Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cook County: Barack Obama's America

It has been 100 days since Barack Obama was inaugurated and I have watched over the past few days ad nauseam reflections on what the Obama Presidency Means. I have not heard the obvious- America is becoming more like Cook County.

While to many in the South and West the idea of Chicago Politics seems alien and filled with strange names and ideas the basics of Chicago politics now define America. In Chicagoland as 0ur region is called there are Democrats and Republicans but they seem to agree on most issues.

  • Government exists to provide services.
  • Politics is a place where government, business elites and Labor cut up a pie.
  • The job of public servants is to make sure that the garbage is picked up and the streets are clean and things run well.
  • Graft is tolerated as long as these things get done.
Quality of life is central to what drives Chicago politics. Anyone who comes here in the summer will be dazzled by the parks, flowers and beaches. Chicago is about quality of life and this means higher taxes and graft and city workers- but also the fact that the parks, libraries, and alleys run well makes a difference for average Chicagoans.

In the end what matters in Chicago are public spaces and this seems to matter to Barack Obama.

Since Ronald Reagan was elected public spaces have been derided as wasteful. The Conservative movement has been about the private. Government should leaves me alone. I should be able to make as much money as possible. My neighborhood is gated and the parks and pools are private and public spaces are neglected. Our ideal has been Scottsdale or Plano Texas not Chicago or New York.

I will never forget when I lived in Dallas and I went to the main library. It was filled with homeless men and was shabby and dirty. Compare that to the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago- which is a palace- and you can see the difference between a Cook County vision and the Conservative vision of America. Sure the Cook County vision is not always graft free but there are great services. In Conservative America you get no services in fact you get what you pay for.

This sense of the public being important is why President Obama is supporting Green Energy, High Speed Rail and national health care. He cares more about public spaces. Many on the right especially in the South will find these ideas very alien. I will never forget again when I lived in Dallas all my colleagues who would go to Chicago for vacations in the summer. They would laud the parks and the culture but they did not want to pay for them in Dallas. In the end will America want to pay for what President Obama is proposing? It will mean less gated communities and less granite countertops but more public wealth.

It is true that entrepenurial America has given us Microsoft, Apple, Wall Street Titans and alike but has that really bettered the lives of the average American? In Chicago- my hometown- a Middle Class person can live, buy a house, go to a nice library, go to great parks and museums all for a moderate price. It is true our taxes are higher and our corruption and graft more evident but would I trade my lifestyle in Chicago for a much cheaper but more culturally meagre life in Texas?

I made a choice to return here.

So as President Obama brings some good Cook County to America. We can hope he can teach Washington DC to do better. If D.C.'s streets are clear of snow two hours after a storm we will know that Chicago style has come to America.


robert huddleston said...

Dear Ray,

I feel compelled to respond to your recent post on America becoming more like Cook County. I think it's undeniable that Obama has imported much of what he appreciates about Chicago's civic management to the Federal government. And you make an interesting point about Texans vacationing in Chicago who don't want to pay for the same amenities back home. (How many people want Texas to secede? Any objections?) On the other hand, Chicago is not measurably better off than most other comparable American cities. Its libraries and parks are no more well stocked or better tended than those of New York, San Francisco, or even Boston or Minneapolis. Its public transit system is wretched. I would never trade the Washington DC metro for the CTA, even if it meant better snow removal: it doesn't snow that much in DC anyway. My point isn't to tout one city over another, but to point out what your post fails to capture about the subjective experience—at least my subjective experience—of living in Chicago. I did not experience it as the middle-class cultural mecca that you describe. I found that, as in many other American cities, cultural life has been largely privatized, that is, it is dominated by large institutions, including universities, that depend on private funding for patronage. An elite has access to these institutions; the vast majority do not. Nor does your post address the sinister know-nothing materialism that is so prevalent, even in Chicago elites. It may be better than in Texas, and no worse than Washington DC, but it's hardly laudable. I know a Yale-educated doctor, a Chicagoan, whose lip curls into a sneer at the mention of poetry, and who berated me for being part of an intellectual elite (the irony!) with no sympathy for the interests of "ordinary" people. I cite this individual as merely an example of an attitude that is quite widespread.

I can't get it out of my head that only people who were raised in the midwest can really love Chicago. I know that it's objectively untrue, but subjectively it fits my Erlebniß of being there. I lived in the city for eleven years, got my PhD from the University of Chicago, tried in every way to participate in the civic and cultural life of the place, and came away feeling like an exile, shut out from every meaningful interaction. I've found New York to be far more open and accepting, far more an embodiment of the virtues America is supposed to represent, than Chicago ever was. In Washington DC the museums and cultural institutions of the Smithsonian are open to the public, free, 365 days a year. The Art Institute, meanwhile, charges nearly $20 admission. There are some things about Cook County that I would prefer that Obama not bring to the nation, and not just the tradition of graft and corruption. DC city politics does that just fine already.


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