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Rahm Emanuel Still Hates Democracy; and Other Sequels from Five Months of Columnizing

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rahm emanuel
Rahm Emanuel speaks with Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy at a press conference in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

This past April I published a piece here I wanted to call "Rahm Emanuel Hates Democracy." Cooler heads in the front office prevailed, and the piece ended up being called "Rahm Emanuel Has a Problem with Democracy." Here's the sequel: Every time I gave a radio interview in Chicago and mentioned my original title for the piece, some newsroom guy just about kissed me.

There have been innumerable articles about Mayor Rahm Emanuel in national publications. Mine, I learned, was the only one anyone could think of that had been critical. Fawning, should-know-better journalistic big shots praised Rahm, at Rahm's word, as a model of democratic openness. Which made the guys I was talking to – guys used to having mayoral flacks feed them questions for the mayor while they were live on the radio interviewing him – just about ready to spit.

Sequels: For today's installment, a few more. I've been writing a column in this space for over five months now. My subjects – Romney, Rick Santorum, Rahm Emanuel, the NATO 3 and Cleveland 5 and Florida white supremecist Marcus Faella – where are they now?

Let's start with Rick Santorum – remember him? I wrote in March that he had half a point when he claimed President Obama was a "snob" for wanting all Americans to go to college. I pointed out that broadly speaking, liberals do oversell college, in ways that empower crooked for-profit "education" schemes, shortchange those whose best option might not be college – and, most of all, weigh down a generation of graduates with more debt than their degrees might actually be worth. New reporting has since clarified that the problem is even worse than we thought.

CNN showed that student loans have tripled over the last decade, approaching a trillion dollars, and that this was "the only form of consumer debt to substantially increase" since 2002. The AP found that half of new college graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs that don't require the degrees for which they went in hock. And finance blogger Yves Smith put two and two together: Considering that the average college debt is around $23,000 and the average graduate's income is about $27,000, the people pushing degrees have become more and more like snake-oil salesmen.

Rebuild the Dream – the organization started by Van Jones, whom I interviewed here in April – has been curating the wreckage. Like the grandmother who begged her grandson to go to college and co-signed his student loans, which eat up much of her Social Security check, who is now harassed daily by Sallie Mae, one of whose reps helpfully suggested she get her unemployed grandson to sell his plasma to pay off the loans. Another member of the Rebuild the Dream community was told by a Sallie Mae rep of their instructions to call debtors up to eight times a day – and if they couldn't reach them, to badger their parents, even if they weren't on the loan.

Worst of all – and what Rebuild is most focused on changing – this is often not even seen as a problem, just as the way things are, or even should be. Writes Smith, "One of the distressing things in [a recent New York Times student debt] article was elected officials and even students arguing it was completely reasonable to expect students to carry most of the freight of their education."

How our nation has changed.

California became the fourth biggest economy in the world in the 1960s in large part by building a free public education system. (Joke's on them, or more precisely, on the people of California: The more expensive tuition has become and the more the system's campuses become like private universities, the lower their rankings have become). A great way to bring America back would be to make college education free for all who want it now. Scholar and social critic Adolph Reed has long maintained that you could do it for about two percent of the federal budget, which wouldn't even require an income tax increase. He even started a web site, freehighered.org, to back the campaign – but don't click the link; it's dead. Apparently his campaign didn't go very far. Blaming the victim is more the fashionable thing now.

Now Mitt. He might soon be your president. Back in January I said that predictions that Evangelicals would balk at supporting an adherent of a faith many of them don't consider Christian would come a cropper. He's since glided to imminent nomination in a party all but run by the Christian right – so that much has been borne out. What about in November? Will the vaunted Republican "base" turn out? Most decidedly. I still maintain that whether Romney is a wingnut, or of what kind, remains of little interest to movement conservatives now that they have their horse to take down the Great Satan Barack Obama. "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line," I always keep repeating.

This week CBS News disagreed, collecting a panoply of quotes from Christian right leaders at the annual Faith and Freedom Conference in D.C. to argue that this was still an "uneasy embrace." Here's Tony Perkins: "There's some question as to can we really trust him." And here's how CBS's Brian Montopoli adds it all up: "While the social conservatives gathering for the conference have largely made peace with Romney ... they're not exactly bursting at the seams with excitement about his coming coronation at the Republican National Convention."

