The Pragmatist’s Perspective On Progressives’ Prospects

The Pragmatist’s Perspective On Progressives’ Prospects

To a casual observer it would seem to be a great time to be a progressive in Chicago. Chicago’s left-of-center ecosystem has thrown itself full force into the electoral field, with a panoply of candidates running at all levels of government, from the new Police District Councils, up to the Mayor’s office. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement, especially after the left has seen so many electoral defeats. The pressure to put on a positive and uncritical air during election season is very real. Nobody wants to look like they are undermining the candidates that they want to see win, so even mild criticism can ruffle feathers and get one accused of self-sabotage. Still, it’s useful to have the occasional critical appraisal, it can shore up our weak spots and it can help cushion the demoralization in the event of a defeat. Is the old Machine on the run? What are the prospects of us winning a progressive city government? 

On The Machine

To some the current election demonstrates that the famed “Chicago Machine” is on the ropes, and might finally get thrown into the garbage where it belongs. In the 33rd Ward they’re mounting a last desperate attempt to regain Dick Mell’s old seat of power, and in the 11th Ward a democratic socialist is the only progressive running while the local Daley machine is tearing itself apart in choosing between the airline executive and a cop. On the southwest side the remnants of Burke’s piece of the machine is also being dismantled, though not by DSA candidates. Jeylu Gutierrez, a protege of Chuy Garcia, is running for Burke’s old seat, and in the surrounding wards Burke’s people have either already lost control, or they will by April. 

This state of affairs is understood by some as signs of a political machine on its last legs, but the reality is more complicated. The Chicago Machine, a vast patronage network of jobs and other benefits organized around ethnic and immigrant communities led by various Democratic Party ward bosses like Burke, Daley, and Mell, has been in unarrested decline for many years. It is difficult to point to an exact date of the collapse of the Chicago Machine, but the election of Harold Washington, the decades of austerity policies that hollowed out our public sector, and the Shakman Decrees that erected a legal barrier to official patronage, have all whittled the Chicago Machine down to nothing. A clever reinvention of patronage, and the inertia of the social and ethnic institutions that made up the machine at the hyper-local level has allowed some wards to continue to have a machine character to their local politics, but even here their influence has been in persistent decline. In the current City Council there are at most 5 Aldermen that could properly be described as Machine Aldermen, and not a single mayoral candidate could be described as the candidate of the Chicago Machine. The state of the machine is perhaps best exemplified by the lich-like figure of Dick Mell still knocking doors in the 33rd Ward, despite no longer having any willing children to foist his old job onto.

Despite the fact that the Machine is functionally dead, there is a tendency for all critics of municipal politics, from leftwing socialists to lakefront-liberals, to call anything and anyone they don’t like “The Machine”. This is nothing more than political name-calling, and it only serves to obscure the actual enemies of the working class, and blurs our focus in trying to combat them. As socialists we should prioritize clearly and concisely naming our enemies, playing fast and loose with terminology does not help us achieve that. Some people postulate a “New Machine” that functions completely differently from the Old Machine, and that draws its power from an entirely different source, capital, primarily real estate and finance capital at the citywide level, and at the ward level from smaller scale capital like our local chambers of commerce and landlords. Of course the Chicago Machine also had a relationship to capital, and served capital’s interests by helping to maintain a large urban industrial workforce, while keeping that working class divided against itself by maintaining ethnic and racial segregation. The various meager social services put in place by the Chicago Machine also served the interest of capital, blunting working class militancy while ensuring the working class of the city could reproduce itself efficiently. It is no accident that these social services have all begun to fall apart now that the Chicago Machine is dead, firms like GCM Grosvenor and Sterling Bay have no need for an urban proletariat. Now the interest of capital is served through public-private partnerships, networks of NGOs supplanting social services, and making the city “safe” for megadevelopments and investment. Socially liberal politicians can be, and are, easily coopted into this system. This no longer takes the form of a cohesive political machine, capital can spend in particular races to beat their biggest threats, and find ready allies in any ward in the form of small businesses and homeowners associations, but also local non-profits and even unions reliant on investment and development.

We can certainly celebrate that the old Chicago Machine, which engineered the racial segregation that still shapes our city, has finally been “beaten” but our celebration should be tempered by the fact that capital, whose power predates the old Chicago Machine, already exists in its place. We also should remember that the machine was dismantled from within, through austerity rather than by a leftwing offensive. Chicago’s progressive left ecosystem has simply thrived in the lacunae in the bones of the old machine.

