07 November 2011

100 Years Ago Today, Socialists win an American election

In the second decade of the twentieth century, Socialism seemed to stand at the brink of an electoral breakthrough in the United States. Among the milestones that appeared to position Socialists as the third major party in the country was the mayoral election in Schenectady NY (the home of General Electric) on November 7, 1911. By a landslide, voters chose Socialist George R. Lunn as their mayor, and gave his party a majority on the city's common council. Lunn didn't conform to the eventual socialist stereotype. For starters, he was a minister of the gospel. As contemporary wire service reports explained, he had been compelled to resign from the First Reformed Church because of his politicized sermons. Lunn simply formed his own congregation, the United People's Church, while publishing a weekly newspaper, The Citizen. He had made himself a prominent public figure with weekly mass meetings outside his church, and at least one local paper, the Troy Record, suggested that his mayoral victory was "more of a tribute to a splendid personality than to a party." A wire report in the same paper looked at conditions in Schenectady more closely.

The voters, a majority being working men in the plants of the General Electric and American Locomotive companies, were dissatisfied with the Republican administration two years ago, which the Democrats failed to remedy the past two years. This left an open field for the Socialists and their reform movement. Chief among the arguments of Dr. Lunn were a municipal paving plant to 'bust' the so-called street paving trust, which has controlled all street improvements at prices suitable for themselves alone, a cheaper gas rate and a cut in the city pay roll by eliminating a number of useless officeholders.

In other words, Lunn was a Socialist for smaller government, a phenomenon that might make heads explode across the political spectrum a century later. While the Record presumed that many Lunn voters actually had "little patience with the theories of socialism," the Albany Times Union noted a surge in Socialist turnout across the state and nation and speculated on general reasons for the trend.

What is the cause of the growth of Socialism? It typifies the great social unrest. It illustrates the growth of independence. It shows that the average voter is impressed with the fact that the old parties who produce the Lorimers, Stephensons, Allds and Congers [allegedly corrupt politicians all] of our generation, who do nothing substantial to smash the trusts, is making it harder and harder for him to live. He finds that while the trusts are producing multi-millionaires he has to work and work and never seems to get ahead. This breeds dissatisfaction....If the managers of the old parties want to stem the torrent which may one of these days reach the magnitude of a tidal wave they must get closer to the common people, because [sic?] more progressive in their ideas.

Lunn's main agenda in office was to maintain and extend municipal ownership of city utilities. He explained his reasoning at a conference of mayors a year before his own election where he advanced an idea of "Big Brother" diametrically opposed to the present-day meaning of the term.

We all know that the people do not control our American municipalities today. The family idea, as I have suggested, of a great brotherhood dwelling together in comparative unity, respecting each other's rights, and granting special privileges to none but equal opportunity to all, is a dream not yet realized but still to be realized if our municipal life is ever to accomplish for the people what it should.
It is most unfortunate that within the municipal family are two big, elder brothers, called Monopoly and Privilege, and these two elder brothers have their grip on the throat of every city in America that I know anything about. In every city special privileges are granted to individual citizens; special privileges granted to this editor because of his control of the press; special privileges granted to a public utility corporation; special privileges granted to some industry or other. These special privileges take the form of street franchises of one kind or other or may be in the form of certain exemptions. The interests of the city and the interests of these "Special Privilege Seekers" are not identical. They never will be identical.
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Here in Schenectady we have municipal ownership of one public utility. We own and manage our own water supply. We have the lowest tax rate on water of all the second-class cities. We not only have the best water in the state but we make a profit for the people of $50,000 every year, nearly one thousand dollars every week. If our water supply was owned and managed by a public service corporation, that corporation would have and exercise a mighty power over municipal legislation. We need have no fears as to one thing: so long as there are privileges to be won or to be bought or to be secured by threatening with political extinction aldermen or mayors, so long will we have deep-seated evils. Until all public utilities are in the hands of the people we must face the fact that the people do not control, neither can they control, their municipalities. The great task before the people today is to gain control of their cities so that those cities may be managed in the interest of the people as a whole and not in the interest of the Big Brothers. The vested interests which control our cities must be shaken off.

Lunn and his supporters proved resilient. Defeated for re-election by a Bipolarchy coalition in 1913, he came back to retake City Hall in 1915. Unfortunately for the Socialist movement, it and Lunn came to a parting of the ways not long afterward. Ideological rigidity and personal ambition apparently came into conflict, Socialists denouncing him as a compromiser before he jumped to the Democratic party, under which Lunn was later elected to Congress and as Lieutenant Governor of New York.

What is different now? For one thing, the failures and atrocities of Bolshevism, especially as publicized by those who would equate all forms of socialism with Stalinist excess, have perhaps irreparably tainted the entire idea of socialism for many people. But Stalin was nowhere near power by the time the Schenectady Socialists had broken with their most successful activist. Something had already failed, or was failing, by 1917, when Lunn switched parties. His personal issues aside, the fact remains that 100 years ago voters in Schenectady and elsewhere were willing and able to repudiate the Bipolarchy and elect third-party candidates by decisive margins. To the extent that it was a national trend, it could not be written off to Lunn's charisma. Americans were ready to vote Socialist, or else were ready to quit the Democrats and Republicans. More than a third of voters supported non-Bipolarchy candidates in the 1912 presidential elections, including Socialist Eugene Debs's 6% of the popular vote. Have Americans more confidence in Bipolarchy now, despite all opinion polls, or have they less confidence than they did a century ago in anyone's capacity to reform American politics? Or was it simply easier for a third party to break through in 1911? If so, what do laws and money have to do with it?  Lunn's victory should be taken, even by people who abhor Socialism, as proof that the American electoral system worked. You may believe that Socialists shouldn't win any more elections, but if the formal and informal rules of 21st century campaigns mean that they can't win elections, then something is wrong with the American system today, and not only Socialists will suffer from that.

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