Rahm Emanuel's hollow victory: Why Chicago's mayoral campaign has national implications

The neoliberal firebrand will be reelected, but here's why his struggles reveal a changing Democratic base

Published February 18, 2015 6:53PM (EST)

Now that he has a city to run and is too busy to seduce the press like he used to, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not quite the political celebrity he once was. Ironically, despite being the most powerful man in one of the world’s greatest cities, Emanuel’s profile right now outside Illinois is probably the lowest it’s been since his brief and extremely lucrative late-90s hiatus. As a professional consumer of political media, I’ve enjoyed the break from Emanuel’s signature brashness and machismo. But as a lefty who believes the Democratic Party can be made better (which is not the same as good) Emanuel’s upcoming, near-certain, and little-noticed reelection makes me nervous about the party’s near-term future.

In defense of the national media’s scant attention, I should note that this year’s mayoral election has been extremely uncompetitive, which best explains why its mostly flown under the radar. Judging by the latest polling, there’s no doubt that the mayor will receive more votes than any other single candidate on Election Day. Instead, the question is whether he’ll win the 50 percent-plus-one-vote he needs to avoid an April runoff against whoever finishes second. On that score, and with less than a week before Chicagoans head to the polls, Emanuel’s coming up short. But according to the Chicago Tribune, nearly 20 percent of voters still haven’t decided how to cast their vote yet — and Emanuel’s team has an insane amount of money to spend on advertising for the final push.

Still, all the money in the world can’t make people vote, and campaigning to avoid a future runoff — which Emanuel would almost certainly win, too — isn’t quite the stuff of political dreams. That’s probably the best explanation for this recent piece on Emanuel in the New York Times, which focuses on efforts to woo African-American voters that the paper implies are desperate and belated. “[A]n essential worry for his campaign is how well he will do with black residents,” the Times reports, before noting that “alienated black voters” could tether Emanuel below that 50-plus-one threshold. And as the Times shows, if African-Americans decline to do Emanuel any favors, they won’t lack for reasons.

To be clear, there’s no reason whatsoever to think Emanuel — who left the inside track for being the first Jewish speaker of the House in order to serve as chief of staff for the first African-American president — harbors negative feelings towards African-Americans. As is increasingly the case in the U.S., the problem is fundamentally more about class than race. But you can hardly blame black people in Chicago if they decide the mayor’s personal views don’t compensate for his neoliberal policies, which have often been terrible for those Chicagoans who aren’t members of Emanuel’s affluent political base. If you look at his record thus far, in fact, it’s hard not to think that Emanuel has almost been trying to vindicate the leftwing critics of his neoliberal, Clintonian approach.

To focus on the example that’s garnered the most national attention: Emanuel has spent much of his mayorship so far engaged in a bitter struggle with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over a number of policies supported by the “education reform” movement. The low-point of his relationship with the union was undoubtedly during the CTU’s 2012 strike, but there were fights before and after as well. Often, the points of disagreement concerned using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. But the CTU strike was so unusually successful in part because Emanuel was pushing for changes that went beyond teacher accountability and toward a more thorough dismantling of public education. The CTU was able to present itself as opposing neoliberalism, not just Rahm Emanuel; and it won.

When CTU leader Karen Lewis announced last fall that, despite some encouraging polling, she would not run against Emanuel, any chance to have that bigger debate on an even bigger stage went out the window. But the sentiment that propelled the CTU strike over the top and made Lewis such an unexpectedly formidable challenger hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just splintered without a figure of Lewis’s stature holding it all together. If you’re opposed to the neoliberal politics Emanuel champions — if you think the Democratic Party should aspire to be something more than a kinder, gentler Michael Bloomberg — that’s reason to be encouraged. The problem, though, is that unifying figures like Karen Lewis are rare; she didn't become the Karen Lewis by happenstance.

That’s how Chicago politics got to its present state, with a Democratic mayor cruising to reelection in spite the fact that such a substantial number of Democrats hate him. That’s obviously bad news for Chicago’s lefties, but I think Emanuel’s situation should worry liberal Democrats nationwide, too. Because Emanuel’s hardly the only top-tier Democrat still devoted to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s and Bill Clinton. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is almost certainly running for president, is practiced at carrying water for the 1 percent. And she’s also facing an electoral path even smoother than Emanuel’s, with no runoff to worry about and absolutely no serious challengers emerging to her left.

So here’s hoping Emanuel falls short of 50-plus-one and has to engage in a real one-on-one campaign in the spring. Even if he won that, too (which he probably would), showing Democratic Party elites just how unpopular the neoliberal agenda has become among the rank-and-file could ultimately make a real difference.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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