By David Kurlander

Political outsiders are an increasingly powerful force in Washington. The Senate candidacy of celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, the debate over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent trip to Florida, and the legal wrangling over 26-year-old Representative Madison Cawthorn’s re-election eligibility pepper the headlines. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “The Lure of Political Outsiders,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed past outsiders, including Victor Berger, a pioneering Socialist congressman who improbably regained his seat in 1922 after a slew of legal imbroglios. A closer look at Berger’s return to office illustrates the struggle over insurgent voices that has long been a fixture of American democracy.  

In 1910, Milwaukee-area voters elected Victor Berger, a newspaper editor and Austrian immigrant, to the House of Representatives, marking the first time a Socialist had ever made it to Congress. Berger had spent the previous decade building a Milwaukee coalition of “Sewer Socialists,” so named because of their focus on improving municipal infrastructure over ideological purity. Berger’s ally, Emil Seidel, had taken the Milwaukee mayorship a few months earlier. In addition to his work in Milwaukee, Berger also co-founded the Socialist Party of America with perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who credited Berger with introducing him to Socialist thought. 

During his first term in Congress, Berger gained a reputation as an effective provocateur. In April 1911, his second month on the job, he introduced a bill to abolish the Senate because of the corrupt electoral process, then conducted by state legislatures. The bill didn’t go far, but Berger drew further attention to the prospect of directly electing Senators, which would be enshrined in the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913. Berger also introduced the first pension proposal for older Americans, an early precursor to Social Security. Berger lost re-election in 1912, but remained the de-facto spokesman for Socialists in Washington.

As President Wilson edged toward entering World War I, Berger’s outspoken opposition to American involvement became a political and legal liability. Berger used his paper, the popular Milwaukee Leader, to argue that the War was being fought primarily for profit. In one July 1917 editorial, Berger wrote, “The six million men of all countries and races who have been ruthlessly slain in the first thirty months of the war…have not been sacrifices exacted in a struggle for principles or ideals, but wanton offerings upon the altar of private profit.” 

It’s also worth noting Berger was not above the bigotry of his time; despite his own left-wing views and his background, he expressed anti-immigrant and racist views in his writings and speeches during this whole period. 

The Department of Justice indicted Berger in March 1918 alongside four other Socialist publishers. The defendants were charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for the dissemination of their anti-interventionist writing. After the armistice, in January 1919, Chicago-based Federal District Court Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis went for the jugular during sentencing, giving Berger twenty years in Fort Leavenworth prison. 

Landis spoke a bit too honestly to reporters after sentencing: “It was my great displeasure to give Berger twenty years in Fort Leavenworth. I regretted it exceedingly because I believe the laws of the country should have enabled me to have Berger lined up against a wall and shot.” 

Berger, out on bail during appeal, was utterly de-platformed. Additional Espionage Act indictments stemming from Berger’s writings in the Leader had emerged in Wisconsin. Postmaster General Albert Burleson suspended the mailing rights of the Leader. Berger won re-election in November 1918 and in a subsequent 1919 special election designed to find an alternative candidate, but Congress voted almost unanimously both times to refuse to sit him. 

In 1921, however, Berger’s fortunes looked up. On January 31st of that year the Supreme Court overturned Berger’s conviction, citing Judge Landis’s belligerent statements to the press as evidence that he should have recused himself. Landis, for his part, had pivoted to become the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, where he prosecuted the Black Sox cheating scandal and resisted racial integration of the sport. 

A mostly exonerated Berger, still technically on trial in Wisconsin, geared up for a run to regain his House seat in 1922. He reached out to other progressive groups that had sprouted in the aftermath of the nation’s 1920 rightward turn, which saw President Warren Harding and a plethora of pro-business Republicans win election. 

Berger became particularly cozy with the short-lived Farmer-Labor Party, a hodgepodge coalition that spanned the political spectrum,  and the Plumb Plan League, a group focused on securing public ownership of the railroads. “We are all just breaking ground as the angleworm does for the later party of protest, whatever it is to be called,” Berger told reporters in St. Louis in March 1922. “Personally, I don’t care whether it is called Socialist or not.”

Berger also engineered an electoral alliance with popular Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, a progressive Republican whose own anti-War statements had sparked an unsuccessful Senate vote on his expulsion. At the Wisconsin State Socialist Party Convention in July 1922, Berger convinced the Party not to run a Socialist Senate candidate against La Follette. 