Counting to 25

One of the clearest lessons of the Harold Washington legacy is that a Chicago mayor needs at minimum 25 votes to enact a political program that deviates in any way from the status quo. Anything less can open the door for a Council Wars opposition that blocks real reform. Anyone spending their valuable time helping to elect a mayor this cycle should be trying to evaluate what their candidate will be facing once elected. So how many progressives are running for City Council? Trying to come to a number here is challenging, but can be instructive. There is no single shared perspective in Chicago about who is a progressive, or a set of principles that could help us easily identify one. The left-wing ecosystem of the city holds a variety of perspectives, lacks any coherent shared objectives, and in this election cycle the progressive left is just as often fighting against itself than it is taking aim at capital, if indeed taking on capital is even a shared objective uniting the Chicago progressive left. Because the progressive label is amorphous, untethered from any real shared political project and principles, it means that our left wing is prone to cannibalizing itself, competing over the same narrow turf, and arguing over the minute differences that occur as a result of basing your political project on a mixture of vibes, popular opinion, personal relationships, and foundation funding.

One of the broadest groupings that we could use to identify a progressive left could be the People’s Unity Platform. The focus of the platform is primarily on mayoral candidates, though many aldermen advertise their support for various ordinances that comprise that platform. Still, it is telling that the constituent organizations signed on to the People’s Unity Platform have endorsed against each other at the ward-level in at least a few places including the 4th, 10th, 11th, and 48th Wards. Some of the PUP coalition organizations have also endorsed candidates that clearly do not support the actual platform. Perhaps the most egregious example is SEIU 73 who have endorsed 9 of 16 aldermen running for re-election who coordinated to block quorum on the Bring Chicago Home ordinance. The platform itself may be a good litmus to filter for progressive politics, but unfortunately we clearly can’t use the endorsements of the organizations supporting The People’s Unity Platform to make a determination on who is or is not a progressive candidate.

We could try to tally up the endorsements made by various city-wide progressive organizations like UWF, The People’s Lobby, and DSA. All three of these organizations have some kind of pro-working class orientation that goes beyond just one or two core issues, as well as relatively rigorous and democratic endorsement processes. These three organizations combined tally 24 progressives running in wards across the city. If you include the CTU, Chicago’s most progressive union with a history of advancing demands for the entire working class of Chicago, then the total is 25 wards that can claim to have a progressive running.

So in an optimistic evaluation there might be 25 candidates that have been vetted in some way as pro-working class that could end up in city council next term. That is only if these progressive organizations manage to sweep 100% of our races. This outcome is, needless to say, highly unlikely. In most wards the progressive candidates are still running as insurgent challengers, and generally seen as having no better than a decent chance at making the runoff. Even some of our incumbent progressives are facing stiff reelection bids, with the Get Stuff Done PAC explicitly targeting the incumbents that most threaten their interests

The act of attempting to tally the number of progressive candidates is, as I said above, practically pointless. But it is instructive to do so if we are trying to imagine a scenario whereby we win a progressive mayor and equally progressive city council. The entire point for progressives throwing themselves into elections, at the expense of a great deal of other important work, is the possibility of a city that is governed on behalf of the working class, making all our other movement work easier in the process. But if the organizations that sign on to progressive platforms endorse some of the most conservative sitting aldermen, if our various organizations can’t agree on who the progressive choice is in multiple wards, and if even an optimistic tally would require us to have a perfect result in the election, then what are the actual odds that we will get the progressive city we’re dreaming of? 

Securing a majority City Council bloc is harder for progressives than it is for establishment mayors, because the ruling class can rely on the many apolitical and careerist aldermen to follow their lead as long as it doesn’t impact the donations and other perks that they can expect from developers, corporate donors, etc. A progressive mayor will need to contend with counter-pressures of lobbying from the financial, real estate, business sectors, and NGO-sphere who will oppose any real progressive initiatives. A mayor with no real political vision like Lori Lightfoot can count on a plurality of support for most of her initiatives and an immediate network of clout seekers, though that may evaporate once it’s election season and people start getting ambitious. A progressive mayor can’t rely on the baseline neoliberal to vote their way; to follow along means putting a target on your back and challenging groups that can spend vast sums of money to put you out of work next cycle. Harold Washington was only able to win his majority because the racial polarization of the council wars put even the most right-wing of the machine African American aldermen into his camp, and even then he only got his majority halfway through his first term thanks to a federal gerrymandering lawsuit. It isn’t likely that the same polarization will occur this time around.

