Norman Thomas

was born this day in 1884. As Wikipedia summarizes his life: “an American Presbyterian minister who achieved fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.” He also ran for a variety of other down-ballot offices on the Socialist Party ticket, and he was the author of numerous articles, pamphlets and books.

It’s hard for me not to regard Thomas as something of a sad figure in history. He aspired to be a new Eugene Debs and the Great Depression provided his second Presidential campaign with a great opportunity, but he and the other leaders of the Socialist Party proved unable to navigate the turbulent currents of 1930s politics. The movement fragmented and declined in the face of changes in political practice, obdurate personalities, and sabotage from the left and the right. By the time the 1950s came about, the Socialist Party had ceased to be a useful agency for much of anything outside of two or three small cities and Thomas had given up running for President.

Third parties on the national level have always had a hard time of it. By the time Thomas came along, it was hard to make a case for them though they could be made to work on the State and most especially on the local level. On the other hand, left-wing non-party formations from the 1930s like the Social Democratic Federation or New America didn’t exactly prosper either, especially after World War II.

I never had the opportunity to meet or see Norman Thomas. He died in December of 1968. I joined the Young Peoples Socialist League in 1969. By the late 1980s, I became, for many years, a principal organizer of an annual Dinner that included his name: the Eugene V. Debs — Norman Thomas — Michael Harrington Dinner. It was an event that, since 1958, had spanned several sponsoring organizations, from the Socialist Party — Social Democratic Federation to the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to the Democratic Socialists of America.

The photo below is from the 1959 Dinner, then called the Debs Day Dinner, held in November of that year.

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A. Philip Randolph and Norman Thomas at the 1959 Debs Day Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris.

A. Philip Randolph was the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union and a major civil rights leader from the 1920s through the 1960s. A. Philip Randolph was a member of the Socialist Party as well. Randolph doesn’t look at all pleased to be there, but I don’t know the story behind it. Thomas, though, seems to have an appetite. The event may have been held at Chicago’s old Midland Hotel as that was the usual venue for many of the early Dinners. I’m told the hotel was owned by an old lefty who was still sympathetic to the movement.

How to Rig an Election

A review by Bob Roman

How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. Yale University Press, 2018. 310 pages, $26.00.

howtoriganelectionBeing a Dude of a Certain Age gives one the potential (at least) for a perspective informed by history. In my case, also being a long-time Chicagoan, I listen to conservative ravings about voter fraud with a certain amount of sympathy. Don’t get me wrong. It is raving: a toxic mix of deliberate lies and Stage IV cynicism…. But election fraud, of which voter fraud is but one manifestation, does indeed happen. And any activist participating in Chicago elections up until about 1990 would have been either a witness to voter fraud or blind. Thus it is completely natural that I grabbed this book from the Chicago Public Library shelf as soon as I saw it.

What Cheeseman and Klaas have not done is provide a how-to cookbook on the subject. Their primary interest is in examining the increasing number of multiparty elections being held in the world in the face of a coincident general decline of democracy. They take the Polity IV scores for democracy (an established political science measuring tool with CIA finger prints) of nations and divide the nations into four categories: pure authoritarian, dominant authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, and electorally democratic. It is the middle two categories that are of interest to the authors. Why would the ruling elite (and especially the guy at the top) go through the charade of having an election? What are the strategies they apply to ensure a favorable outcome? Why do they choose one strategy over another?

This is not an exercise in kicking around the less developed world. The authors emphasize that the strategies surveyed have been practiced nearly everywhere and some date back to the Roman Republic. They illustrate the strategies with case studies from Belarus to the United States (including Chicago). The strategies discussed are reflected in the chapter titles: Invisible rigging: How to steal an election without getting caught; Buying hearts and minds: The art of electoral bribery; Divide and rule: Violence as a political strategy; Hack the election: Fake news and the digital frontier; Ballot-box stuffing: The last resort; Potemkin elections: How to fool the West.

