Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The City and Campaign-Year Man

As Democrats shift their message to the center, we should pay close attention to what blue governance really looks like.

Talk is cheap and misgovernment is expensive. We should remember that this year, as people we are used to tuning out suddenly start sounding sort of reasonable.

The standoff with Chicago public school teachers resisting going back to work has liberal mainstays suddenly talking sense. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently asked on Twitter where all the Covid money distributed to schools has gone, writing, “I feel like there’s a weird memory-holing of the fact last spring Congress distributed $123 billion dollars to K-12 schools for Covid preparedness. That’s nearly $1 million *per school*. So big q is: what was that used for?”

An even more broken clock sounded right recently on Twitter, too, when Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” pointed out, “We have to be able to talk abtthe [sic] harms of remote learning in a society where vaccines are available for all teachers without being accused of being anti-union or anti-teacher. We can disagree on what is the best thing to do when there are no good options without that accusation.” Signs and wonders. 

Except we shouldn’t be surprised when liberals who have fed the worst hysterias of the last two years sound almost reasonable in 2022. They have an election to win, or, if not that, at least a red wave to fend off. Conventional wisdom says primary season is all about tacking to the extremes as you build a coalition, with the wink and nudge to independents that you’ll move center for the general and govern as a moderate who throws bones to the base. But the Democrats have no one but moderates and independents still to appeal to, with an unpopular incumbent president and a shaky-looking Congressional majority; the extremes will take care of themselves.

Liberals will take a victory as license to govern however they’d like, but they’ve got to get there first. So we should expect them to say anything, have any sort of change of heart and late realization about what kind of hard decisions have to be made in our long road to post-pandemic recovery. So, let’s remember, in the midst of the rhetoric, what does current Democratic governance look like in practice? There are plenty of blue cities to choose from. 

I might have picked Balti-less but feel that like the joke that would be too easy. No, let us take a flinching look at Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital of some 714,000 at nighttime. What has Democratic control recently secured for this city? Well, more than 200 homicides for one. As the Washington Post reported, 2021 saw the worst year for murders in the District since 2003. Of course much of that lawlessness can be chalked up to the economic contractions of Covidtide restrictions. Closing up shop for email workers means closing up shops for the service industry. Closing up schools that, failing at social engineering, are already little more than crowd control means the young and the aimless have nothing to get up to but trouble.

Now D.C. is getting set to roll out a vaccine passport system later this month, which (while presumably meant to nudge the city’s predominately black unvaccinated population into compliance) will probably just further divide a city of stark inequalities. Thanks to permissive drug and vagrancy enforcement, some of that inequality is shockingly apparent, as homeless camps provide an aesthetic counterweight to the marble and granite splendor of the American republic. 

But D.C. is small, you say, and stateless, and so no approximation of the national Democratic agenda for governance. Fine, then let us look to where I spent a happy graduate school year before Covid and the most costly riots in U.S. history brought the humming of the country to a gasping halt. Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, is people butcher for itself. For the first time in 25 years, the 2.6 million person City of the Big Shoulders saw more than 800 murders in 2021. Famous for its palatial park system, which is still a public treasure in daylight hours, Chicago seems set to remain the field of constant warfare, and carjackings, and smash and grab organized looting. It has a vaccine pass, too, in case you were wondering. And in one 2021 city snapshot there were 4,477 residents experiencing homelessness, with about a quarter of those not in shelters. 

Chicago has always been a troubled city, someone might be tempted to protest. Never mind the machine’s long hold on its governance, none of this can be blamed on Democrats or recent developments in the liberal agenda. It’s the pandemic, stupid. Will Portland, Oregon, provide a better example? Until only quite recently (hello Texas and Florida) the modest city of 662,000 was one of the most popular destinations in the country for permanent relocation. No longer. Its homicide numbers are still modest, about 84 in 2021, but this surpasses the previous record of 70 murders, set back in 1987 (interestingly, last year broke an automobile deaths record set in the ’70s, too). Portland doesn’t have a vaccine passport system yet, but the groundwork for one is being laid by the state, and many bars and restaurants require vaccine identification voluntarily.

But the inescapable urban pathology in Portland is homelessness, as many people now know. There are geographic and transportation reasons for the city to be a hub for the indigent, but the problem would not so resemble its southern mirror in San Francisco (another city that would have been easy pickings for this column) if what makes it a convenient place to rough it were not paired with a liberal drug culture and poor attempt at so-called compassionate care for the seriously mentally ill. While exact recent numbers are hard to come by, Portland has more than 4,000 residents experiencing homelessness—note that’s in the same ballpark as Chicago, a city nearly four times as large. 

Paying attention to track records doesn’t always work out in Republicans’ favor either, but that is all the more reason to do it. This midterm election year, don’t note so much what candidates or public figures say, but rather consider who they’re affiliated with and what their record has been. Some people don’t have obvious affiliations or an apparent record; there are untested candidates out there without prior political experience, but thus also uncompromised as of yet. Perhaps we can hope they have learned one of the major lessons of the Trump administration, and so know that, if elected, they must combine outsider independence with a team that can make D.C. work for them.

Perhaps that’s too optimistic. All I know is three cities I have called my own are darker places now than they have been, and I see nothing from Democrats to make me think that is likely to change.