The larger meaning of Rahm Emanuel’s woes

One of the underreported stories of 2015, it seems to, was Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago crisis. Elected to a second term as mayor just last spring, it’s now unclear whether he will be able to cling to office following the police shootings that are roiling Chi-town.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut short a holiday break in Cuba amid a wave of criticism at home that isn’t letting up more than a month after the release of a video showing a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a black teenager.

The mayor’s decision to return early, his administration said, came partly in the wake of a police shooting over the weekend that claimed the lives of two people—prompting calls for the city to improve how it responds to calls involving mentally ill people.

Mr. Emanuel was already dealing with fallout from footage of Laquan McDonald being shot and killed in October 2014 that has left the mayor’s approval rating in the teens in a recent poll. Protests calling for his resignation have become commonplace.

But this story isn’t just about Emanuel or Chicago. I agree with Walter Russell Mead that “what’s happening in Chicago is an earthquake that points to the escalating crisis of governability for blue cities across the United States.”

Mead identifies six dimensions to the crisis. They are:

First, this dilemma: a dramatic reduction in crime contributed to the economic health of cities like Chicago; aggressive policing contributed to that reduction; but dramatic policing leads to more confrontations between civilians and the police, such as the ones that have Emanuel in so much trouble.

Second, large pensions for public sector union members are forcing cities like Chicago to cut back on key services, including public education. This produces, among other things, a serious tension between various liberal constituencies.

Third, the strength of the public sector unions also makes it very difficult for cities to manage their workforce. This too causes a decline in the quality of services.

Fourth, the cost of keeping cities functioning — not just paying obligations such as pensions but also repairing and replacing old infrastructure — is skyrocketing. This forces cities to impose higher taxes which drive many employers away and lead to a reduction in the middle class population.

Fifth, native-born citizens, whatever their race, are moving out of many cities, as immigrants move in. This exacerbates income inequality, as well as ethnic tension.

Sixth, political machines continue to prevail in American cities. This tends to make good governance difficult (see Detroit and New Orleans). But Mead points out that even when, as in Chicago, the machine tries to govern intelligently, “the imperatives of good governance and urban development push in one direction, but the forces that push toward short-termism, ethnic demagoguery, and fiscal irresponsibility are getting stronger.”

Mead concludes:

The increasing fragility of blue cities and states is the biggest problem the Democratic coalition faces. Those who hope that demographic change will create a “permanent Democratic majority” need to think about arithmetic as well as demography.

The numbers don’t add up for blue cities. The governing model doesn’t produce the revenue that can sustain it long-term. Making cities work—enabling them to provide necessary services at sustainable cost levels while achieving economic development that rebuilds the urban middle class—is the biggest challenge the Democratic Party faces. As Mayor Emmanuel is learning, that is a daunting task.

I would add that some Democrats have understood the problem for a while. Their solution is the “regionalism” manifested in, among other things, President Obama’s “affirmatively furthering fair housing” initiative.

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