A Review of Conservative Counterrevolution: Challenging Liberalism in 1950s Milwaukee
by Tula Connell (University of Illinois Press, 2016)
The Washington Socialist <> February 2017
By Kurt Stand
In 1948 Frank Zeidler was elected Mayor of Milwaukee; re-elected twice he held office until 1960 -- remarkable insofar as he was the only Socialist to hold such a position in a big city during the years of the Cold War. His program, according to Tula Connell in Conservative Counterrevolution, “... fit easily within the broader postwar domestic liberal agenda, which was based in large measure on support for expansion of New Deal initiatives such as extension of affordable housing and the introduction of nationally funded healthcare coverage and which included strong support for workers and their unions” (p.36). All goals that were consistent with the socialist principles Zeidler never abandoned. And all goals that ran into determined resistance by a corporate community that stood in determined opposition to liberalism, progressivism and socialism.
As the book’s title indicates, Connell (a labor journalist at the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center) focuses on that side of the equation. She tells the story of a “ ... postwar consensus that existed primarily among business leaders who united around opposition to the fundamental ideals of the New Deal … [and against] its maintenance as a permanent economic structure” (p. 131). That opposition translated into an unrelenting campaign, open and subtle, to turn back working-class gains. The conflict between those two visions set the stage of our recent past and the lines of divide in our existing present with its right-wing Republican domination of the federal and most state governments.
Employer vs. Worker/aka Private vs. Public
Rebuilding infrastructure, which could be imagined as a nonpartisan subject, was one locus of that conflict. It is often forgotten how much rebuilding was needed in the 1950s for, although social and economic progress had been made since the depths of the Depression, that progress had its limitations. As Connell points out, Milwaukee and many other cities were greatly in need of of structural investment in the years after World War II -- for while the economic boom that occurred during the war had finally overcome the stagnation that followed the 1929 stock market crash, it had, of necessity, been focused on arms production and related industries, not urban needs. Such was the priority of any municipal government at the time, including Zeidler’s.
His goal was to promote economic growth to help local business as well as labor and was in no way conceived in the spirit of wealth redistribution. The support he gave to private sector unions and social welfare programs, though indicative of socialist solidarity, was also premised on the belief that security and stable income would benefit employers as well as workers. But as Connell demonstrates, this was not the spirit in which it was received -- ideology and anti-union animus outweighed profit gain (at least in the short-term) when manufacturers opposed expansion of the St. Lawrence Seaway both because it required public funding and because it would create more union jobs. The real issue was power; business interests believed that diminishing government funding and job expansion would dilute worker strength relative to their own.
That power was evident during a seven-year long strike/lockout at the UAW-organized Kohler factory (the largest manufacturer of bathroom plumbing) in northern Wisconsin, which made clear the sharp lines of class division at a time when union solidarity remained strong. Employer hostility and determination to destroy that solidarity grew in response. Business leaders with extreme right-wing politics along the lines of the John Birch Society (an anti-Communist forerunner of the Tea Party) took the lead in the fight against Zeidler’s progressive programs. In this they had unacknowledged support of corporate executives who ostensibly supported social welfare and labor-cooperation but who, in fact, were opposed to the concessions they had been forced to make during the 1930s and ‘40s. Although during the 1950s they did not see the possibility of rolling back the gains working people had made during the New Deal, they were determined to prevent any further progress in that direction. Thus, as Connell documents, employers across the moderate conservative to ultra-right spectrum worked toward the same ends, notwithstanding political and tactical differences.
Their ability to reframe the lens in which social issues were addressed, to cast government and labor as bad and business as the source of liberty and progress was facilitated by the development of a more consolidated media which included early instances of using corporate public relations as a source of news. Flowing from that, one of the first fights Zeidler faced was the attempt by business interests to block an initiative to establish a public television station in Milwaukee. Progressives and civic activists were aware of how the cultural and public affairs possibilities of radio had never been fully reached because it so quickly became almost wholly commercial -- and so they were determined to carve out public space for the still new television industry. Business interests led a determined fight to defeat the station proposal, using, in its extreme form, the logic that government equals dictatorship.
