Chaos? Democracy? Is It Six of One...? | Bleader

Chaos? Democracy? Is It Six of One...?


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The first wave of commentary when Mayor Daley announced he was hanging it up hailed him but didn't try to change his mind. Said the Sun-Times editorial page: "Thank you, Mr. Mayor. You’ve made this city easier to love. And thanks for knowing when it’s time to say so long."

A consensus formed immediately. The mayor was leaving behind a city that looked terrific but had gotten itself in big trouble. Corruption. Autocracy. Massive deficits. Neglected neighborhoods. These were key elements of the Daley legacy. A Tribune editorial that praised him to the skies allowed that "his departure on May 16, 2011 — characteristically plotted in secret, characteristically defiant of pundits who didn't think he'd quit — bequeaths to Chicago a spectacular donnybrook over its future."

Note the tell-tale language. "Defiant of pundits." In other words, they predicted he'd run again and he decided not to, which means he defied them. "Plotted in secret." In other words, he decided to retire without announcing earlier that he'd formed an exploratory retirement committee. "Spectacular donnybrook." And now the deluge.

Only in Chicago, where mayors resign as frequently as popes do, would a decision to step down be taken so personally, as a praiseworthy but conspiratorial prelude to bedlam. But as I said, the language was tell-tale. The tale it told was about the schizoid nature of the second wave of commentary: demanding a new era of openness and virtue in civic politics; dreading chaos.

A time to hope and a time to tremble.

John Kass got the hopium ball rolling. "Perhaps you've heard of it. Invented by my noble ancestors, the Greeks, 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."

In the latest Crain's Chicago Business, Greg Hinz took up the call. Chicago must complete Daley's "unfinished business," Hinz wrote — "making Chicago fit for democracy and making democracy fit in Chicago." Which means "fewer ideas and orders from the top and more proposals and initiatives from the bottom." But on Tuesday the Tribune's Dennis Byrne, under the fretting headline, "Can Chicago function as a democracy?" reached a pitch-black conclusion: "I give public integrity a zero chance of making an appearance short of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. The pressing question isn't whether the city will enter a golden age of democracy. Or even whether democracy can survive here. Or who the next boss will be. It may not matter because the more fundamental question is whether Chicago, which is in such a mess, can be governed anymore — by anyone."

This shows what a rare and discombobulating event it is when a Mayor Daley steps down — it elicits a shriek of despair even from an old hand like Byrne. Chicago ungovernable? What are we, the Congo? Foreign Policy and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs just put Chicago sixth on a list of the most influential "global cities," that is, the cities that run the earth. Even allowing for some home cooking, sixth is pretty good, and running my eye down the list, I don't see many cities on it reputed to be in the grip of anarchists and roving bands of marauders. Before we worry so much about whether Chicago will be governable tomorrow, we should be realistic about how it's governed today. Ignore the City Council, which except in times of dire upheaval is content to serve as the mayor's proconsuls to the 50 wards. Look, instead, to the city's vibrant civic life. Attend the annual luncheon or dinner of an organization like BPI or the Civic Federation or Facing History. look around the room at the movers and shakers carving up their baked chicken, and say hello to the class that actually fulfills the advise and consent function of democratic government in Chicago. Is this elitist? Sure. It's also meritocratic.

The problem with being a major global city is that it's hard to find mentors. If the "Big Daddy approach to city government doesn't work anymore" — to quote the headline of Greg Hinz's column — what approach does work, and where can Chicago go to study it? Nine years ago, Governing magazine named Christchurch, New Zealand the best-run city in the world. Just last year, Maclean's magazine named Burnaby, British Columbia, the best-run city in Canada. Saskatoon was second. Toronto is often compared to Chicago and held up as a place Chicago can gainfully learn from, but according to Maclean's it is only the tenth-best run city in Canada. Christchurch is a long way off, so what do you think, should we send a team up to Burnaby?

I'm trying to be helpful here.

But then there's Singapore — eighth on the Foreign Policy-CCGA list of global cities. It's another big city with a Big Daddy government. Lee Kuan Yew is 87. He was Singapore's prime minister from 1965, when it separated from Malaysia to become a city-state, to 1990, when he resigned. He is now "minister mentor" to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is his son. The New York Times calls him still his nation's "dominant figure."


Old and ailing, Big Daddy Lee sat the other day for an interview with the New York Times. The challenge that has defined Lee's life, said the Times, is the "creation and development of a stable and prosperous nation, always on guard against conflict within its mixed population of Chinese, Malays and Indians." It has not been easy, or pretty. “I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” Lee told the Times, “but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

Now the young, basking in Singapore's calm and prosperity, demand less Big Daddy and more freedom. “They have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it,” said Lee. “They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that is never so.” He believes that unless the lid is kept on Singapore's racial divisions, “our society will be ripped apart.”

So instead of more democracy, maybe we need less. I'm just sayin'... No one could more diametrically disagree with this proposition than Toni Preckwinkle, whose attitude is, bring us more democracy tout suite, garcon, and if our fair city's ripped apart a little, so be it. Remembering Chicago as Beirut-on-the-Lake, Preckwinkle said nostalgically, "Council Wars weren’t chaos. It was democracy at its best, if you ask me. Democracy is messy and contentious and sloppy.”

Democracy at its best isn't widely remembered here as government at its best. Our pundits aren't so sure we'll get either.