The Error of an Era: The End of Elections

8 06 2012

The failure of Tom Barrett to beat Scott Walker in Tuesday’s recall election was probably about a lot of things. For social historians of this era, though, it will be this: a miscalculation of epic proportions, an error that defines the post-Citizens United era.

The public rage after Governor Walker instituted his de facto recission of public workers’ collective bargaining rights was palpable and widespread. It was by no means universal, but it brought together lots of people who felt targeted, misled, and who saw the legislation as an existential threat to their economic security and well-being. Wisconsin’s public sector after all is storied–Wisconsin passed the country’s first public worker collective bargaining law–and public sector workers in that state came from all partisan stripes and economic classes.

The direct action that resulted, occupation of the capitol building, was a reasonable response. The decision to turn all of that activist energy into an election campaign was fatally misguided.

I argued, on the heels of the Citizens United decision, that the left could finally admit that elections are not a feasible method of obtaining particularly economic goals, and that it should begin exploring alternative, direct action methods; particularly, occupations, work stoppages, and boycotts:

With the electoral process eliminated as a viable strategy, resources can finally be diverted to organizing at the community and workplace level. All this decision does is remind us that a small number of corporations–by no means corporations generally–have accumulated much too much power and wealth.

On the single issue of collective bargaining rights, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were united on an activist level. Millions more agreed in spirit, if not enough to take any sort of direct action. The conditions were ripe for some kind of direct action that would have forced the government’s hand–a work stoppage, boycotts of public services, occupations of facilities. The millions of dollars and the thousands of hours of activist energy spent on an election campaign, if diverted to direct action, could not only have ground the machinery of the state to a halt, but would also have created a well-organized, on-the-ground organization of activists who have worked together, fought together, and developed invaluable social relationships. The attendant electoral advantage would have expressed itself naturally in November and again in subsequent elections.

Elections are no longer a fruitful means for progressive change. Citizens United cemented in fact something that was already more or less true: the wealthy, both corporations and individuals, have an outsize influence on elections that is nearly impossible to overcome. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, soaked as it was in Wall Street cash, was not an exception to this fact but an expression of it. Public intellectuals and activists who advocate for elections as a way to achieve any fundamental reform are wrong in every instance. Increasingly, their only arguments will be negative ones–“The other side is worse”–and, with each passing election, we’ll see that even where elections are won, the power of the ultra-wealthy will be such that public relations campaigns and lobbying smother legislative initiatives in the crib.

Corporate power has purchased the electoral process. Pouring any more money and energy into it is not worthwhile at all. It’s over. Volunteering for or giving money to an election campaign is a waste of that time and money in every instance. Debate and discussion about the variable merits of candidates, the positioning of candidates on issues, fundraising, relative strength in different states and among different demographics, is not a serious use of anybody’s time or intellect.

For the foreseeable future, in other words, electioneering and election work–fundraising, door-knocking, blogging, running for office, whatever it is–is in no way progressive or left wing, in each and every instance. To the contrary; it’s essentially the political equivalent of playing the lottery, a habitual distraction predicated on infinitesimally small chances of achieving anything, and in that way it diverts resources from real change and is inherently conservative, biased towards the status quo.

Wealth, or capital, engages in direct action all the time: capital flight and strike threats are the basis for almost every piece of nasty legislation, and every corporate welfare or tax giveback, that state, local, and the federal government have passed for years. All the talk about “increasing confidence” for “job creators,” is a different way of saying appeasing striking capital. It’s the direct action that makes the change. The left for some reason has become hypnotized by chimera of electoral change, and we see the result: even when the left wins an election, they can achieve little, rebalance power not at all, and income inequality and debt peonage grows and grows.





The Collapse: Chicago In a Neoliberal World

7 03 2011

Ed Burke has been encircled. Like the last noble loyal to Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, he must look at a map of the realm and despair. Where once he was among the most important men in a vast empire, the mere mention of its legions enough to induce action or, even better, forbearance, now all his compatriots have seceded, have declared their various independence, shifted their loyalties. The Empire, like the Machine and its successor, had always been a precarious balance of power centers, provincial warlords, regional alliances, and assimilated kingdoms. One look at the election returns, and its obvious: the ramshackle political establishment has been subsumed.