And even those business forces that wouldn’t go so far privileged the private over the public -- corporate-paid documentaries or science projects or museums being preferred to publicly financed versions of the same (contrary to the Works Progress Administration arts project during the Depression, or the establishment of a public museum and urban park system as was accomplished by prior Milwaukee socialist administrations). This was fought by repainting taxes as anti-working class even though progressive taxation and high corporate tax rates had been chiefly advocated by the progressive movement at the turn of the century when extreme wealth inequality was seen as undermining democracy and encouraging corruption at all levels of society. The 1950s saw the right wing begin to make inroads within a section of the working class with their counter-narrative that taxation is an affront to personal liberty; that the dividing line in society was not around class but around personal liberty vs. social engineering – the latter whether in the guise of FDR and the New Deal or Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Opposition of public to private was also the basis of opposition to public housing, even though housing was badly needed in Milwaukee as its population was growing in those years -- and construction of public housing had been another achievement of the city’s Socialists in the 1920s. This battle too was fought on ideological grounds -- many of those who needed housing and would benefit from it were army veterans, mainly from Milwaukee’s increasingly Americanized European immigrant communities. Connell describes, however, how the business campaign began to take on an ever-more pronounced racist character, with the city’s still small Black community seen as the chief potential beneficiary of low-cost housing. A whispering campaign directed at Zeidler’s pro-civil rights stance during his last Mayoral run in 1956 was an aspect of this. So too was the undercurrent of racism in the development of suburban housing promoted as a means to put a fence around the supposed collectivist tendencies of urban areas. Zeidler’s plan to expand the city of Milwaukee was opposed on that basis. Taken together, these created the framework for Milwaukee’s emergence as the most segregated city in the country.
Connell joins with other scholars in pointing out that the promotion of homeownership to undermine working-class solidarity and the racism of suburbanization/opposition to public housing preceded the racist backlash against the civil rights movement. It is an important lesson to remember because it means that those people pushing for equality and school/housing integration as part of the Civil Rights movement were not the cause of the break-up of the New Deal coalition. Had racial discrimination in housing been overcome when labor was strong, it would have been more difficult for corporate power to reassert itself as it did in subsequent years. But that was not to be; fierce battles over housing and education in Milwaukee in the 1960s and ‘70s foundered on the breakup of potential working class unity assiduously promoted in the 1950s.
Residential segregation in particular remained in place. That led to today’s crisis. Housing costs rising on one side, housing stock deteriorating on the other, a profound crisis was created that private/corporate “solutions” only exacerbated a problem made worse by vanishing manufacturing jobs. The human cost is documented in another book about Milwaukee, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His account of families with no way to move out of the margins of permanent insecurity, of lives marked by the ever-present danger of hunger and homelessness painfully depict what the destruction of the New Deal structures mean in today’s world. Put in context of Milwaukee’s history, this means that many of those doing only slightly better than those at the bottom (including the up from the roots landlords also depicted in Evicted) fear falling below their chancy status and so do not see social solutions as possible. Organizing for working-class progress is given up in exchange for hope of individual advancement. From that root, class-conscious hostility to government as a vehicle for corporate power becomes distorted into an acceptance of undemocratic and authoritarian private power as an alternative.
The ground was thus laid for Milwaukee-- and Wisconsin as a whole -- to become a laboratory of charter schools, welfare cutbacks. In this lay the social base for Scott Walker and Paul Ryan and Donald Trump. Though defeated in some areas, Zeidler was successful in some arenas. But during his twelve years in office, the battlefield tilted. Instead of programs to advance a progressive agenda, the social movement he represented was increasingly put on the defensive. The appeals to racism, the assault on government and on unions combined to have an impact beyond what was visible at the time. Based on the belief, that as one business leader put it, “that there is nothing more autocratic than the tyranny of the majority” (p. 145), we have now an ever more unvarnished tyranny of the minority. That the epicenter of this turn should happen in the once strongly progressive industrial Midwest is surprising only if social dynamics are seen with one eye closed.
As Connell explains: “In midcentury cities such as Milwaukee, which boasted both a strong labor movement and a liberal municipal government, continuation of the New Deal order seemed a safe bet. The pugnacity of Milwaukee private- and public-sector workers in demanding a say at their workplaces, the overall acceptance of the social welfare state, and the repeated election of a liberal mayor who identified with socialism, -- this broader social and political environment easily obscured the undercurrents of conservative reaction simmering beneath the surface.” (p. 176).
But the mass movement in opposition to Walker that emerged in 2011 shows that an alternative is possible. Asserting the voice of the majority as a desired goal to enhance liberty and equality is possible; not through the methods employed by business reaction that narrow and undermine, but rather through organizing that builds outward by engaging ever more in mutual solidarity will the promise of the New Deal, will the possibilities of socialism, be realized. Conservative Counterrevolution adds to our understanding of what happened as we confront what may happen, for what has changed can be changed again, perhaps this time on a firmer foundation.
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