Every strategy is going to present trade-offs in terms of benefits, costs, and possible consequences. Cheeseman and Klaas attempt to show the choices made are reasonable decisions though not necessarily rational decisions. (Inherent biases do not make for maximized self-interest.) The authors seem to feel that access to foreign aid is a significant factor in these calculations. The book didn’t provide me with any means of deciding just how important a factor it is though maybe it’s a cheap way of financing a military. They do examine just how consequential charges of fraud are to foreign aid. For aid provided by the United States, the consequences vary widely, apparently on geopolitical considerations.

It’s also not always clear just what constitutes “rigging”. The authors do deal with this ambiguity. For example, vote buying: in some cultures, it might be legal if not also expected. If the secrecy of the ballot is preserved, does it really make much of a difference? Take the money (or whatever) and vote as you please. And gerrymandering: this is something that has been widely practiced here in the States. Indeed, the term derives from Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, one of the authors of the Bill of Rights and an early practitioner in the art of district drawing. The authors use Illinois’ 4th Congressional District as an example and they get it wrong. They assert: “The net result is a weakening of the power of the Latino vote and more Republican-electing districts than the electoral maths should reasonably allow.” But the 4th Congressional District was drawn specifically so that the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities would be nearly guaranteed to have a representative: In other words, maximizing “the power of the Latino vote”. The 4th Congressional District is an instance of ethnic gerrymandering, something required (to a point) by Federal law. As for partisan gerrymandering, the Illinois House and Senate were in charge of redistricting in 2011. Each were controlled by a Democratic caucus with a Democratic Governor. This was not a Republican gerrymander. In any case, a Republican district in Chicago would be a genuine work of art; there are so few of them. It’s only recently that partisan gerrymandering has become widely regarded as dirty word in the States, and that’s mostly because it recently became so one-sided. Otherwise it’s been a standard feature of the system. The League of Women Voters in fact challenged the 2011 Illinois map on its partisan bias and got nowhere in state or Federal court. So is it a bug or a feature?

In my humble opinion, the weakest part of the book is the final chapter that deals with how to stop election rigging. The authors agree that “Long-term democratic reform is almost always driven from within” but then go on to concentrate on what the international community might do. Most of us are nowhere near the levers that steer the international community and considering how geopolitical considerations influence those who are near the levers, the rest of us have some reason for skepticism. So is there anything to take away for the rest of us? Possibly. It is useful to think of the rigging strategies in terms of their costs and benefits. Thinking that way helps in deciding what charges of fraud are plausible amid all the usual noise and it provides a way of considering how the cost of fraud might be raised when considering reforms.

But I think that if we want honest and (heaven forfend) fair elections here in the States, three things may be necessary. One is money. Election campaigns swim in money, but the process of voting and tabulating is expected to run on the proverbial cold dog soup and rainbow pie. Aside from better voting equipment, election judges need to be better paid and, in return, to be better trained. Another is transparency. For all the love “transparency” gets as a buzz word, local governments tend to be unreasonably, indeed illegally (at least in Illinois) private. Elections, here in the States, are done by local government. Activists concerned with the digitized tabulation of ballots have found getting an audit of any given election means being heavily lawyered-up. The knee-jerk reaction by local officials seems to be a deep desire to have the most recent election done and off their desk and panic that any outside examination of the books would reveal a comedy of incompetence. And maybe fraud? And finally, an openness to alternative systems of voting would be useful, provided we also keep in mind the ways in which they might be gamed. Since elections are so local, we have huge opportunities for experimentation, though forums for evaluating the results are somewhat lacking.

It’s also worth noting that a cancerous cynicism is pandemic in the land and that, too, is a danger to democracy. It’s a cynicism that’s hard to argue with: Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, “I did not have sex with that woman”, Weapons of Mass Destruction… on and on. What’s not to mistrust? Add to that the professionalization of politics (inevitably drawing boundaries between the professionals and the laity), that politics is very much a business like automobiles or real estate or banking with its own barriers to entry and jargon and technical knowledge — politics becomes not something we do but something that happens to us, will or nill. In that case, why vote? Well, you should, even if a riot might seem to be more effective. This needs to change. It’s also outside the scope of this book.

Finally a note on the book: it’s not exactly a political science monograph, or rather it’s not just that. It’s also a good and entertaining read. It can be read as a serious study or it can be read as a sort of political voyeurism. Either way, it is worth your time. After all, rigging elections is as American as cherry pie.

