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Democracy Is Not a Tragedy

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The outsized attention given to Rahm Emanuel's decision to return to Chicago reflects the most troubling aspect of Chicago politics: the notion that the city needs a dictator and the only important challenge is finding a new one. Ever since Daley announced he wouldn't seek a 7th term as mayor, there's been much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the imagined threat this represents to our "stability," and much discussion of candidates in light of their perceived ability to run things the way he has.

There are two flaws in this discourse. First, it neglects the reality that Mayor Daley ran things badly and so what we want is not someone to imitate him but someone to clean up after him. Even more important, it's based on the notion that somehow a city in which an election is about to be held is a city on the verge of chaos. That a city whose next mayor might not be reelected indefinitely is a city circling the drain. That a city facing a vacancy on the 5th floor of City Hall isn't -- or, rather, ain't -- ready for reform.

In what other American city would people cower at the prospect of a wide-open race for mayor? Where else would the absence of an heir-apparent be considered a catastrophe?

When I came to Chicago, the first Mayor Daley -- see how we talk? As though dynastic succession were just a fact of life rather than the thing over which we fought the American Revolution? -- was still in office, and also held the presidency of the Cook County Democratic Party. Smart-ass political science major that I was, I instantly drew the parallel between Chicago and the then-extant Soviet Union. There, too, party and government were one and shared a single leader; there, too, no one could expect to have any impact on government without participating in the party. But I never considered what it might do to Americans to be ruled that way for decades. Only Russians had to worry about that.

Between the two Daleys, we did manage to elect and reelect Harold Washington, a small-d as well as large-D democrat, who treated his mayoralty as a cooperative project with the people and communities he governed. Then, too, many Chicagoans (white ones, at least) ran around bemoaning their Daley-less fate, and an ordinary if racially-tinged power struggle came to be known melodramatically as Council Wars. But Washington stuck it out, eventually check-mating his opponents, and the city thrived til his death. The credit rating didn't even drop.

So what possesses the chairman of the Civic Federation -- a senior businessman, a grownup -- to
mourn the passing of the second Mayor Daley and wring his hands over who might fill the royal shoes? There's no guarantee, of course, that we'll elect anyone good -- a city where independent
political action has been stymied, stifled and co-opted for 21 years isn't the best ecosystem for
growing leaders -- but the hysteria at the prospect suggests a genuine belief that democracy is a
disaster, something to be avoided at all costs.

Admittedly, it's hard not to think that right now, particularly if one is a Democrat, as nearly every Chicagoan is. The right's faux-populist candidates, who somehow seem to be winning hearts and minds with promises to eradicate Social Security, repeal the Fourteenth Amendment and eliminate progressive taxation, do indeed make it seem that the inevitable consequences of self-government are stupidity and chaos. But though democracy's a big mess, I'd be loathe to think anyone was really prepared to give it up.

Of course we in Chicago gave it up a long time ago. In return for that putative "stability" we sacrificed the right to protect the city's assets, watching as the Mayor destroyed or sold them to his cronies for chump change. When he bulldozed Meigs Field overnight in violation of a court order, we all just shrugged and laughed, failing to note that the only thing left standing was the monument at Meigs' entrance celebrating Italo Balbo and the Fascist Republic.

We've become accustomed to the mayor's taking over parts of government that are supposed to be independent, like the School Board and the Housing Authority and the Park District, and then running them according to his idiosyncratic lights, which notably feature a disdain for public schooling and housing and for the legal covenant keeping the lakefront "forever open, clear and free." We think it's normal that he appointed a near-majority of the City Council and that aldermen nod like bobblehead dolls while the Mayor governs on his whim.

Churchill famously called democracy the worst form of government "except for all the others." Having now lived under one of the other forms for most of the past 40 years, I can only concur. Let's try something new and have a debate about whether the public schools should be run by white technocrats instead of black union members. Let's exercise a veto on half-cocked asset sales before they're irrevocable. Let's criticize the mayor without fear of ostracism and political punishment.

I'm embarrassed for my friends who as lifelong Chicagoans are terrified by what will happen if there's no strongman at the helm. It's painful to watch them behaving like serfs instead of citizens. It's even more painful when their response to criticism of Daley is to say, "He loves the city." So what? We all love Chicago.

Some of us even think it belongs to us.