Chicago politics and the limits of reform
“Because of the Machine’s enormous power, the main reform goal has not always been to overthrow the Democratic organization but to ‘open it up’ to push for nominating ‘good men’ to party posts. To some, however, ‘opening up’ government, efficiency and civil service have clogged rather than opened government. Says Washington University political scientist Dennis Judd: ‘Reform politics absolutely closes the system. True, the intention of reformers was not to make the system less open. But reformers want a centralized, professionalized politics with civil service. What kind of people can work within a centralized, bureaucratic politics based on efficiency defined as the centralization of authority? People who can talk, read, know their rights, browbeat and intimidate.’ The modern corporation and the Pentagon, he says, are the ultimate in bureaucratic government. Both are incredibly corrupt. ‘Take your pick,’ Judd says, ‘but don’t be so damned righteous about it.’
“As columnist Mike Royko once quoted [Mayor Richard] Daley: ‘the party permits ordinary people to get ahead. Without the party, I couldn’t be mayor. The rich guys can get elected on their money. . . . Without the party, only the rich would be elected to office.’ [ . . . ]
“Reformers’ frequent calls for an issue-oriented politics also seems hypocritical to some. Asks lifelong labor organizer, writer and sometime political candidate Sydney Lens, ‘[ . . . ] How can we expect people to keep up with thousands of political issues? The average guy is so bewildered, he votes either because he likes a guy’s smile or because he can get favors.’ [ . . . ] Lens says reform politics has contributed to the New Politics of personality, charisma and media stylism. ‘The big issue for a politician,’ Lens says, ‘is how many people have heard his name.’ Simple name identification. In short, the emergence and aggrandizement of the ‘independent’ voter and candidate has speeded the breakdown of political parties and generated a rootless topical politics. An independent candidate is supposed to be his own man. No party bootlicker. That’s fine, but multiply the number of candidates a person votes for by the number of issues candidates take a stand on: That’s how informed a fellow must be to make an intelligent voter choice. Without simple party tags that label a politician’s general approach to issues, Lens says, the average guy is lost. What remains? Smiles and favors.” — Walt Harrington
Excerpted from Harrington’s news analysis “Chicago politics and reform – when?” in the May-June 1975 edition ofFOCUS/Midwest.