The precinct-level electoral map is a grim sight for a man like Ed Burke. Not because he once had some iron-fisted authority over the whole city; more like watching the team break up. Maybe another analogy is in order; I’ll indulge myself, that’s kind of my thing. He’s been playing on the Harlem Globetrotters, gleefully beating the Washington Generals (no pun intended; take a minute with that) but now he’s got NBA teams on his schedule. Suddenly, buckets of confetti and shorts-yanking won’t cut it.

Chicago Is a Global City

Chicago in going into a new era. As with most things, though, there was no clean break; it didn’t happen episodically. Since the mid-90s, Chicago has been churning towards membership in a network of “global cities.” I mean this in a very narrow sense. Chicago has been a no-quotes global city since the turn of the last century, when immigrants began pouring in in immense numbers and Chicago provided commodities to the entire planet and transportation to the nation. The “global network” I mean is the various outposts of transnational business. If that sounds nefarious, I don’t mean it to; the somewhat welcome breakdown in trade barriers and international monetary regimes allow financial firms to move fluidly over borders–which makes the borders less meaningful. Lopsided income distribution is putting more and more into the pockets of an ever-tightening group; whether that’s good or bad, it leaves it as a fact that there’s a smaller pool of people who can spend ever more money. For example on politics.

A search of news databases showed the the phrase “global city” did not appear in the same article as the words “Mayor Daley” until 2004. After 2004, it appeared over a dozen times, the first time the man himself using the phrase in 2007. By contrast, between 1989 (Daley’s election) and 2004 the “global city” and “Chicago” popped up together 83 times–nearly four times as often after 2004. What’s the point of all this? Only that the Mayor began focusing on transforming Chicago into whatever he imagined a “global city” to be fairly recently in his mayoralty.

Overlapping with this focus is the acceleration of privatization. The city has privatized 34 city services since 1990, with the vast majority, in terms of value and quantity, coming since 1995–also the year the schools came under Mayoral control. The Office of Management and Budget released a report finding that the City has saved up to $270mn+ between 1990 and 2002. Of those since 1995, by a significant margin the biggest instances came since 2004, including the Monroe Street garages, the Skyway, and of course the parking meters. The Skyway lease happened in 2004; the rights to it for 99 years were sold for just under $2bn to–wait, do you want to guess? A foreign firm. A Spanish consortium fund. Global city.

Juiced In

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Rahm Versus The Man: An Origin Story

9 02 2011

What follows is a wildly fictionalized retelling of events based on campaign finance disclosure documents. The donations below all came in between October 11th and 14th, 2010. Emanuel officially announced his candidacy on November 13th.

On October 3rd, 2010, Rahm Emanuel broke his silence. It was time to step out on the stage and make his announcement: he wanted to be mayor. Well, not quite. He said he wanted to hear from Chicagoans as he prepared to run for mayor. Barely a month after Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he’d be fading into retirement, and Mr. Emanuel could not just sit passively by and watch the city be torn apart by geographic, class, and racial division. He loved this city.

Daunted by the idea that, no matter what his natural inclination to retire to a quiet life of the mind, only he could speak for the people, he could wait no longer. Average Chicagoans were hurting. While some neighborhoods were gentrified into unaffordability, others continued to decay into violence, joblessness, and misery. Meanwhile, income inequality sharpened. Rent by declining revenues, services to the neighborhoods had been declining. The public school system frustrated students and teachers with high-stakes testing that had not proven their value; organized street crime had worked its way into the schools via a form of interpersonal capillary attraction, making reforms difficult if not impossible. Public transportation suffered from a lack of imagination, even while the city began relying on regressive policies–increased ticketing, market-priced parking meters–to stay afloat and confined people to the neighborhood.

Public workers who worked for decades on the assumption they would be able to retire saw their pensions squandered by politicians, only to have those politicians, and the enormous corporate concerns that underwrite local civic groups, turn around and blame them.

