I know there are many differences in the mechanics of our respective political systems (Chicago, Russia), but in the Sept. 30 issuse of the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner concisely sums up the questions I have been asking about both -rhetorically, no one actually listens to me- for a very long time.
The Reader is a free weekly, and I am making no money, goodness knows, writing this blog. So I hope Miner doesn’t come after me for posting this in its entirety. (Actually, this is just the first part; the rest is about friending politicians on facebook…) Read this, click the link, click on a few ads, do whatever you need to to be a responsible consumer of decent journalism. But first, just read this.
Any day you’re asked a good question is a pretty good day. The other day I was asked two.
The first one was from my daughter Laura in New York. Everyone is talking about bringing more democracy to Chicago, she said. What does that mean, more democracy? More of what exactly?
I had no idea. Mayor Daley said he’d decided not to run for reelection, and suddenly democracy was on all lips. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it, invented by my noble ancestors, the Greeks,” John Kass wrote in the Tribune, “it is a system of government by which free people debate ideas, sometimes vigorously, sometimes rudely. They elect leaders who are expected to give reasons for their actions. The leaders must form a consensus before they can spend the people’s money. Yes, it is indeed a weird system of governance, relatively unknown in these parts. It’s called democracy.”
Daley’s “unfinished business,” Greg Hinz wrote in Crain’s Chicago Business, is “making Chicago fit for democracy and making democracy fit in Chicago.” And back at the Trib, Dennis Byrne wrote, “Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own without a boss instructing them?”
I’d already quoted these quotes in something I’d posted online. Now I reviewed them. Kass was asking for a Little Golden Books version of democracy. Hinz wanted a Chicago where democracy works. Pretty to wish for, thought Byrne, but he seriously doubted Chicago could function as a democracy and the real question, he concluded, was whether Chicago could continue to be functional at all. A dark thought, that. Everyone agreed the democracy dipstick reads low. But there was less consensus on how, or even whether, to fill the tank; the real yearning, I could see, wasn’t for more democracy as much as it was for a nicer, more consumer-friendly democracy that elects leaders as honest as they are brilliant.
For if someone says we don’t have enough democracy in Chicago, the proper reply is, what exactly are we short of? Do we vote? Yes. Is any adult without a criminal record free to run? Yes. Do our elected representatives meet and discuss and write laws, and if we don’t like those laws can we throw them out? Yes. And what about the mayor, who’s ruled for almost 22 years and whose father ruled for 21? Is there something about the way our laws are written that encourages quasi-monarchical dynasties? Not that I can put my finger on.
So what democratic apps are lying around uinstalled? I guess there are the direct referendums that helped bankrupt California. And the recent experiment in Rogers Park—the one the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs just wrote about under the headline “Can Democracy Work in Chicago?”—about 49th Ward residents voting on how their alderman should spend his “menu money”—could be tried everywhere murals are painted on railroad viaducts.
But there’s not a lot of room for expansion.
If Chicago’s cursed with a corrupt, inefficient autocracy, it’s because the people of Chicago, in their wisdom and by their votes and actions, have repeatedly chosen it. Let’s blame the victim: we have the democracy we deserve. Just as Barack Obama’s greatest accomplishment as president could turn out to be getting elected president, the biggest contribution to democratic reform made possible by Richie Daley’s decision not to run for reelection may be the decision itself. Mayors don’t have to die in office or cling to it until their parties throw them out—as Daley just taught by example to Chicagoans who had never seen anything else.
Last week in the Reader I shared the lamentation of a tiny Tea Party group, the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic, in western Missouri. There’s a long list of grievances posted on their website, but in the end their beef comes down to this: “Some of our elected representatives treat us like children. Far too many of our politicians insult us in town hall meetings. They dismiss us by refusing to respond to our questions, through the rudeness of their office personnel, and by giving us meaningless responses that answer none of our concerns. All of these actions make it clear that they no longer take us, the people, seriously.”
Folks go to the polls in western Missouri, same as they do here. What aggrieves the Johnson County Patriots isn’t that there’s too little democracy but that democracy in their view doesn’t work for them the way it works for the big shots. They sound just like Kass—the difference being that an angry voice speaking for itself is more compelling than Kass’s sarcastic voice speaking for a disrespected multitude he doesn’t belong to. The Patriots look around at the democracy their forefathers left behind and feel it snickering at them. Here in Illinois, a lot of folks do too. Voters face humiliating choices in November’s most important races: Quinn versus Brady for governor; Giannoulias versus Kirk for the U.S. Senate. But who or what gave us these candidates? Who gave us Blagojevich? Who gave us George Ryan? Do we blame democracy for failing to gild the ballot with more competence and virtue?
I’m just asking—I’m as eager to live in a Hellenic paradise as the next guy is.
It’s all very Wizard of Oz, isn’t it? We’ve courageously exposed the man behind the curtain, only to learn we’ve had the power ourselves all along.
Except I don’t think anyone in Chicago, or Moscow, would actually rather live in Kansas. I mean, there are reasons we live here, few of which can be found in some quaint rural dustbowl town full of pigs and witches. And that’s the clencher, so far as I can tell. Are we, as demanding citizens, prepared to be as humble and accountable as we want our new leaders to be? Are we prepared to go full out Temperance-style hysterical with a war on Corruption? Are we ready to excersize our democratic power, knowing well the consequence that we will be to blame when things fall apart?
Can we oust the Wizard, but keep the dancing munchkins, flying monkeys, poppy fields and yellow brick roads? That’s what I want to know.