Matt Rosenberg is a veteran journalist, a blogger at chicagoskooled.com, and author of the newly published What Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed-Off Native Son, an examination of the city’s rising crime, failing schools, rotten finances, and the political corruption that enables it all. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about Chicago’s past and future.
America’s major cities have seen trying times over the last year and a half, but Chicago seems to have fared worse than most. Why?
Today’s political class in Chicago wears the jacket for what’s gone so badly wrong, true. But in the 30 years prior to 2019, under Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, Chicago government fostered widespread corruption that undermined accountability and the social fabric. Both mayors deserve credit for supporting public charter schools; still, today, only a sliver of all Chicago public K-12 students are clearing the bar at fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade.
And nowhere else has bail reform run more off the tracks than in Chicago. The crime scorecard is marked with serious new charges for far too many individuals recently released on low-cash or no-cash bonds, or via weak plea deals. The city wouldn’t stick with targeted foot patrols by police in the highest-crime districts, a tactic shown widely to dampen violent crime and help build trust. Finally, Chicago politicians have long been scared of their own shadows. They won’t confront the moral failure of too many parents, who let their sons run violently amok. Nowhere else has the “social justice” policy agenda been so recklessly pursued as in Chicago. The current governance of the city and of Cook County, which controls local courts, is a crime against the citizenry.
You argue that there’s a connection between Chicago corruption and politicians’ penchant for deflecting accountability with charges of “systemic racism.” Could you explain that thesis?
The operating principle for both Chicago political corruption and officialdom’s cynical racial essentialism has been, simply, “don’t get nailed.” And nailed is not the same thing as revealed. The untruth of the Unified Theory of Systemic Racism is clear to its vocal adherents, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but in Chicago, two-thirds of registered voters don’t even vote in the oddly scheduled local elections. The one-third of them that do are mainly public-employee union members and assorted progressives, enabled and empowered by the racial victimization narrative. Political power in Chicago is wielded for its own sake, rather than for material uplift. Voter suppression through election scheduling, plus Chicago’s lack of term limits, its insistently gerrymandered ward boundaries, and the leaving of zoning and development approvals to just one local alderman rather than the whole city council—these are some of the rigged rules of governance. In the end, a political explanation for the city’s deep dysfunction becomes imperative. Thus, the institutionalization of Chicago’s “systemic racism” shtick.
Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx, who comes in for criticism in your book for setting records for dropped prosecutions, recently rejected murder charges in a deadly gang-related gunfight, because, according to her office, the assailants were “mutual combatants”—a decision that even Mayor Lightfoot criticized. Do you see the tide turning against “progressive prosecutions” in Chicago?
Dismay in Chicago over prosecutorial dereliction of duty is evident and warranted. But sadly, the tide is a long way yet from turning toward needed policy reforms. Foxx won reelection handily in 2020. The political scaffolding of malfeasance must first be dismantled. Stealth voter suppression must be kneecapped by unifying the timing of local elections with national contests, through changed state law. Then, it’s time to develop reform candidates to repopulate a local electoral politics now mostly abandoned to progressives, socialists, and Democratic machine remnants. Chicago demonstrates the staggering cost of political disengagement, particularly in minority communities. Official misrule is an effective political strategy because it heightens disengagement and sustains its perpetrators.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin recently said that he was considering moving Citadel’s corporate headquarters out of Chicago, citing public safety, schools, high taxes, and the need for pension reform. How have city leaders responded when businesses threaten—or follow through on those threats—to pull up stakes and leave?
The city has been largely unable to get beyond cosmetic responses to the quality-of-life and governance concerns of business leaders. In recent months, Mayor Lightfoot has floundered on crime. She said that federal intervention in the illegal gun trade was needed, but it’s the proclivity to use guns spuriously that is the issue. She proposed targeting street-gang criminals’ fiscal assets—which are generally scant—and then reinstituted the failed strategy of boosting cash rewards for crime-solving tips. One prominent executive several years ago was caught in gunfire on an expressway and agitated for reform. This was a state matter, not a city one. More high-grade detection cameras on highways resulted, but the problem has only worsened. Much of the chaos goes back to parenting, schools, and a paucity of policy-driven crime deterrence. The city’s staggering pension obligations will require either an unlikely constitutional amendment to limit their growth or a dramatic upheaval to the city budget and scope of governance. We dance around hard truths expertly in Chicago, and in Illinois. The go-to move for politicians has long been to “sound-bite” their way out of any hole. Regrettably, this has usually been good enough.
Your book ends, surprisingly perhaps given what precedes, on an upbeat note. What are your grounds for hope?
Conservatives rightly emphasize personal agency. There’s a place beyond policy, a place of moral authority, that more Chicago households must inhabit to reverse disturbing trends in crime, K-12 education, and neighborhood economic viability. As I dug in to my field work on the South Side, I saw people doing just that. Hard-bitten Chicago neighborhoods are studded with quiet success stories of former gangbangers, ex-convicts, drug-dealers, addicts, and welfare mothers who pulled their lives together and became entrepreneurs, professionals, tradesmen and tradeswomen, and engaged parents—people who embraced faith, family, career development, and their full human potential. It’s true that smart policy reforms are especially crucial in blue cities suffering from entrenched progressive misrule. But it’s also increasingly understood that for Chicago to grow stronger, change must begin at home.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images