Daley and Emanuel Trib Photo-thumb-400x225-220528.jpg
Brother Outsider.
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A Word on Burke & Slating Judges

25 01 2011

Commenter Pete asks:

Ramsin, the Tribune points out today that Judges Hoffman and Hall were both originally “slated” by Ed Burke’s party committee. What does slating typically entail? Just making someone the nominee? Or is there financial backing as well?

Slating is the process whereby the Cook County Democratic Organization selects candidates to endorse for elective positions. Typically a person is slated through sponsorship by committeeperson, and then approved by the organization in slating sessions. Typically the County organization then gives cash or in-kind support to slated candidates if they’re in tough fights. For judges, this usually means inclusion on official literature and palm cards. Thanks for the question Pete.
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Make Sense, Be Honest: Emanuel’s Ballot Access

24 01 2011

(cross-posted from GB)

There’s a lot of political schadenfreude going around in reaction to an Illinois Appellate Court decision to remove Rahm Emanuel from the municipal election ballot. A local objector filed suit to prevent Emanuel’s candidacy, with the argument that Emanuel failed to meet the requirement that candidates for local office in Chicago both be a qualified elector (i.e., voter) and have “resided” in Chicago for a year before the election.

The latest turn in Emanuel’s on-going legal troubles in getting on the ballot was a shock to many (but not all), and has naturally led to indignation at the injustice done to voters (i.e., “Let the voters decide!”) and the justice of the universe (“He’s buying the election! He failed to meet the letter of the law!”)

I implore everyone to take a breath and consider their arguments outside of the election fight context for this one instance; in a post-Bush v Gore society, we can’t afford any more “I’ll cheer when it helps and screech when it hurts” approaches to legal decisions like this.

The Opinion and Dissent

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Modeling an Open Chicago: Taking The City Back

4 10 2010

This is the first in a series.

They know what’s best for you.

cover2.jpg

With an open Mayoral seat, Chicagoans a generation removed from the last competitive election for that office are unsure of their footing. The media is either causing or reflecting that confusion, unsure where to start an analysis of what this election “means,” what will determine its outcome, who the players are. Path of least resistance: we focus on the personalities running, the staff they’re hiring, the money they’re raising. Is this a new chance at democracy? Have we had democracy all along? Does Chicago need a strong hand? Or are we looking for the next Harold? White? Black? Latino? Man? Woman? Gay? Straight? Machine? Progressive?

The cat’s away. The mice are frantic.

“Progressives” are eager to make this election a change election, to “take the city back” from what they perceive as decades of corporatist policies under Daley’s leadership. Their archenemy is Rahm Emanuel, the insider’s insider who has openly mocked progressive leadership nationally and who made a curious insta-fortune on Wall Street after his years in the Clinton White House. And, it should be noted, who made his bones raising money for Mayor Daley. Whet Moser of the Reader directs us to a painfully prescient piece by David Moberg from those days, wherein Moberg by simply looking at Daley the Younger’s fundraising deduces that the “new Machine” will be run by big money rather than neighborhood patronage:
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Why I Vote in Iraq

9 03 2010

I admit to being conflicted about whether or not to vote in the Iraqi “OCV” or out-of-country voting elections held over the weekend here in Chicago (and in dozens of locations around the world), an admission that would earn me pretty nasty accusations of being uncaring or betraying the Assyrians still in Iraq. Iraqi Assyrians are counting on a strong turnout in the OCV voting to balance the regular vote theft that happens locally and to give an extra nudge to the most popular Assyrian slate, al-Rafidain, the slate of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the largest and most active Assyrian political organization in Iraq.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Iraqi OCV Voting in Chicago“, posted with vodpod

Nevertheless, I don’t live in Iraq. And while I do care deeply about what happens there, the results of the election won’t effect me in any way as deeply as it effects the people who do live there. Why should my vote, made half a world way and with no understanding of the day-to-day life of people in Iraq, count as much as the vote of some nineteen year old whose only life experience is war and occupation and who desperately wants to believe that democracy can make a difference in his life?

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