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Do We Really Need More Democracy?

Or do we just need to use the democracy we have? Plus: My "friend" Pat Quinn.

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Any day you're asked a good question is a pretty good day. The other day I was asked two.

The first one was from my daughter Laura in New York. Everyone is talking about bringing more democracy to Chicago, she said. What does that mean, more democracy? More of what exactly?

I had no idea. Mayor Daley said he'd decided not to run for reelection, and suddenly democracy was on all lips. "Perhaps you've heard of it, invented by my noble ancestors, the Greeks," John Kass wrote in the Tribune, "it is a system of government by which free people debate ideas, sometimes vigorously, sometimes rudely. They elect leaders who are expected to give reasons for their actions. The leaders must form a consensus before they can spend the people's money. Yes, it is indeed a weird system of governance, relatively unknown in these parts. It's called democracy."

Daley's "unfinished business," Greg Hinz wrote in Crain's Chicago Business, is "making Chicago fit for democracy and making democracy fit in Chicago." And back at the Trib, Dennis Byrne wrote, "Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own without a boss instructing them?"

I'd already quoted these quotes in something I'd posted online. Now I reviewed them. Kass was asking for a Little Golden Books version of democracy. Hinz wanted a Chicago where democracy works. Pretty to wish for, thought Byrne, but he seriously doubted Chicago could function as a democracy and the real question, he concluded, was whether Chicago could continue to be functional at all. A dark thought, that. Everyone agreed the democracy dipstick reads low. But there was less consensus on how, or even whether, to fill the tank; the real yearning, I could see, wasn't for more democracy as much as it was for a nicer, more consumer-friendly democracy that elects leaders as honest as they are brilliant.

For if someone says we don't have enough democracy in Chicago, the proper reply is, what exactly are we short of? Do we vote? Yes. Is any adult without a criminal record free to run? Yes. Do our elected representatives meet and discuss and write laws, and if we don't like those laws can we throw them out? Yes. And what about the mayor, who's ruled for almost 22 years and whose father ruled for 21? Is there something about the way our laws are written that encourages quasi-monarchical dynasties? Not that I can put my finger on.

So what democratic apps are lying around uinstalled? I guess there are the direct referendums that helped bankrupt California. And the recent experiment in Rogers Park—the one the Reader's Deanna Isaacs just wrote about under the headline "Can Democracy Work in Chicago?"—about 49th Ward residents voting on how their alderman should spend his "menu money"—could be tried everywhere murals are painted on railroad viaducts.

But there's not a lot of room for expansion.

If Chicago's cursed with a corrupt, inefficient autocracy, it's because the people of Chicago, in their wisdom and by their votes and actions, have repeatedly chosen it. Let's blame the victim: we have the democracy we deserve. Just as Barack Obama's greatest accomplishment as president could turn out to be getting elected president, the biggest contribution to democratic reform made possible by Richie Daley's decision not to run for reelection may be the decision itself. Mayors don't have to die in office or cling to it until their parties throw them out—as Daley just taught by example to Chicagoans who had never seen anything else.

Last week in the Reader I shared the lamentation of a tiny Tea Party group, the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic, in western Missouri. There's a long list of grievances posted on their website, but in the end their beef comes down to this: "Some of our elected representatives treat us like children. Far too many of our politicians insult us in town hall meetings. They dismiss us by refusing to respond to our questions, through the rudeness of their office personnel, and by giving us meaningless responses that answer none of our concerns. All of these actions make it clear that they no longer take us, the people, seriously."

Folks go to the polls in western Missouri, same as they do here. What aggrieves the Johnson County Patriots isn't that there's too little democracy but that democracy in their view doesn't work for them the way it works for the big shots. They sound just like Kass—the difference being that an angry voice speaking for itself is more compelling than Kass's sarcastic voice speaking for a disrespected multitude he doesn't belong to. The Patriots look around at the democracy their forefathers left behind and feel it snickering at them. Here in Illinois, a lot of folks do too. Voters face humiliating choices in November's most important races: Quinn versus Brady for governor; Giannoulias versus Kirk for the U.S. Senate. But who or what gave us these candidates? Who gave us Blagojevich? Who gave us George Ryan? Do we blame democracy for failing to gild the ballot with more competence and virtue?