Under a Sodium Vapor Moon

Some experimental* autumnal low-light photography of the neighborhood:

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Photo by Roman
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Photo by Roman
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Under a sodium vapor moon. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Bush. Photo by Roman.
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Tree cloud. Photo by Roman.
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Outside the Red Line. Photo by Roman.
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The Rapture? Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Late for home. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.

* continuing to look at these photos constitutes consent, absolving Yip Abides of any responsibility for aesthetic or emotional side-effects. You have been informed!

I’ve often wondered why, in the “Arts”, the term experimental is meant to be good. And why the consumers of such material are never asked to provide their informed consent nor informed of any potential issues consumption might bring… unlike in medicine, for example.

November 11, 1887

was a Friday and four of the eight defendants convicted in connection with the Haymarket Affair were executed — hung — in the alley behind Chicago’s old City Hall: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies. The evening before, another of the convicted, Louis Lingg, had committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap while in his cell. Two others, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab, had their sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby. Oscar Neebe had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned Fielden, Schwab and Neebe.

The Haymarket Affair grew out of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. A predecessor organization to the AFL-CIO, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, had proclaimed that as of May 1, 1886, the 8 hour day would be “the law” and a series of strikes and demonstrations were organized to enforce the proclamation or it was included as a part of ongoing disputes, such as the strike at the McCormick harvester plant in Chicago that had been ongoing since February. On May 3, 1886, a rally at the McCormick plant was violently suppressed by police, killing at least two of the striking workers.

A protest rally was hastily organized for the next evening at Chicago’s Haymarket on the near west side. It was poorly attended, about a tenth the size organizers had hoped. As the rally sputtered to an end in the face of oncoming rain, Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield arrived with a large contingent of police, despite having been instructed by Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., to stand down. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing several and severely wounding many others. The police responded by shooting indiscriminately, hitting several of their own and many of the crowd. It’s not known how many of the demonstrators were killed or injured.

If you work a 40 hour week, you can thank the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the Chicago anarchists for your leisure time. If you live anywhere but in the United States, you can thank the Haymarket Affair for making May 1st your Labor Day.

There are three points that I think are worth making this year.

First, present day histories of the Affair tend to downplay a simple fact: Most of the Haymarket defendants were revolutionaries. They would have been seriously disappointed to be presented as anything else. They generally came to that position as much through experience as anything else. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of insurrection, but whatever you might think of it in the present, they were making a reasonable assessment of their own times and of the immediate possibilities for change. It shouldn’t be downplayed.

Second, the case against the defendants had scarce physical evidence. The suicide, Louis Lingg, was apparently a bomb-maker and the physical remains of the thrown bomb were consistent with his product. How much you want to trust this is up to you. The law was not well respected by much of Chicago, not just by the anarchists. And there is some doubt, of course, about whether or not Lingg’s death was actually suicide.

Most of the case against the Haymarket defendants was their own rhetoric. For example, Samuel Fielden, the last speaker at the rally, was winding up his speech with:

“A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four millions. You have nothing more to do with the law except to lay hands on it and throttle it until it makes its last kick… Keep your eye upon it, throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything you can to wound it — to impede its progress.”

Incendiary language, certainly. Worthy of the death penalty? Yes? No? Now tell me: What should be done about Donald Trump’s rhetoric?

Ah well, that was then and they were poor. This is now and Trump is rich.

Finally, Inspector John Bonfield is a bigger player in this story than most accounts provide. While he was not in charge of the earlier police action at the McCormick harvester plant, he was a participant. He got the nickname “Black Jack” through his liberal use of the same in putting down other labor strikes in Chicago. He was later accused of stealing Louis Lingg’s clothing and property to sell. This accusation led to his resignation from the Chicago Police. Perhaps he had supplied the blasting cap as well?

For all that the left and labor justifiably hated him, Bonfield is an interesting character. You can find a good summary of his life and misadventures HERE, but there’s a good deal more available on the web, including his testimony at the Haymarket Affair trial. He’s buried under a modest stone in Oakwood Cemetery on Chicago’s southeast side.