Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Lessons from a Master

I’ve been reading a great book by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor called American Pharaoh.  It’s a biography-the first really serious one published 25 years after his death-of Richard J. Daley (he’s the older of the two mayors) and I find it fascinating.  It’s both a portrait of an incredibly important man in the history of our country, a window into life in America in a particular time in place and an in-depth description of a method and theory of politics that once was so dominant and now almost totally forgotten.  I’ll probably want to write more about it later, but here are two big things I’ve taken from just the first chapters.

“Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers”

That’s the title of a classic scholarly work about how machine politics worked in Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century.  It’s a quote of an anonymous foot solider of the Cook County machine describing how a political organization should go about its business.  What is amazing is how foreign it is to our own politics in this world.  This man, and machine workers were almost all men, is not interested in ideology.  He does not have a view of how to construct a perfect utopian society (be that a libertarian utopia or an occupy “post-capitalist” one) or avert an epic disaster (be it creeping Sharia law or climate change) or some deeply held personal belief that motivates him (like gay marriage or gay marriage).  He is interested in running a tight ship and ultimately winning on Election Day, and that’s it.  I’ve been to far too many DFL candidate forums and debates in my lifetime, already I know, and what I find amazing is how this goal, winning, can be so hard to find being discussed in liberal American politics anymore, especially in politics here in Minnesota.  The idea of backing a candidate because they will win can seem utterly foreign to discussions in modern progressive politics but in the old machine systems losing-not ideological unorthodoxy-was really the only unpardonable sin, which is one reason why one Mayor could control 40,000 patronage jobs and a million votes on Election Day.   

“He will give me a crown…And what is given can be taken away…no man gives me a crown.  I will take my crown.”

Okay that’s from “A Clash Kings” by George R.R. Martin but Daley would agree with it.  The idea is that true political power has to come from your own organization and your skills and deeds, it can’t be given to you or it’s really not that powerful at all.  Daley spent his life pursuing this theory of political power with a never ending plodding consistency, from rising up through the ranks of his neighborhood athletic club to picking presidents.  Indeed the authors point out in the introduction that the defining characteristic of Daley was not his views on issues or ideology, although he was an embodiment of a flinty working class ethnic conservatism on some issues and a expansive vision of government on others, as they say:
Those were Daley’s views, but his agenda in office was less complicated: he was motivated first and foremost by a drive to accumulate and retain power.  That was the way of the Chicago machine, and it was Daley’s …Daley’s primary test of a political cause was whether it would increase or decrease his power.
This type of approach to politics can lead to many choices I would consider immoral.  Building modern highways and massive housing projects in a systematic way to create the most segregated large city in the country or beating up people who disagree with you, for example.  But again I find this fascinating as it can seem so different from where our politics are today.  The idea of being separated from the never ending and often unbridgeable gaps between differing ideologies or views on issues, and focusing instead on the direct questions of gaining power is just so different.  Pundits often decry the partisan gridlock that dominates Washington DC these days, but Daley shows us an easy solutions.  Cut deals with share the spoils with any group or political actor to gain power, Daley worked with mobsters and Bishops, black political leaders and racist anti-integration neighborhood groups.  We may see this as immoral but it does solve the problem of gridlock.  Daley’s Chicago had many problems; gridlock was never one of them. 

Secondly, it gives progressive groups a great way to look at how to relate to politicians.  As a character tells Toby in an episode of The West Wing, “It’s not important where we meet Toby, it’s important that you do what we want!”  Political priorities can often get misplaced in the never ending quest to be right in some higher, maximal way.  You can see this in occupy protesters who are constantly afraid of being taken over other groups or somehow being compromised.  The end result is the movement fails to get organized and slowly melts always after accomplishing nothing.   

Daley would have told the occupy protesters to take their political army and use it, use it to take over local party units or build their own.  Rally together blocks of voters and march them to the powers that be and demand concessions or threaten revenge on Election Day.  It’s not hard, ward committeemen in Daley’s Chicago could dominate a ward with 285 patronage workers, I bet 100 dedicated volunteers in one of Minneapolis’s city ward could easily unseat a current member of the city council.  Heck, even 20 occupy delegates voting in a block at the convention this spring between Representatives Frank Hornstein and Marion Greene could have easily thrown the outcome to either side, giving those 20 people incredible leverage to negotiate with a state legislator, in Frank’s case one with considerable seniority and powerful committee standing to boot.  Instead of complaining for the umpteenth time on firedoglake about how much you hate Obama why don’t you do something?  Small groups of political activists pretty much ended Joe Lieberman’s power and career (once a contender for a presidential nomination) and threw Bob Bennett right out of office, something Daley would totally understand.  Don’t complain on a blog for someone to give you a crown, go out and take it.

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