November 25, 1987

was a Wednesday and found me on a train, delayed, sitting in the LaSalle Street terminal in downtown Chicago. I was on my way to my parents’ home for Thanksgiving. It was a morning of shock and desolation for me and for much of Chicago. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black Mayor, had just died of a massive heart attack. He was 65 years old.

The train was delayed because, coincidentally, a stout middle-aged man had collapsed in the doorway of my passenger car. The paramedics were called. Someone was giving him chest compressions. When they arrived, the paramedics got him stabilized enough to move, but it didn’t look hopeful, nor did it look hopeful, at that moment, for Chicago.

My own involvement with Washington was simply as one of the thousands of volunteers who worked on his 1983 and 1987 campaigns for Mayor. It was mostly phone work for me, as I recall, though there may have been a few occasions for canvassing and voter registration… It’s been a while and memory fades.

Washington’s reign as Mayor also corresponded with several years when I was more or less taking a break from politics, except occasionally in a “Jimmy Higgins” role. My organization, the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), had endorsed Washington’s 1983 campaign at a meeting in a church in the Logan Square / Palmer Square area. Harold Washington appeared at the meeting to make a pitch for his campaign. I remember being at the meeting though I no longer recall what Washington had to say.

DSA, I should add, made a credible contribution to Washington’s 1983 and 1987 campaigns in terms of volunteers, campaign leadership, and even some money. This was not reported then nor is has it been mentioned in any of the Chicago histories or Washington biographies that I’ve read.* Part of it is a cultural bias. Have you noticed how the indexes of U.S. histories mention far more individuals than they do organizations; how the histories are written mostly about individuals and not about organizations? It was also a very different time politically. An organization like DSA would not have been considered part of mainstream politics and thus not in the horse race. Plus, Washington’s “horse race” would be mostly decided in the Black and Hispanic wards. That was why he insisted on a successful voter registration drive prior to formally beginning the 1983 campaign. Most histories follow the story in those communities. Everywhere else was a side-show. In that side-show, DSA’s contribution was matched or more by the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization (then the Illinois affiliate of the Americans for Democratic Action, maybe 2 to 4 times Chicago DSA’s size with a good deal more money) and the Heart of Uptown Coalition (a community group).

The last time I saw Harold Washington was just a few weeks before his death. It was at a banquet that was part of a “Democratic Alternatives for Illinois” conference held in Chicago. “Democratic Alternatives” was a series of conferences organized across the nation by DSA but this particular event was organized primarily by the Illinois Public Action Council (now known as Citizen Action / Illinois) with DSA and other groups (including some unions) in a supporting role. All of the conferences were directed at strengthening the left in electoral politics, but this one had a particular urgency as Washington’s second term would be the first where he had majority support in the Chicago City Council. His hands were finally free of an obstructionist opposition, but so were Washington’s allies. Washington had a stellar record as a state legislator and as a U.S. Representative, but he had his start as part of the Mayor Daley’s Regular Democrats. This made for awkward choices while he was in the Illinois legislature. Not all of his community and city council support were all that interested in liberal / left policies but would have preferred to simply trade a White political machine for one of color. Washington faced a municipal budget crisis not too dissimilar to what Chicago faces today, and his response was “austerity”. To paraphrase Marx, humans make history, but not just as they please. How would or could Washington balance these tensions?

We’ll never know.

And yet, those brief four years that he was Mayor made a huge difference in Chicago’s political culture. Some of it was timing and some of it was Washington himself. But that’s another story.


* I don’t claim to have read any where near everything published about Washington’s campaigns. I do know that Jim Weinstein mentioned DSA in passing in an In These Times op-ed about the Chicago municipal election in April of 1983. But that was a socialist publication. Right-wing polemicists (Stanley Kurtz, as an example) for whom merely mentioning the word “socialist” is an inspiration to fear and outrage discovered DSA’s support for Washington some years ago, mostly in the context trying to persuade people that Obama is / was a socialist: an excellent example of how ideology can sometimes make people politically tone deaf. They ramped up the noise around that narrative right when the economy was crashing.

I don’t recall that the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (a predecessor organization to DSA) was particularly involved with Washington’s unsuccessful 1977 campaign for Mayor, but the New American Movement (the other predecessor organization to DSA) certainly was.

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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.

Vote!! November 6

“Voting never makes any difference.”

“If voting changed anything, they‘d have made it illegal.”

I generally respond by pointing out that it usually only takes up no more than an hour of your time, often less, and what do you expect from such a small investment of time? Quite frankly, I’ve spent days on picket lines to less effect. With early voting and vote by mail you have really no excuse. This is your last chance.