It never ceases to astonish me how poorly top American political journalists understand the utterly predictable ways the American right actually works.

Perkins is playing the game.  For over thirty years now, "grassroots" conservative leaders like Richard Viguerie regularly showed up in the Washington Post ritually repeating, "there's some question as to can we really trust him," about both Bushes, about Bob Dole, and, yes, even about Ronald Reagan, whom they only began worshipping as a hero after his two terms were up. Questioning politicians' conservative bona fides is a strategy to build power on the organized right. (It's never done on the organized left, because the press would never play along.) Leaders like Viguerie set themselves up as popes, masters of some supposed army of uncompromising grassroots right-wing warriors whose support they could tap or hold back at will – if the man in the White House would not compromise. It's a neat little double trick: it nicely intimidates the politicians and nicely aggrandizes the movement leaders' power. It's sad how little reporters learn from watching it go down again and again.

But you, dear reader, are now in the know. Watch more such popes come out of the woodwork this summer, and watch the top-drawer journos hang on their every hustling word.

But meanwhile, back to Rahm.

Hizzoner's mighty display of authoritarian muscle, the Chicago NATO summit, came and went to decent local reviews. No matter the nearly six dozen reports of police brutality, his cops still got to enjoy a free White Sox game, mingling with the players on the field as general manager Kenny Williams praised their "bang-up job" (unfortunate language!), "an exercise in patience and tolerance at every level." Chicagoans' patience, however, may be coming to an end.

There's been an astonishing, astronomical increase in murders in the city this year, for which the mayor scapegoats liquor and convenience stores while cutting $9 million from youth anti-violence programs. Cutting is Emanuel's bag – which may be why I saw, for the first time ever in front of my tranquil Chicago building five blocks from the Obama family's home, a schizophrenic ranting and shrieking up and down the street. Rahm has closed six of the city's twelve public mental-health clinics – and his cops have been arresting people protesting on the sidewalks in front of them without charges.

He says he's doing it all for the children. Like, for instance, when he says, "Without pension reform, we'll be forced to mortgage our children's future." Because, as you know, pensions don't help support any children. Last month he traveled to the state capitol in Springfield to bark that unless he was able to increase the retirement age for public employees by five years, suspend their cost of living increases, increase their pension contributions, and give them a "choice" between having defined-benefit pensions or those failing 401(k) plans beloved of Wall Street, he'd have to increase property taxes 150 percent. And, of course, he shut out the unions from these discussions of their members' fate. That's his bag, too.

But Rahm's management style is catching up with him, too. At the end of May his appointed second in command at the Board of Education resigned – the fourth high-ranking city education official to quit in about a month, even as the city rushes to implement over a half dozen major changes to the system. Changes like lengthening the school day, which you might remember he had hoped to do without paying teachers commensurately for the increased work. But teachers, united, will never be defeated. In the beginning of June an astonishing 89.73 percent of teachers – that's 89.73 percent of the entire membership, not just the ones who showed up – voted to give their leadership permission to call a strike this fall if their demands for fair compensation and a role in the process aren't met by the city.

Don Rahm, that vaunted tough guy, appears to be quivering. "Chicago teachers deserve a pay raise," he suddenly and uncharacteristically announced the day after 4,000 teachers union members rallied downtown, sounding for all the world like the very Teacher's Union president he had told "fuck you" during earlier discussions of the work-without-pay plan. It speaks to a point I addressed to Occupy activists back in March: If you're fighting for justice, a smart, explicit, well-timed demand can move mountains.

Emanuel boondoggles multiply apace. A plan to rent bikes on the streets was left to an Oregon company, Alta Bicycle Share from whom the Commissioner of Transportation pocketed a $10,000 consulting fee shortly before receiving his city appointment. The intern who wrote the request for proposal was a former Alta employee, and was subsequently hired back by the company – which didn't have a Chicago business license when the requests for proposals began, so – voila! – the CFP was then cancelled, conveniently giving them time to get one. Their bid costs the city $9,600 per bike – compared to the less than $6,000 proposed by the experienced local vendor who was shut out.

