By Jason Sibert
One thing that is sorely lacking in politics these days is the political party that functions as a membership-based organization. Be they Democratic, Republican, or other, the populace isn’t as involved as members as was common in the past. This involvement has been replaced by the way you vote, the media you consume, or what’s going on with your social media friends.
There are membership-based organizations in existence that are trying to impact politics – the Democratic Socialists of America, Sierra Club, Consumers Union, and of course, Social Democrats USA. However, they lack the membership numbers on the scale of the components of the New Deal coalition – the labor unions and the farm organizations (National Farmers’ Union and Farm Bureau). The old urban bosses (like former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley) didn’t run membership-based organizations, but they did solve problems for the people they represented, big city residents. Then there were also membership-based religious organizations; Martin Luther King wasn’t just a civil rights leader who was involved in social justice issues of all kinds, he was also a religious leader. Let’s not forget the involvement of Jewish rabbis in the civil rights movement or of the Roman Catholic clergy in the labor movement. Secularization hit religious organizations, a variety of factors hit the labor movement (the decline of blue-collar work, moving union factories overseas where there are few if any unions, and plum hostility from employers), and the big city bosses faded away in the years after World War II when more Americans lived in suburbs. Today’s big city mayors aren’t urban bosses in any sense of the word. The farm organizations faded with fewer Americans farming.
However, there’s still a need for our political system to perform for the people it represents. We’ve seen a revival of a political school known as sewer socialism as of late, and it could be a school of politics that delivers for residents of various municipalities – big city, suburb, exurban, and small town. Let’s look at what sewer socialism meant historically. Writer Joel Kotkin, in his piece “Sewer Socialism.” (Los Angeles Times, 9/12/2004) stated that the industrial revolution presented challenges to cities, and Socialist Party mayors rose to the challenge. These were mayors who cleaned up disease-ridden environments with new publicly-owned sanitation systems and municipally-owned water and power systems. They also developed parks and improved education systems. Kotkin points out that Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley practiced sewer socialism in the 1980’s with his dedication to the city’s airport and seaports. Another example of sewer socialism would be Houston under former Mayor Bob Lanier. His administration focused on improving neighborhoods by enhancing public safety and constructing new roads, lighting, and sewers. In turn, this laid the groundwork for private sector economic development.
In early 20th century, Milwaukee, Wisc. Mayors such as Emil Seidel and Daniel Hoan, Bridgeport, Conn. Mayor Jasper McLevy (mayor from 1933 to 1957), and Mayor James Mauer of Reading, Penn. all represented sewer socialism in their respective cities. Much of the time sewer socialists represented the right-wing of the Socialist Party. Former Socialist Presidential Candidate Norman Thomas felt they only paid lip service to the cause of Socialism. However, there are exceptions, Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler served as mayor from 1948 to 1960. He was on the left-wing of the party, but his office didn’t allow him to nationalize steel companies, banks, and other capital-intensive industries. He ran for president in 1976 on the Socialist Party USA ticket and embraced nationalization. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders practiced sewer socialism as mayor of Burlington, Vt. from 1981 to 1989. He was more left wing then than he is now, but like Zeidler, he had limited powers as a mayor.
Sewer socialism was a good government movement. Sewer socialists ran efficient administrations because every dollar that was saved could be poured into better services for residents. Such should be the mantra for a modern sewer socialism which will serve recent immigrants, service workers (retail, restaurant, healthcare, and hotels and motels), and all other urban and small-town residents in the lower-to-middle income spectrum. There are already examples of a new, budding sewer socialism. Cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Seattle, and New York City have had a groundswell of progressive politics in recent years that has projected socialist candidates into city council and other local elected offices. Writer Jordan Fraade spoke of the rise of a contemporary sewer socialism in his story “Bring Back the Sewer Socialists:” (Slate.com, July 27, 2021): “ (New York City mayoral candidate) Kathryn Garcia,came within one percentage point during ranked choice voting of winning the Democratic primary for mayor. Garcia was a lifelong civil servant whose pitch to voters was almost entirely about her own competence and managerial skill; she promised to “get shit done,” a wry nod to her past in sanitation and sewage. Her policy positions were mostly moderate, but her message contained a kernel that the city’s progressive left can adapt and make its own after a disappointing showing in the mayoral race. The most electorally successful leftists in U.S. history ran and governed on this very kernel—the belief that delivering basic services, building public works, and running a functional local government are inseparable from what it means to govern from the left in a major city.” Garcia, who also offered a climate platform and free childcare for parents, came from nowhere and ran a competitive campaign, and this means her ideas have appeal.
There are potentials for a modern-day sewer socialism beyond what has been mentioned so far. Passing municipal minimum wages, higher than the federal minimum wage, would help service workers. There have been attempts around the country, but sometimes the state governments step in and make municipal minimum wages illegal. Supporting housing cooperatives would be another idea, as affordable housing is a problem in urban America, especially for service workers. Housing coops represent a form of housing that makes the occupants actual owners, not the government, although city governments could facilitate housing coops with funding. Hoan created the first public housing project in Milwaukee as mayor. Building public hospitals might be another cause. Public hospitals would represent a cheap way for city residents to obtain expensive operations, although it would be unlikely that they could enter the primary care business. Perhaps residents of surrounding municipalities could be treated for a slightly more expensive rate. Perhaps paid family leave, sick leave, and personal days should also be on the agenda. We could build social insurance funds through taxation of those that benefit.
Big cities have experienced somewhat of a comeback as of late with St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore the only ones who have not experienced population growth since the 1980’s. Some of this has to due with the liberalizing of our country’s immigration laws in the 1960’s, and immigrants having revived big city neighborhoods. Big cities have also become home to what urbanist Richard Florida calls “the creative class” in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” The creative class includes computer hardware and software workers, artists, scientists, writers, editors, fashion designers, media types (screenwriters, actors, producers, playwrights, musicians, record producers), artisans of all stripes, and anybody else that works in a creative field. While these things have helped cities generate revenues, they have also gentrified cities to the point where they are not affordable for the service class.
That is not to say that creative types have not done cities a lot of good, and Florida’s three T’s – technology, talent, and tolerance – aren’t bad things. However, mayors should not go overboard in making major cosmetic changes to cities to attract “the creative class,” as this has happened since Florida’s book was published in 2002. Those creative activities will come on their own. On the other hand, research and development is a pillar of technological creativity, and something the private sector sometimes doesn’t want to invest in because there’s no telling when it will turn a profit. A sewer socialist could support research and development. Some funding for the arts is also desirable, but sewer socialists should not put all their eggs in one basket.
The Democratic Party faces an uncertain future with the very idea of a democratic republic being subverted through attacks on voting rights, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, attempts to nab state presidential delegations away from voters, and the appeal of authoritarian politics to some in the populace. Embracing sewer socialism, now more than ever, can build a farm team for higher offices and save our republic.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis, Missouri.