This is the third installment of my series on corruption (see part one and part two). Today I’ll share a few of my thoughts on the matter, particularly with regards to US cities. Please consider these incomplete and a work in progress.
Corruption seems to be incredibly durable where it has taken root. I mentioned before the continued drumbeat of scandal in Illinois, despite a slew of high profile prosecutions there. Chicago is also the homeland of community organizing, but despite all of the tactical successes of Saul Alinksy and his many followers over the years, little durable change has been produced.
But in many cases reform isn’t even attempted seriously. This is for several reasons. Many urban areas have no real partisan political competition. Single party systems (which can include Republican suburbs as well as Democratic big cities) remove a check on abuse. That’s why even though I’m a supporter of local autonomy, I recognize that state oversight is important. Also, in places with lots of corruption, the parties can tend to be more like business partners than competitors. In Illinois, columnist John Kass has appropriately labeled this general environment “the Combine.”
A tough commentator like Kass isn’t always around either. Molotch noted back in his growth machine paper that the local newspaper was part of the growth machine nexus. This means local media is often more civic cheerleader than watchdog. Fiscal distress in the newspaper industry has left most papers a shell of their former self in any case. This is also putting pressure on reporters and columnists to be working on their exit strategy by writing favorable coverage of the establishment in hopes of a job later. So there isn’t necessarily a tough, strong media on watch.
Local prosecutors are elected officials who are part of the political system and are thus not motivated to change things. What’s more, aggressive corruption prosecutions at the local level always have a partisan air about them. Far better would be more disinterested federal prosecutors. However, federal prosecutors are political appointees, and by tradition are selected by senators from the states. This often neuters them as well. (It’s notable and no surprise that it was maverick independent Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald who picked Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) as Chicago area prosecutor. Has a more establishment Illinois Republican held that seat, there’s a good chance Blago and Ryan might not have ended up in prison).
Add this up and there can actually be few voices or players of significant influence who want things to change. How do we make progress in that case?
I think there are two key pieces of preliminary research that need to be undertaken:
One is to create a power map of the city. That is, identifying the power players in a community and the relationships between them. This can be time consuming, but there are ways to do it. For example, looking at interlocking board relationships is a common strategy. Sean Safford did something like this for his famous “Garden Club” study of Youngstown to show the social networks of Youngstown and Allentown. A leftist academic named Dan La Botz used the technique for a study called “Who Rules Cincinnati?” looking at that city. We want to unearth who the real players are (which is not always obvious), what their relationships are, and how decisions get made. As part of this you are filtering out so-called “NINAs” – people with No Influence and No Authority. (Most bloggers are NINAs, for example).
Two is to do the historical analysis I’ve advocated elsewhere. This is important because a lot of political relationships go way back, and you need to get a sense of how the urban regime functions over time. Also you want to understand a bit of the city’s culture, which is fundamental to any change.
Armed with this information, you analyze the system to determine its weak points and design a disruption strategy. I’m not sure what exactly this would look like – it obviously depends on the research findings – but I’ll give three levels of response types: avoiding naivete, avoiding co-dependence, and building a political effort for change.
1. Avoid Naivete. I think too often we urbanists are naive when it comes to politics. We tend to be motivated by some personal vision of the public good, and so assume other people must similarly be so motivated. That’s not always the case. And you can’t take what political people tell you at face value. They excel at telling people what they want to hear or mouthing some of the right words, but don’t necessarily assume they mean them or that if they do they will expend personal capital on the behalf of what they say. My rule of thumb here: judge political people and power broker types by what they do, not by what they say. And then ask what Occam’s Razor suggests about the reasons why they did what they did (which is often self-interest).
2. Avoid becoming co-dependent. A lot of times I listen to people complain about bad decisions or this and that about their local community, but they don’t ever speak out publicly or challenge what’s going on. Their theory seems to be to prioritize their standing in the system (maintaining the relationship if you will) on the idea that this gives them the ability to be an influencer and help nudge things in the right direction. That’s not necessarily wrong. But we see a lot in personal relationships that sometimes we do the same with people who have addictions or other behavioral problems, and then before we know it, we aren’t helping them, but rather we’ve become co-dependent enablers of bad decisions and immoral behavior. I think we need to look at many of our cities as the civic equivalent of alcoholics who refuse to get help. You may still love them, but engaging in their dysfunction is not beneficial. Instead, stand aside let them reap the harvest of what they are sowing. Don’t put your stamp of validation on it. Realistically this is a difficult decision for a lot of people because they aren’t in a good place to put their job at risk, etc. But until there’s a price to be paid for the way people are doing business, don’t expect any change. It may well be that any one individual or organization is of no importance, but you have to start somewhere.
3. Create a political movement for change. Ultimately, change in the political system will require a political movement. As the power broker class is as a rule uninterested in change, this will need to be a populist type movement. I see three templates of this.
One is the insurgent outsider candidate who wins election and proceeds to start cleaning house. An example here might be the election of Antanas Mockus as mayor of Bogota. The documentary about him that I previously linked is well worth watching. Mockus was quite a character, but he had some ideas about eliminating corruption and changing societal expectations that were effective, if unconventional. For example, he fired the entire police traffic squad and replaced them with mimes. The problem is that you need a candidate who can get elected, has high moral fiber and strength of character himself, and who has the chops to make change. Generally speaking, insurgent candidates seem to fail on one of those points. It’s especially hard to govern as an outsider, as you don’t have a posse to bring with you to the job, and so end up dependent on the usual suspects to run things and quickly get turned into their pawn.
Two is some type of grass roots movement. I think it’s clear that the most effective grass roots political movement in the US in recent years has been the Tea Party. It may be that their goals and policies aren’t shared by some, but you can’t deny their impact. This makes them a useful case study.
I happen to believe that the intransigence which is so bemoaned by many is actually the secret to their strength and effectiveness. They are willing to burn down their own party’s house rather than compromise. I once had a senior staffer from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign tell me point blank, “Better a Democrat than a RINO” (Republican In Name Only).
Because of this, the Tea Party has to be taken seriously by Republicans. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street got taken out like the trash and was a completely impotent movement. Nor have we seen any legitimate leftist populist insurgency at the national level. Why not? It’s simple: no progressive is ever willing to defect from the Democratic reservation if it would mean a Republican would win. No matter how much they may refer the President as “0bama” (zero-Bama), they will have his back in any conflict or scandal with the Republicans. Hence, they lose the game of chicken every single time. You only see real progressive movements in places where the Republican threat is non-existent, like New York City, for example.
The lesson in my view is that a local reform movement probably needs to be pretty hard core. But it also needs to intelligently attack the structure based on all that research I talked about earlier, and put some thought into how to effect systemic change and how to effectively govern if it obtains power. Though in this case the ultimate agenda may not be electoral control. The Tea Party seems to have been largely beaten back, but they certainly achieved their goal of shifting Republican policy to the right. The fact that there’s even a debate about reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank shows their influence, for example.
The third template would be some type of lawfare approach. Michael Shakman’s lawsuits over patronage in Cook County, Illinois are a good example of this. This would obviously require a large bankroll and a lot of patience. I tend to as a rule dislike approaches like this as anti-democratic, but clearly lawfare tactics can be effective.
These are just some musings. As I said, I don’t have a fully thought out program in mind, so please share your thoughts.