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Why the Rahm Story Matters

Walter Russell Mead

Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s tough-talking mayor who was elected to a second term just last spring, is facing a snowballing political crisis that now threatens to derail his mayoralty. The Wall Street Journal reports on the way a series of high-profile police shootings have rattled Chicago politics and undercut the Democrat’s standing with Chicago’s leftwing activists, and, increasingly, with the city as a whole:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut short a holiday break in Cuba amid a wave of criticism at home that isn’t letting up more than a month after the release of a video showing a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a black teenager.

The mayor’s decision to return early, his administration said, came partly in the wake of a police shooting over the weekend that claimed the lives of two people—prompting calls for the city to improve how it responds to calls involving mentally ill people.

Mr. Emanuel was already dealing with fallout from footage of Laquan McDonald being shot and killed in October 2014 that has left the mayor’s approval rating in the teens in a recent poll. Protests calling for his resignation have become commonplace.

But this is much more than a story about a politician’s career struggles. What’s happening in Chicago is an earthquake that points to the escalating crisis of governability for blue cities across the United States. There are at least six dimensions to this crisis.

First, the Windy City’s economic strength over the last generation was facilitated, in part, by a sharp decline in violent crime. Experts differ as to why crime fell, but aggressive policing probably played a role, just as it did in cities across the United States. Yet that aggressive policing also led to more confrontations between cops and civilians, and contributed to the development of a culture and ethos on the force that made civilian deaths more likely. It’s unclear how far Chicago (or any other American city) can go in dismantling the structure of aggressive law enforcement without seeing a resurgence of the crime levels that once ravaged urban communities across the country and sparked an intense political backlash.

Second, the police problem is partly an offshoot of an even wider and more intractable problem: the consequences of public sector unions and life tenure for city employees. There is a harsh conflict of interest between the city’s employees and the city’s voters. The pension crisis, now forcing Chicago (and many other cities and states across the country) to raise pension contributions at the cost of reduced spending on vital city functions, is a big part of the problem. The city’s bloated pension obligations have already forced Emanuel to make severe education cuts. It will continue to force cuts in city services in various cities, making it harder and harder for mayors to govern, and increasing the antagonism among various constituencies.

Third, there is a public sector quality problem as well. It is in the interests of public sector unions to shelter employees from oversight and threats to their job security, regardless of how well they perform. Teachers don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of student achievement and they don’t want subpar teachers to lose their jobs. The police feel the same way. So do sanitation workers, firefighters, and clerks in City Hall. While there are plenty of hard-working, committed people across the municipal workforce, the unions in which that workforce is organized have made it progressively more difficult for the city to manage its employees. That naturally leads to a decline in the quality of services rendered and to a corruption of the culture inside the workforce—again, despite the efforts of the many teachers, cops, and other public servants who continue to do their jobs with integrity.

Fourth, cities today face entrenched cost problems that make economic growth both uneven and fragile. This is partly due to the rising cost of big city governance. It’s harder, for example, to repair the complex infrastructure on which a modern city depends than it is to keep the sewer and road systems running in a small town or a suburb. Those expensive services require high taxes and other costs, driving many kinds of employers away. Partly as a result, cities are losing their middle class populations. In many cities, inequality is rising, the middle class is shrinking, the power of public sector unions over the politics system is growing, and the population is becoming more divided by class antagonisms and ethnic identity politics without a strong middle class to anchor them.

Fifth, native-born citizens, whatever their race, are moving out of many cities, as immigrants move in. This exacerbates income inequality, as in most cases first-generation immigrants (often without good English language skills or higher educational credentials) earn less than the native-born. It also exacerbates tensions between the unionized city work force that reflects the ethnic make-up of the previous generation and the more diverse incoming population. Immigration creates tension between the dominant ethnic groups in city politics (African-Americans in many cities) and newcomers, whether immigrants or highly-skilled affluent people drawn to the remaining dynamic, high-wage sectors of the local economy and to the richer cultural life that cities provide.

Sixth, cities have long been ruled by political machines, defying the efforts of progressives earlier in the 20th century to tame them. These machines can make good governance difficult, as the cases of Detroit and New Orleans, show. But even in a city like Chicago, where the machine has attempted to govern the city with attention to the promotion of economic development (as opposed to the suicidal emphasis on short-term looting that long characterized cities like Detroit), the ethnic and economic polarization of the city is making it harder for the machine to function “intelligently.” The imperatives of good governance and urban development push in one direction, but the forces that push toward short-termism, ethnic demagoguery, and fiscal irresponsibility are getting stronger.

It’s getting harder and harder, then, for American cities, even successful ones like Chicago and New York, to manage their affairs well. These are the fault lines beneath the surface of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, and they aren’t going away. To the contrary, they are likely to produce more frequent and more destructive quakes over time.

The increasing fragility of blue cities and states is the biggest problem the Democratic coalition faces. Those who hope that demographic change will create a “permanent Democratic majority” need to think about arithmetic as well as demography. The numbers don’t add up for blue cities. The governing model doesn’t produce the revenue that can sustain it long-term. Making cities work—enabling them to provide necessary services at sustainable cost levels while achieving economic development that rebuilds the urban middle class—is the biggest challenge the Democratic Party faces. As Mayor Emmanuel is learning, that is a daunting task.

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