What Rahm Emanuel can learn from crazy lefties
By alienating liberals, the mayor of Chicago may have sealed his political fate
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in an unexpectedly tight runoff race to win re-election. His opponent, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, has hammered Emanuel's union-busting and other neoliberal tendencies.
In an interview with The New York Times, an Emanuel adviser sneered at left-wing critics and their political aspirations in classic "Rahmbo" fashion:
"Unless they get the crazy lefty money machine going nationally, it’s not going to matter that there’s a resurgent left," said an adviser to Mr. Emanuel who did not want to speak publicly about strategy. "The liberals at Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park can think great thoughts and read poetry for Chuy, but nothing else will happen." [The New York Times]
The adviser is probably right about the money. Politics is an expensive business, and fundraising is an inescapable part of the job. There isn't a lot of money flowing to the crazy left wing, which is why Garcia is being so colossally outspent.
However, there is another side to this story. Emanuel's deep strategic weaknesses on policy and politics are a direct result of his predilection for bashing the left. And his predicament is indicative of a major problem with American liberalism. By foreclosing the kind of egalitarian policy that is necessary to improve the fortunes of most people in an age of stark inequality, and by repeatedly denying itself an anchor in the left, the Democratic Party has sowed the seeds of its current political difficulties.
The story of the left wing's brokeness is more interesting than it might seem. One explanation, of course, is that traditional left politics is directly opposed to the interests of organized money. Another is that left-wing institutions, like unions, have been systematically destroyed over the last half-century.
Another, less appreciated explanation is the brutal repression of organized left-wing movements. Historically, America has had several homegrown socialist organizations — the Socialist Party of America once achieved a fifth of the vote in Oklahoma, for instance. But such movements have always been crushed by state repression and paroxysms of paranoid hysteria before they could get up a head of steam.
American liberals of the Emanuel-ian mode were eager participants in the First Red Scare, which obliterated those Oklahoman socialists, and in the second one, which made frenzied anti-leftism a precondition for mainstream politics. Left-bashing developed enough momentum to carry it far beyond the death of the Soviet Union — as late as 2004, Peter Beinart wrote in bold advocacy of purging antiwar voices like Michael Moore and MoveOn from the Democratic Party.
The moderate liberalism exemplified by the likes of Emanuel, Andrew Cuomo, and Hillary Clinton stands for capitalist-friendly policy with a few side benefits for the masses, like education and health care. Such policy was an easy sell in the 1950s and 1960s, when economic growth was easily passed down the socioeconomic ladder. But today, essentially all income growth is captured by the rich.
Emanuel-style policy, with its small-bore benefits and suspicion of unions, stands zero chance of changing that situation. To make things worse, this accrues to the benefit of the Republican Party, which can always go even farther in promising policies that benefit the rich. A more left-wing Emanuel would likely have avoided this runoff election, but he and his allies have driven out anyone who might have convinced him of the shortcomings of neoliberalism.
The Democratic Party's desperate need for an organized left wing becomes more apparent every day. In nations like Sweden, socialists have provided a key political and organizational foundation. But American liberals have nothing comparable to the mobilized reactionaries of the Tea Party, and no one to drive turnout when the president isn't on the ticket.
Rahm Emanuel is a cynical, mean-spirited politician who unquestionably would have fit right in with the liberal red-baiters of the '50s. As such, he has found himself in trouble. Just like Andrew Cuomo, he expected to sail to re-election on a massive tide of political fundraising, but faced a strong challenger who came seemingly out of nowhere.
And like Cuomo, Emanuel may well win. But his national aspirations are fading fast. It turns out money can only do so much to obscure a politician's failure to materially improve the lives of his constituents.