16.5% of the vote. In Nevada, that placed him third — ahead of the beleaguered President Taft. Debs also placed in double digits in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington. Virginia was not so socialist: Debs took just 0.6% of the vote here.
The bottom line: The United States has never been a socialist country, but it has a long history of socialist politicians who introduced ideas that today are regarded as part of the political mainstream. Are you an American or a socialist? That’s a clever (though dangerous) question that betrays a lack of understanding of American history.