Amusingly, Jacob Weisberg has much the same reaction as I did to the nonsense phrase: Chicago Style politics, but expresses his disdain a bit more forcefully, in an article that begins…
If I hear one more person accuse the Obama campaign of practicing “Chicago-style politics,” I’m gonna kick all his nephews off the park-district payroll. I’m gonna send some precinct captains over to straighten him out. Mitt Romney and his surrogates don’t understand what Chicago-style politics means. No one seems to have told them that it’s been gone for 25 years. And they don’t get that Barack Obama, in his Chicago days, never had anything to do with it.
Chicago-style politics, in common parlance, refers to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley machine. If you want to read a great, short book about that world, I recommend Boss by Mike Royko. The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public. It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it.
One of the most memorable phrases from that era comes from a story often told by former White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva, who described attempting to volunteer on a local campaign in the late 1940s.
“Who sent you?” asked the cigar-chomping 8th Ward precinct captain.
“Nobody sent me,” replied Mikva. “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
The machine was dominated by the Irish and centered in Bridgeport, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that was the ancestral home of the Daleys. Bridgeport’s antithesis has always been the liberal, multicultural enclave of Hyde Park, the University of Chicago neighborhood where the Obamas—and Bill Ayers—live. (The other thing the precinct captain told Mikva was, “We don’t want nobody from the University of Chicago in this organization.”) Hyde Park’s 5th Ward was the only one out of 50 to elect an independent alderman until the late 1960s, when political reformers like my parents and their friends on the North Side began to challenge the Daley machine.
By the mid-1980s, the independents had mostly finished off the Daley machine—thanks mainly to the Shakman decree, still very much in force, which prevents any political consideration in hiring, firing, and promotion, with the exception of a thin layer of policy positions. This meant that when Harold Washington, a black machine politician turned reformer, was elected in 1983, he controlled only a few hundred city and county jobs, instead of the 35,000 Daley had at his disposal. By the time the younger Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989, the Chicago machine was, like the Italian Mafia, more legend than force. Chicago-style pizza still exists. Chicago-style politics, equally deplorable in my view, no longer does.