Two Chicago Stories: Hope and Shame

(Chicago, Illinois – Dec. 11) As we prepare for the historic presidential inauguration of the formerly Chicago-based politician Barack Obama, two recent Chicago news stories deserve consideration in relation to the fate of American democracy and hopes for change under the next administration.

"You Voted for Change, I Intend to Deliver It."

The revelation that the Chicago-based Democratic Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to extort payments with his power to appoint Obama’s successor in the U.S. Senate is a reminder that the Republican Party holds no monopoly on corruption.  This is worth bearing in mind as the heavily corporate-funded Democrats come to power in Washington.

And while Obama does not appear to be seriously implicated in the Blagojevich scandal, it merits notice that the President Elect rose through the notoriously money-greased politics of Illinois and Chicago (where corporate "pinstripe patronage" replaced municipal hiring patronage as the main form of corruption nearly two decades ago).  This is the political culture that produced Blagojevich, to whom Obama is linked (fairly or not) through numerous shared fundraisers, including the convicted racketeer Tony Rezko (an early Obama sponsor and close friend) and other less-than-exemplary characters.

Experience with that political culture helped Obama make the sort of tough-minded big-money connections required to make a serious run for the presidency – a campaign that set new records for raising corporate cash.

"Even if Mr. Obama remains untouched by the investigation," The New York Times notes today (I am writing on the morning of Thursday December 11), Obama’s refusal to speak about his past connection with leading characters in the Blagojevich drama "shines a light on the corrupt politics of the state he emerged from and takes attention away from the agenda of change he would rather reemphasize" (NYT, December 11, 2008, A30).

Hauntingly enough, Blagojevich ran (successfully) for governor as a semi-populist reformer on a "change platform" in 2002.  In his first inaugural address, he denounced "a system of corruption that has become too commonplace, too accepted, and too entrenched."

"You voted for change," Blagojevich said, and "I intend to deliver it."

He came into office, the Chicago Tribune reports, as "a youngish-looking jogger whose fans dreamed of a Camelot in Springfield" after many years of crooked Republican rule (Chicago Tribune, December 11, 2008, sec. 1, p.12).

Direct Action

Second, we’ve had the poignant week-long factory occupation executed by mostly Latino union workers at Chicago’s north side Republican Window and Door plant. Facing eviction from their jobs with three days notice and the likelihood of no severance and of lost pay for work performed and knowing their employer was scheming to flee to a lower-wage, non-union locale,  these workers didn’t look for saviors in the political class and corporate elite.  They didn’t expect politicians or office-holds from either of the two dominant business parties to fix things for them from the top down.  Resurrecting some of the forgotten legacy of the heroic 1936-37 sit-down strike-wave (for union recognition and basic collective bargaining rights), they took the initiative to grab the historical spotlight through direct shop-floor action.  They made Mayor Daley, Governor Blagojevich, and President Elect Obama and dominant media respond to them. 

Along the way, they epitomized Obama and John Edwards’ recurrent campaign-trail admonition that "change doesn’t come from the top down; it comes from the bottom up."  This is something we can expect to hear less from Obama as he moves into the world’s ultimate "top-down" position."  Be that as it may, the expansion of such disruptive direct actions across the vast stretches of non-affluent America – workplace occupations, anti-eviction actions, immigrant rights’ protests, anti-military-recruitment actions, etc. – is a big part of how working people could some actual progressive change out of the dawning Age of Obama.  A gifted and charismatic politician who has helped raise the hope of untold millions at home and abroad, Obama is no magical exception to Howard Zinn’s historical observation: "even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore….. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties" (H. Zinn, "Election Madness," The Progressive, March 2008).

Choosing Top-Down Shame Over Bottom-Up Hope

Zinn’s reflection, richly supported by abundant historical evidence, is the sort of thing you don’t hear about in "mainstream" (corporate) U.S. media.  In the "liberal" New York Times today, a Chicago story reports that the Blagojevich spectacle is "a Slap After Obama Euphoria" (NYT, December 11, 2008, A28).  Numerous Chicagoans are quoted on how "it suddenly feels like a long time since Election Night" (when hundreds of thousands celebrated Obama’s inspiring victory in the city’s Grant Park) and how old stereotypes of corruption are returning to haunt the city’s public image again.

The Times has yet to run a story on the inspiration that many workers and activists have taken from the actions of the workers at the Republic Plant. 

The factory occupation was quickly marginalized as a mainstream news story once the Blagojevich extravaganza (ongoing as I write today) took over the news-cycle.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a journalist and author in Iowa City, IA.  His most recent books are Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers,2008)

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