During the NATO protests in May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, by massing police forces, contained the minority seeking a physical clash with authorities. The next day the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times trumpeted “The City That Worked.”
But for whom is the city working? That was the heart of the conflict in Emanuel’s backyard—actually, front lawn—on NATO weekend. On May 19, an energetic crowd of more than 800 descended on Emanuel’s house in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Ravenswood to protest the city’s closing of six mental health clinics. Emanuel’s budget-balancing has disproportionately cut human services—despite meager savings for the city—while keeping costly aid and tax breaks for big businesses.
In May 2011, Emanuel took the reins of power from the city’s longest-serving mayor, Richard M. Daley. The new regime represents another turn in the evolution of Chicago politics but also, given Emanuel’s prominence and ties to both Presidents Clinton and Obama, a potential harbinger of Democratic urban policy nationally.
Journalists often focus on Emanuel’s style—tough, impatient, foul-mouthed, intimidating, ambitious. But Emanuel’s politics more significantly represent a triumph of corporatism in a city where the contest for working-class support has taken many forms.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel rationalized every decision as a ‘tough choice’ (oddly always made at the expense of the vulnerable or workers) that he makes ‘for the children.’
Birthplace of modern liberalism
In the late 19th century, as Chicago’s economy boomed, workers organized unions, anarchist and socialist groups, and labor parties. After the 1886 Haymarket incident, business and government cracked down on these movements, but a new, independent labor political party emerged, again forcing the major parties to compete for labor support. Historian Richard Schneirov argues in Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97 that the bargaining between Chicago’s vibrant 19th-century labor groups and the major parties birthed U.S. liberalism.
During the 20th century, two strains of “liberalism” competed for Chicago workers’ allegiance. One tendency, exemplified by Progressivism, the New Deal and the CIO unions, emphasized broadscale policy reforms. But it was the other strain, urban machine politics – emphasizing ethnic group allegiance to political patrons in return for favors—that dominated Chicago. Read more…