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Privatized Politics

Last week a group of activists from the religious community in Chicago gathered informally to discuss what might be done to raise public awareness of the impact on poor people of the current budget impasse in the state of Illinois.  Eleven months into the current fiscal year the state has no budget.  Social services, higher education, and public schools are among the most imperiled as cuts have severely diminished programs and staffing.

Governor Rauner has held budget negotiations hostage to his anti-union agenda.  The Democratic controlled legislature – a group with its own tawdry track record – has held firm against this political ransom demand.  But the result is that state funds are doled out sparingly or not at all depending on the political clout of the recipients.  Needless to say, poor people and other vulnerable citizens are at the back of the line, or not in line at all.

The question at our brainstorming session became, “What kind of leverage can be exerted against the governor?”  What does he fear?  What would threaten him?  The obvious, though still startling answer to those questions was “nothing.”  Nothing threatens him.  And therefore, it is almost impossible to imagine any leverage that anyone can exert.  Why?  The governor largely self-funded his campaign.  A billionaire, he relied on his own wealth and that of a few wealthy friends to get himself elected and, once elected, to bankroll his agenda.  And he appears to have no political plans beyond being governor of Illinois, perhaps even content to serve only one term.  He need not accommodate to anyone for money or votes.

I used to think that the real danger in politics was too much accountability to financial donors, too much adjusting to poll numbers. But what if all the money you need comes from your own pocket and from just a few of your friends?  That means that the only person you are accountable to is yourself.  The only strings attached are strings of your own spinning.  You are bound to principles you alone define.  And what if you don’t need voters for another campaign?  No need to worry about the polls, no need to attend to public opinion.  No one has leverage over you.  You answer only to your own vision for the world, a vision you share with a small clique of like-minded friends.  Even shaming falls short as a political strategy before deeply held principles invulnerable to political or financial threat.

None of this, of course, is a blazing new political insight.  But as the reality of this settled over me during our meeting I found myself overwhelmed by how profoundly undemocratic our democracy is threatening to become.  The impasse in Washington troubles us, but at least the various players have to measure their decisions against fractious constituencies of one sort or another.  Ask John Boehner what this is like!  But what happens when one person holds purchase – literally – over the lives of everyone else?  Even Chicago’s legendary political bosses have had to look over their shoulders and adjust to new and emerging political constituencies over time.

We may be entering a new political world in which the old rough and tumble, give and take, even back room wheeling and dealing gives way to the wealthy, charismatic figure who need answer only to himself.  Call it privatized politics.  Think Donald Trump and his road to the Republican nomination.  Uncompromising, at first blush, may seem like a virtue.  But in politics the freedom to refuse compromise without incurring meaningful personal cost also means that divergent voices and diverse visions can be utterly ignored.  Hillary Clinton may be irked that Bernie Sanders refuses to raise the white flag to accommodate her campaign strategy.  But his persistence and popularity does demand of her that the progressive wing of her party not be completely ignored in favor of her centrist economic and more hawkish foreign policy positions.

Trump may prize himself on his mastery of the art of the deal.  But dealing for personal gain is a lot different than dealing for the common good.  And when no one has sufficient leverage to demand that you recognize the difference, we end up with Illinois writ large.

                            John H. Thomas

                            May 26, 2016




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