I'm just asking—I'm as eager to live in a Hellenic paradise as the next guy is.

The second question came to me from an accomplished journalist who's still getting a grip on the age we live in. He asked for my opinion on something that he naively construed as an ethical issue. "Just got on Facebook recently, and trying to sort this out," he e-mailed me. "I see you have the Governor among your friends. . . . I can see the advantages, but it also seems a little unseemly . . ."

I do? He is? I can't possibly keep track of my Facebook friends, most of whom I don't know. So I checked, and discovered the governor had 4,966 Facebook friends and I was indeed one of them. He was one of my 266. I field requests but don't make them, so somewhere along the line Quinn must have asked for my friendship, and I must have obliged.

I can see what the journalist was driving at—I'm supposed to be Quinn's disinterested critic, not someone he can flaunt publicly as his homeboy. But the English language is a living thing, and friend has become a sort of unguent word, chosen for its soothing powers and not because it means a thing. I'm sure kindergarten teachers can be overheard these days informing anxious parents, "Your lovely little boy has already made dozens of new friends, and our only concern is that none of them likes him."

I don't believe I've ever met Pat Quinn, and as I indicate above, I think it's sort of a tragedy that he's the Democratic candidate for governor. But why should revulsion stand in the way of a Facebook friendship? Top journalists see eye to eye with me on this: Quinn's friends come from all sexes, races, and walks of life, which is as it should be for a man of the people, and plenty of them are in the biz. For instance, Sun-Times columnists Carol Marin and Richard Roeper; Tribune columnists Clarence Page, Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, and Dawn Turner Trice; and Capitol Fax's Rich Miller. I asked a few of Quinn's journalist friends whether they thought there was anything unseemly about the relationship. Not at all, they said.

"I myself don't think twice about becoming fb 'friends' with pols," Mick Dumke of the Chicago News Cooperative responded. "Modern campaigns use social media and political reporters would be foolish not to pay attention to them that way. Plus, when I post my stories on fb, I know they're going to be seen by a range of people in power and their supporters."

Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, told me he uses his Facebook page as a "virtual town hall" for posting BGA information, and if Quinn or any other public official wants to drop in, he's welcome. "At the end of the day, if they listen to our view of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, there's a chance they'll think about and begin practicing more good government than bad."

And Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune editorial page, responded, "I think political 'friendship' on Facebook is about as innocuous as it gets. . . . I haven't sought to friend anyone in politics, but I haven't turned down anyone who sought me out. . . . We use social media to gather information, to draw a wider audience for our work, and to make some personal connections. I don't see anything unseemly."

A couple days later the Trib ran a lead editorial that described Quinn as a "self-styled reformer" they'd caught in a "cheesy plot" involving a "blatant conflict of interests."

Some friendship!—I mean in the quaint, 19th-century sense of the word.

I also polled some Sun-Times journalists who are not Quinn's Facebook friends to see why they drew the line. It turned out they didn't.

"I wasn't asked," Neil Steinberg wrote back, "but I probably would have, depending on my level of contempt for him the moment he sent the request. I don't see a conflict—it's like being in somebody's Rolodex."

Tom McNamee is Dold's opposite number at the Sun-Times. "I don't remember being invited by Quinn to be his friend," he wrote me. "Jesus, just like in high school—the cool kids don't want to hang with me."

Then again, he didn't sound entirely shattered. "People say 'friend' has a different meaning in the context of online social networking sites, which is true, but the general sense of approval in the word is not entirely lost. So, sure, all those Trib people are happy to friend Quinn and the like, but would they take up David Duke on an offer to be a friend? (I can think of examples closer to home, but don't need their e-mail.)"

Mark Brown replied, "I'm not on Facebook, so this is an issue I haven't faced."

I wrote back, "You're not missing anything." Nothing, that is, but Pat Quinn's most private public thoughts. Shortly after that I decided to drop Quinn from my roster, leaving him with 4,965 friends. I hope he doesn't notice.   

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