Tuesday was Election Day in Illinois. In Chicago, they had the first mayoral runoff in history.
Well, in a way. You see, as late as the life and times of Richard J. Daley, who was elected to his first mayoral term sixty years ago on April 5, the Republicans would still send lambs to the slaughter as a kind of formality. And this required symbolic April elections.
But it’s true, this was the first runoff since the Chicago political establishment bit the bullet, and admitted that only a registered Democrat could steal enough votes to be viable in a citywide contest. And this being Chicago, such elections were legally institutionalized as “nonpartisan.”
In any event, extraordinary Chicago events like “nonpartisan” runoffs only sustain their extraordinariness for a limited time. And so Rahm Emanuel, “Mayor One Percent,” bumped Chuy Garcia into the gutter with a respectable 56 percent of the vote, though only a minority of registered voters turned out to hand Rahm his ax.
As an aside, I am thinking of entitling my first scholarly book And the Mayor Shall Be Called Emanuel, Which Means, Rahm is (Not) With Us: A Theology of Liberation for a Corrupt Chicago.
As for me, I went to the polls at my local suburban Unitarian Church on Tuesday afternoon. I received a ballot on which everyone was running for seats on various education and library boards. I did not know who any of the candidates were. I suspect the candidates preferred it that way.
I recognized the name of one gentleman. His yard signs described him as a “committed” candidate. The yard signs had appeared abruptly and perhaps illegally just a few days before, along the roadsides of my thickly forested, very unincorporated precinct.
Later, I heard that what this fellow was reputedly “committed” to was mismanagement and racism. But then, in order to hear about any of it, you had to intentionally follow township school politics, or be a frequenter of certain social media bulletin boards, or at least have a kid in the district. Preferably one of the kids who received the campaign propaganda texts the “committed” candidate and his allies had blasted to the student body cell phone list one afternoon, in violation of district policy.
As it happened, I voted against him. I knew neither candidate contesting for the seat. And when in doubt, I always vote for women, one of whom was running against the “committed” candidate.
I should say that particular race was the only one that gave me a choice. I had to vote for “no more than one,” and the ballot had two names to choose from. Every remaining race ordered me to “vote for no more than two,” and provided two. Or told me to “vote for no more than three,” and provided three. Or decreed “vote for no more than two,” while proceeding to offer one plus a “write-in”; or one plus a “no candidate filed”; or one plus a “no candidate filed,” along with a “write-in.”
Residing in an unincorporated area, I only had to make decisions for board seats, not executive or legislative offices. For more interesting races, I would have had to live in an actual municipality. But, as I discovered, not even the people who lived in such actual municipalities found these races interesting.
Consider the town to which I am, despite my unincorporated-ness, attached by zip code. It has a population of about 9,500. But it has only about 2,600 registered voters, and this even though there are not enough children and non-citizen immigrants to lop off seventy percent of the population. And on Tuesday night, the mayor and trustee candidates carved out their fiefs for the next four years from a voter turnout of slightly more than 500.
About one town or so over, the mayor’s race was a real contest, invigorated by mild scandal. It was fought between the sitting mayor and a trustee who was rumored to subsist on unknown means of support. From what I heard, that particular trustee also had a reputation for cussing out people who asked him hard questions, and for employing intimidating bodily postures at public meetings. Thankfully, he lost, as did a trustee candidate who had a history of violating campaign laws by blitzing church parking lots with his flyers.
It was, in short, an ordinary Election Day in the state of Illinois.
Lately, I have been reading former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of an American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. In it, he makes many doleful observations about Millennials, or at least that subset of Millennials with which he is most familiar, and to which I myself belong. That is to say, those of us who have enough education and money to choose who and what we will be.
What, then, do we choose? Many of us, as Deresiewicz reports and as I myself observe, embrace “the spirit of do-it-yourself social engagement,” a “small-scale/techie/entrepreneurial model” in which we “just pick a problem and go to work on it”: stuff like better technology, clean water, and so on. It’s admirable in its way, but it “goes along with a withdrawal from politics, inherently a sphere of conflict as well as of large institutions (another thing Millennials often say they can’t abide).”
When we do engage in politics, we “go to Washington to take up policy positions” rather than concerning ourselves with elective office. For, as Deresiewicz was told “by one of the rarities who has (he is now the mayor of a small midwestern city),” elective politics “means going home, probably somewhere deeply unhip, and working your way up from the bottom.”
I know. For what I have taken such care to describe to you is the bottom. I do not sugarcoat the bottom.
Yet, as Deresiewicz notes:
I know that the idea is to begin at the edges and work your way in toward the center, but as long as there are politicians standing at the center with their arms folded, what happens at the edges will stay at the edges. We can start all the organic farms we want, but we couldn’t stop Congress from declaring pizza sauce a vegetable….You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Withdrawing from it doesn’t make it go away.
As I get older–and I seem to be getting older quickly–I find that many of my positions can safely be described as liberal, but the means that I believe will attain my ends are becoming increasingly conservative. They harken more and more to the things my grandparents’ generation would have done.
My cohort is, alas, not interested in the contract disputes over who profits from the vending machines at village hall. But numerically, that’s where most power plays happen. It is also where any large, successful social reform has to start. You earn your way to the macro (“clean water for a sustainable planet”) by demonstrating your clout with the micro (“who is running for my county water reclamation district?”).
I make bold to predict that if my generation changes anything, such change will have naught to do with nonprofits “raising awareness,” or with revolutions that we tweet, or with internships we take at NGOs, or with anything vaguely Zuckerberg-ian. It will not even have anything to do with this blog I so laboriously type from my MacBook Air.
Change will come from our willingness to accept the world as it is, to go back home to those obscure and unhip roots we fought so hard to escape, to run for the library and school boards that we ought to be ashamed to know so little about, and to then fight what Deresiewicz calls the “ugly, incremental war…down there in the trenches,” facing off with the sorts of odd characters who intimidate their fellow trustees during the conduct of public business by looming over them with unblinking stares.
For such characters count on our disengagement. And safe behind the cloak of that disengagement, they rule the world.