And for those who complain of not being able to “vote my values”, why do you assume this is all about you?

Your vote does make a difference, in some contests more than in others and in some elections more than in others. Which side you’re on is beside the point: if you value some degree of nonviolence in how we settle disputes, get to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, and vote.

Happy Birthday, Debs!

On this day in 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is notable as having been a leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an Indiana state legislator, a founder and President of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a founder and five time Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation maintains his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, as a museum.

Debs saw himself, and the Socialist Party, more as a catalyst than as a vehicle. My currently favorite quote from Debs illustrates this nicely:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

Broken Politics?

In this video, Vox teams up with the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution to cast shade on the Republican Party:

“Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.”

It might surprise you that I have some misgivings about this argument.

Part of it is that I challenge the very existence of a “Republican” or a “Democratic” party. As political parties are understood in most parts of the world, parties here in the States simply do not exist. Fragments of parties exist. The opposing caucuses in legislative bodies exist and they have important consequences — committee assignments, work priorities and the like. There’s something of a party bureaucracy that mostly serves as a conduit for money and as a vendor of political services (polling, data processing, etc.) all of which is available elsewhere. If you are a candidate, you have no obligation to use your party’s services. And there are party clubs. But none of these entities have any organic connections among them. And the parties do exist in the electorate: People self identify as Democrats and Republicans. If there is anything real and vitally consequential about American political parties, it is mostly to be found in the electorate’s self identification. But beyond that, what we see as political parties are entities that have been partially taken over by the government and have, at best, vestigial independence apart from the government. State laws, mostly, govern party structure, party officials, party candidates, even what constitutes “membership” in a political party. Oh yes: finances, too.

This varies from state to state and among the various U.S. territories. We don’t have a two party system but rather over 50 different party systems in this country. A few have multiple party brands, others but two. When you drill down to the local level, you often find a more various political landscape.

The “asymmetrical polarization” that this video documents is a phenomenon that is primarily manifest in the parties’ constituencies. It’s reflected by and amplified by professional politicians and activists for their own ends, but it would not exist in government if it did not exist in the electorate.

The polarization is a result of something that has been in the works since at least the Great Depression, when New Deal Democrats, bothered by Dixiecrat sabotage and obstruction, dreamed of realigning the “parties” in ideological terms. The “Democrats” would be the liberals; “Republicans” would be the conservatives.

Fast forward to the 1960s and both sides were working on this project, including Norm Ornstein and the American Enterprise Institute (out of the wreckage of the Barry Goldwater campaign) on the conservative side. On the left in the 1970s, you had organizations like the New Democratic Coalition (not to be confused with the “third way” folks of later decades) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. The so-called Reagan Revolution and the increased use of primary elections over conventions pretty much accomplished the project. By the 1990s, at latest, the Republican brand had become the brand of conservatives. The Republican brand is not “more” ideological today, it’s just more confident and less willing to compromise than it was in the 1980s.

If one of the our two political brands becomes clearly and dogmatically defined (in this case, the Republicans), the other brand will opportunistically begin to incorporate everyone alienated from the first. It’s also easy to see how “asymmetry” in early stages would feed upon itself unless somehow interrupted. It also seems likely that the social democratic / progressive wing of the Democratic brand will have difficulty dominating its vehicle in the near term at least: too many political refugees with money.

So what is Ornstein complaining about? Given the racism underlying the current Republican brand (it wasn’t always so, at least in this geezer’s life span) and the shifting demographics that promise it less than a majority, it is easy to see how Ornstein and Mann sense disaster on conservatism’s present course. And they’re not alone.

Oh, boo hoo.

Aside from the blatant expressions of bigotry, there’s really not a huge gap in policy between the Trump Republicans of 2018 and the Reagan Republicans of 1980. The most obvious differences are based in personality more than anything else: the audacity of ignorance is remarkable in 2018. Reagan may have about as factually challenged as Trump, but Reagan was an amiable fellow to his friends and was willing (with some exceptions) to be steered. Trump is a stubborn old coot. Today’s open bigotry does count for something, also. I expect without it we might have at least some movement on immigration policy because population growth is the easiest way to grow an economy… among other less benign rationales. But beyond that, what’s new? This is Goldwater / Reagan conservatism rampant.

But how does ideological polarization work when the structure of our governments (both on the Federal level and on the level of the States) demands some degree of consensus? (Think of the “checks and balances” that you learned about in high school civics class.)

The answer, obviously, is not very well.

And that’s a problem for us lefites, too.

Don’t neglect to vote!

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.