At a Milwaukee Socialist picnic on July 16th, 1922, Berger explained his alliance: “La Follette stands now as he stood during the war. The socialists’ position is the same. We believe our participation in the World War was the greatest crime in American history.” 

The gambit worked. Most of La Follette’s voting bloc—even if wary of Socialism in name—turned out for Berger. On November 8th, 1922, both La Follette and Berger were elected, with Berger winning handily over his Republican challenger William H. Stafford. 

After the returns were announced, Berger offered another denunciation of the War: “This election settled the myth that we entered the World War because the majority of the common people willed it. I, like Senator LaFollette, opposed our entrance into the war. During the war we were lampooned, maligned, and crucified. It is only natural that the people should send both of us to Congress together.” 

Berger still faced a Congress that had twice denied his seat and a press that had dragged him during his legal battle. On December 3rd, 1922, Berger wrote a lengthy editorial in the New York Times defending his views on the War and drawing sharp distinctions between his brand of Socialism and that of the Bolsheviks, who were then engaged in a bloody Russian civil war.  

Berger reminded readers that he was a victim of a punitive government. “For my part, I don’t want State Socialism without certain guarantees and precautions. I had a taste of perversion of the powers of government,” he wrote.  

Of the Russians, Berger added, “The Bolsheviki want to break entirely with the past. The Socialists do not believe that a complete break is either possible or desirable. The Socialists want to keep all that is good, useful or beautiful in capitalist civilization, and leave it as a heritage to coming generations.” 

 Berger ended his piece with the suggestion that the War had empowered groups that genuinely deserved prosecution, like the “fascisti” Ku Klux Klan. “It is worthy of notice that the adherents of the masked Klan bitterly opposed me in the recent election,” Berger wrote. “After all, the Klan is only one of the many manifestations of the mob spirit awakened by the World War.” 

 In February 1923, Attorney General Harry Daugherty officially closed the book on the Department of Justice’s legal efforts against Berger, offering a nolle prosequi on the conviction. On March 4th, 1923, Berger returned to the House without substantial hubbub.

Over the summer recess, Berger visited Berlin and Hamburg to speak at the International Socialist Congress. When Berger got off the ship in New York on August 27th, he expressed new anguish at the War, inspired by the growing polarization and out-of-control inflation he saw in Germany. 

 “All America got out of the war was prohibition, the flu, eighteen to twenty billion dollars in debts, and 323,000 casualties among her young soldiers,” Berger said. And he, decidedly presciently, rang the alarm on Germany’s drift to the political extremes: “Europe is on the brink of disaster and, if Germany goes down, she will pull down France with her.” He also suggested that Austria could easily be dominated by another European power. 

Back in Washington, Berger was quickly reintegrated into House business. In the Fall, he played a central role in counseling new President Calvin Coolidge on a plan for the federal government to take control of Pennsylvania anthracite coal mines during a tense United Mine Workers Strike.  

Berger would go on to be reelected twice, before losing his seat in the conservative groundswell of 1928. Berger was struck by a Milwaukee trolley car in 1929 and died several weeks later from his injuries, a twistedly ironic end for the city’s prime infrastructure booster. 

Several Socialists were elected in the decades after Berger’s victories, but Cold War fault lines largely ended the practice. The 2018 elections of Socialist-supporting Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broke the drought to some degree, although both legislators still ran as members of the Democratic Party, unlike the Socialist Party-devoted Berger. Clearly, the far-right has also gained mightily in recent years. Heather Cox Richardson struck a hopeful tone on outsiders at the end of Now & Then, arguing: “You can disagree whether or not it’s a good idea to have these wild voices on every side in Congress or not. I think it’s a good thing myself. I think that you get somebody like Victor Berger who’s willing to say, ‘Hey, we need to get rid of the Senate altogether.’”

Heather also rang the alarm, however, over the increasingly vitriolic debate over voting rights, the main lever of democracy that allows for the people to dispense with outsiders who they deem have gone too far. Only time will tell how the current “wild voices” of Washington will fare, but the turbulent saga of Victor Berger suggests a rocky road ahead. 

For a fascinating look into the minds of Victor Berger and his equally fiery wife Meta, check out The Family Letters of Victor and Meta Berger, 1894-1929, edited by Michael E. Stevens and released in 2016. 

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