Why “Chicago-style Politics” Is a Thing of the Past

The thinking behind the news.
July 23 2012 6:25 AM

Chicago Style

Romney is accusing Obama of practicing “Chicago-style politics.” Apparently, he has no idea what that means.

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Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel might be of Chicago, but that doesn't mean they practice "Chicago-style politics."

Photograph by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

If I hear one more person accuse the Obama campaign of practicing “Chicago-style politics,” I'm gonna kick all his nephews off the park-district payroll.  I’m gonna send some precinct captains over to straighten him out. Mitt Romney and his surrogates don’t understand what Chicago-style politics means. No one seems to have told them that it’s been gone for 25 years. And they don’t get that Barack Obama, in his Chicago days, never had anything to do with it.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Chicago-style politics, in common parlance, refers to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley machine. If you want to read a great, short book about that world, I recommend Boss by Mike Royko. The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public.  It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it. One of the most memorable phrases from that era comes from a story often told by former White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva, who described attempting to volunteer on a local campaign in the late 1940s.

“Who sent you?” asked the cigar-chomping 8th Ward precinct captain.

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“Nobody sent me,” replied Mikva.

“We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

The machine was dominated by the Irish and centered in Bridgeport, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that was the ancestral home of the Daleys. Bridgeport’s antithesis has always been the liberal, multicultural enclave of Hyde Park, the University of Chicago neighborhood where the Obamas—and Bill Ayers—live. (The other thing the precinct captain told Mikva was, “We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago in this organization.”) Hyde Park’s 5th Ward was the only one out of 50 to elect an independent alderman until the late 1960s, when political reformers like my parents and their friends on the North Side began to challenge the Daley machine. 

By the mid-1980s, the independents had mostly finished off the Daley machine—thanks mainly to the Shakman decree, still very much in force, which prevents any political consideration in hiring, firing, and promotion, with the exception of a thin layer of policy positions. This meant that when Harold Washington, a black machine politician turned reformer, was elected in 1983, he controlled only a few hundred city and county jobs, instead of the 35,000 Daley had at his disposal. By the time the younger Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989, the Chicago machine was, like the Italian Mafia, more legend than force. Chicago-style pizza still exists. Chicago-style politics, equally deplorable in my view, no longer does. 

In 2008, John McCain ran ads describing Obama as “born of the corrupt Chicago political machine.” But Obama, who moved to Chicago in 1985 to be a community organizer in a politically disenfranchised neighborhood on the South Side, had no link to the Chicago machine at all. In Dreams From My Father, he describes trying unsuccessfully to get the attention of city officials—in the Harold Washington era—to deal with asbestos in public housing projects. That’s how far outside of Chicago-style politics Obama was. Obama never ran for a Chicago office. Hyde Park elected him to represent it in the Illinois State Senate in 1996. He tried for Congress in 2000 and lost. Then he got elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. He somehow passed through Chicago politics without ever developing any real connection to it.