Riding in trucks and U-Hauls, vandals came to downtown Chicago on Sunday. They jammed streets around the Magnificent Mile, home of the city’s most important shopping district. They came prepared with tools like crowbars to pry open gates and take all the merchandise that they could pack. It was a strike directed at the heart of the city.

While the vandals were organized, the police were not. Earlier in the day, a policeman had returned fire and wounded a suspect. False rumors spread that the suspect was an unarmed juvenile. Crowds gathered; social media lit up with menace. But the police did not deploy in force until looters flooded into places with the most valuable goods.

The sacking of Chicago’s North Side was more than a tactical failure. For months, key officials—the state’s attorney responsible for prosecution, the mayor, and the governor—have failed to condemn criminals sufficiently or act with necessary force against such violence. They have contributed to a culture of impunity that tolerates mobs and hoodlums.

Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, has already become nationally notorious for refusing to prosecute Jussie Smollett, the actor who lied to the police that he was a victim of racial violence. But her offenses against public order are far worse than her condoning of a provocateur who tried to fracture the city with a falsehood. Foxx has dismissed felony cases brought by the police at a rate 35 percent higher than her predecessor. She raised the threshold for felony shoplifting from $300 to $1,000—and as a result, thieves steal brazenly in broad daylight as well as under cover of darkness. Chicago police chief David Brown suggested that Foxx’s failure to prosecute looters from the previous sacking of the city in June was partly responsible for emboldening the current round of looting.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is also responsible. She has hardly been enforcing a zero-tolerance policy against lawless mobs. When crowds assaulted statues of Christopher Columbus, she did not defend these public monuments, instead removing them under pressure in the dead of night. The message was clear: Chicago would not defend its civic order. Lightfoot did denounce the current round of looting, but she still felt the need to make distinctions between these looters and those who had rioted in the wake of the George Floyd killing, as if there were degrees of culpability in the intentional taking of others’ property. Contrast her uncertain tones in calling vandals to account with her schoolmarmish insistence on closing parks to protect against the coronavirus, when epidemiologists agree that the greatest risk comes from indoor activity.

Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker has been only a bit player in this drama, but even the bits are telling. He has devoted far more energy to denouncing insurance companies for not paying for the value of the stolen goods than denouncing those who stole them. During the first round of rioting, he made an egregious blunder by calling up only enough national guardsman to protect downtown—and only after it was looted. The looters then fanned out to Chicago’s outer neighborhoods and inner suburbs.

The state and city’s ineffective leaders are all the product of a progressive ruling elite that promoted them beyond their competence because they helped advance political goals. Foxx is a graduate of Southern Illinois School of Law, one of the state’s weakest law schools. Despite the debacle of the Smollett case, she has prevailed in the Democratic primary over a veteran prosecutor, her campaign enjoying contributions from progressive celebrities like Steven Spielberg’s wife.

Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first female black mayor, was also the progressives’ choice, though she had never held elected office or had substantial managerial experience. Her most important position in government previously had been as head of the police accountability board. Northwestern University, where I teach, nevertheless awarded her an honorary degree before she was a year into the mayor’s job, violating its own strictures against politically motivated choices.

Pritzker’s main qualification for governor was that he had inherited a lot of money and thus could self-fund a campaign against the Republican incumbent, Bruce Rauner, who, in contrast, paid for his campaign with money that he had made himself. Though Pritzker was not chosen to be put in charge of his own family’s principal businesses, progressives liked him enough to run him for governor without any political experience in order to stop Rauner’s effort at reforming the state’s pension liabilities and regulatory overkill.

Given their backgrounds, it’s no surprise that the trio of Foxx, Lightfoot, and Pritzker has done nothing to halt the state and city’s decline.

They have also failed to sustain the first condition of civilization: order under law. One feels almost nostalgic for the days when Chicago was run by a Democratic political machine that at least understood this cardinal principle of statecraft. Chicago’s machine, however, ultimately became dependent for its support on public-sector unions. These unions have received rich pensions, currently only 35 percent funded—leaving a huge debt overhang for future taxpayers. The unions have also made it impossible to discipline cops or teachers. This interference with sound management has directly led to the crisis of confidence in both police and the schools. Chicago residents had filed 19 complaints against Officer Jason Van Dyke, for example. He had more complaints against him than 94 percent of officers on the force but had never been seriously disciplined before he shot Laquan McDonald—an event that catalyzed mistrust of police in the city’s minority communities.

In effect, Chicago has been run over twice. First, machine politics left it with a huge financial and trust deficit among many of its citizens. Now, progressive politics threaten to undermine the legal order, the foundation of the economic growth that the city needs to climb out of its deep hole. Chicago was sick even before the looting and riots of 2020, but things could get worse still. The city could become another Detroit.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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