Small potatoes, though, compared to what City Hall announced as a $7 billion "infrastructure trust" plan the mayor claims will create 30,000 jobs, repair and replace and improve streets, schools, and parks, and beam all Chicagoans to work on a brand-new commuter unicorn system powered by rainbows and laser beams. Well, not really. In actual fact, no one knows what an "infrastructure trust" is, how much it will cost, how it will be accountable to taxpapers, and how it improves upon the ain't-broke-don't-fix-it system of floating bonds that has served cities perfectly well for centuries. The announcement alone, though, was enough to charm the panties off of the New York Times as well as the city's zombie-like aldermen, all but seven of whom voted to approve the "idea."

The bright side? It may well be that Chicagoans have had enough. In my "hates democracy" rant, I wrote about Rahm's speed cameras boondoggle, in which his administration put forward made-up numbers to argue that an automatic system that happens to be made by a company with ties to his number one political crony was not about raising revenue but merely "doing the right thing for the children." Turns out only 22 percent of Chicagoans believe him. 54 percent oppose the idea outright – though the Kremlin, I mean the City Council, passed the bill 33-14 anyway. 62 percent of citizens like the idea of extending the school day – but then, before Emanuel was inaugurated, 78 percent liked it. Meanwhile, the teachers are winning the battle for public opinion: 86 percent of citizens and 92 percent of Chicago Public School parents said that "if teachers are going ot teach longer hours, they should be paid more for it." 40 percent said they "side the most" with the teachers and just 17 percent with the mayor.

Overall, the approval rating of a man some say wants to be the first Jewish president is 52 percent after his first year in office. Mayor Daley, the man whom he replaced and who invented the sort of pinstripe patronage I gave Emanuel too much credit for pioneering – thanks to the excellent local blogger Whet Moser for correcting me – consistently enjoyed ratings above 60 percent.

Except for the schizophrenic dude, it turns out, my neighbors are pretty darned sane. Saner, I'm beginning to think, than the judges overseeing our corrupt regime of entrapment-based "anti-terrorism" efforts. Last sequel: bail notes.

Here in Chicago last Tuesday, the three NATO protesters being held on $1.5 million bond were indicted under the state terrorism statute. They came to court in irons, although even accused murders usually get to go to their hearings unshackled – though we don't know why the state considered them so dangerous, since, in a move that baffled the judge, their indictment is being kept secret.

In Cleveland, two weeks back, a federal judge delayed ruling on a bond request so he could review the 50 hours of conversations recorded by their friendly neighborhood infiltrator. The charges include "use of a weapon of mass destruction." Watch this space, dear reader, to see how and whether the government will be able to convict these boys whose lawyer says "couldn't blow their noses let alone blow up a bridge": Already, the judge told the prosecution to shut off the surveillance video taken before the men's arrest because the audio quality was so bad.

And in Florida, the white supremacist leader Marcus Faella, was arrested for organizing paramilitary training for "race war" while fashioning fake "Occupy" signs as weapons with which to beat up hippies; the guy who failed in his attempt to manufacture the poison ricin walks free on $50,000 bail. I'm sure I won't be writing a sequel any time soon about him, because if I do, I'm certain there will be dead bodies involved.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

Also by Rick Perlstein
Romney and Son: What Mitt Learned from his Dad
Why Newt Gingrich's Greatest Triumph Was Founded on a Scam
• Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Doesn't Matter
Ronald Reagan: Welfare Queen of Montana (or: Tax Tips for Mitt Romney)"
Obama at Halftime: How He Fumbled, Why He's Recovering
What Obama Needs to Change to Win
Why Democrats Have a Problem With Young Voters
Rick Santorum Was Wrong About Obama and College - But Not Completely Wrong
Are Conservatives Crazier Than Ever?
Occupy Wall Street: Time to Make Demands
Rahm Emanuel's Problem With Democracy
Sheldon Adelson: Mad, Bad and Dangerous
Van Jones: We've Got Another Century to Win!
Behind the Right's Phony War on Secularism
On the Crisis of Zionism
Why Wisconsin's Recall Clusterf#@k Matters
How the FBI Invents 'Terrorists'
History Repeats Itself on Chicago's Mean Streets
Crunch Time in Wisconsin
How Republicans Cheat Democrats - and Democrats Cheat Themselves

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