Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Elephant in the Room

According to Amanda Paulson of the Christian Science Monitor (Chicago scandal takes its toll), the "relentless drumbeat of indictments, convictions, and front-page headlines" is beginning to take its toll on Daley. He's "politically vulnerable", she says. From the moment I read those words, I knew, with all respect to her ability to crank out a good news article, two things: 1. She's no Chicagoan. 2. She's missed the elephant in the room.

When I lift up a rock in my garden, I'm not surprised at what's under it. Likewise, the "relentless drumbeat" of corruption stories. Fitzgerald lifted the rock and, oh-gee-surprise, found corruption. And graft. And a dead guy on the payroll. (Now if the dead guy on that payroll was not also registered to vote, that would surprise me.) She rightly points out that Chicagoans are cynical:

It's not that Chicagoans are at all surprised about the idea that patronage, money, and political connections influenced who got jobs. No, what's new this time around, they say, is that people are going to jail for it.

"He does some things well for the city, but I think it'd be good to get someone else in there," says Keeley Sorokti, a religious-education director at a Lakeview church who laughs at the idea that the scandal is surprising. "It feels like it's a monopoly of government."
Now that's a Chicagoan. "It feels like it's a monopoly of government." Yes, ma'am. Lots of us feel like that's what it is. That's what Das Machine is for. We feel like big city projects are about trading votes for jobs, power for money, and about destroying political opposition.
And we feel like, for many years, it's been working. Amanda Paulson briefly recognizes how well:
"As a man who lives and breathes Chicago, and went from son of its most famous mayor to king in his own right, Daley has always thought in terms of his legacy."
If you're in political favor, maybe even on the payroll, his monarchy might not be a bad thing for the moment. Personally, I favor democracy. But I live in Chicago, where:
"It's not all systemic - a lot of it is leadership," says Dan Sprehe, chief investigator for the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group begun in the 1920s to counter Capone's influence. A culture of reform, embraced from the top down, has been lacking, says Mr. Sprehe. "There are so many great things in this city that the mayor can take credit for. This is some of the stuff he has to take credit for as well. It happened on his watch."
Many Chicagoans seem to agree. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll in May showed mayoral approval ratings of just 53 percent - a remarkable low point for a mayor reelected in 2003 with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
In all fairness, Amanda Paulson wrote a good article, and you should read it. But she writes as though the political opposition is non-existant (Promise not to laugh? I'm talking about opposition from Another Party, not another machine candidate) and fails to register the reason. Like so many others, she writes with the bland assumption that the opposing party is not weak, not an endangered species, but gone. The dialogue assumes that it's not The Machine, but an(y) opposing party that is extinct in Chicago. And that seems to be true. But if the corruption of the political process has been that successful, and destruction of the opposition through that corruption so complete that its absence is an unsurprised, universally accepted conclusion, then we need to ask a question. Amid our wonderful new flower pots and greenery and the glory of Millennium Park, we should be asking if democracy in Chicago might be a good thing, too.

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