As it stands there’s even a chance that progressives will find ourselves with an even smaller share of city council than we currently have, even if we do win control of the 5th Floor. In the event that we do come up short of 25 there’s still some options. During the last two presidential elections both critics and supporters of Bernie Sanders were realistic about the prospects of what one socialist could accomplish alone in the White House. Even the most optimistic accounts were careful to limit their horizon and acknowledged that the only real option available for Sanders would be the Executive Order. There is precedent here in Chicago as well, the only path open to Harold in his first years in office was through incredibly shrewd use of the executive order. But there’s a big gap between the authority of POTUS and Mayor of Chicago, and the toolkit available to a progressive Chicago mayor will be limited. A progressive mayor relying solely on Executive Orders may very well be almost indistinguishable from Lori Lightfoot, whose own Executive Orders have skewed more socially progressive than most progressives would want to admit. A mass movement backing a mayor could certainly help as well, though currently no candidate seems to have built up such a movement city-wide that could hold faithless and even reactionary alderman accountable.

The other tool Harold Washington had, far more powerful than Executive Orders, was a true mandate and mass base of support even before he had a majority in City Council. In the general election of 1983 more than 80% of registered voters cast a ballot. Washington actually lost in 28 wards, but he mobilized such a significant base of support that he won by more than 99% in 10 Wards. Even in the primary more than 77% of voters cast a ballot, and Washington came out despite being outspent by Byrne and without the clout of Daley. This mass base of support is what allowed Washington to survive the long period of gridlock, and come out the other end to successfully enact reforms to city government that last to this day.

Facing the Counter-attack

In 1989 a former DSA member, David Dinkins, became mayor of New York City. He was elected in very similar circumstances to what we are facing today, “a time of continued fiscal crisis, concerns over crime, and growing racial tension.” He ran as the clear progressive candidate, on an anti-austerity platform and arguing for greater civilian oversight of the police. He was backed by a similar constellation of progressive forces that we see today backing Brandon Johnson. Despite his progressive bona fides, Dinkins ended up presiding over increased inequality and austerity, and largely failed to achieve his platform. He was replaced by a racist revanchist Republican in the next election. 

Armed either with a council majority and mass movement in the streets, or at least the power of Executive Order, a progressive Chicago government will have to face down an inevitable backlash. Progressives, politically amorphous and in competition with each other, may not be in fighting shape to beat that backlash. A progressive government will inevitably have to face downgraded bond ratings, capital strikes and flights, legal maneuvering, and even right-wing protest movements all aimed at disrupting and blocking any reforms and painting progressive politicians as incompetent, ineffectual, and bad for working people. Do we have a plan for how to respond when the banks tell us what we can borrow, and how to spend it? When the CPD riots in front of City Hall?

To face these challenges will require significant effort, and while victory isn’t impossible we should remember that most progressive and social democratic electoral advances in the last half century have failed to overcome these pitfalls even with strong popular mandates, electoral majorities, and street movements in support. Ultimately city governments are hobbled, by design, from being able to really improve the lives of their citizens. Most funding for social services now comes from state and federal funds that are strictly controlled. The ability to create more revenue is restricted, cities are again by design incentivised to facilitate investment and gentrification as a way to grow revenue, while the ability to tax the rich is preempted at the state level. Continued lending at good rates is conditioned by the servicing of debt, and any radical break with the interests of finance capital can precipitate a bond rating downgrade making it even harder to fund important city services.

To overcome these structural barriers will require a trifecta of a progressive mayor, city council, and mass progressive movement that are operating in close coordination with a long-term unified vision for Chicago. With no concrete plan for beating the capitalist class that rules our city the option available to progressives that win will be limited to managing the affairs of the city within confines already determined by the capital. Progressives would have to be content with minor adjustments to police budgets, with courting “equitable” gentrification dollars, and scoring symbolic victories. In that scenario the progressive left risks fracturing further, as some loyalists strive to paint any minor reform as far greater a victory than it really is, while the rest of the working class becomes disillusioned with an administration that continues to, willingly or not, be forced to court international investment, to rely on privatization to provide social services, and fails to tax the rich and deliver the city that we desperately need and deserve.