CHICAGO — “This is an election that is trying to set a paradigm for a progressive politics, post-meltdown candidacy,” says Tom Geoghegan as braves lake-effect snow and diving temperatures in the frenzied finish to the most unlikely of congressional campaigns.
This talk of “paradigms” and “post-meltdown politics” reveals Geoghegan for who he is, an author and public intellectual who has spent a lifetime peddling ideas. And it begs the question: Has our politics changed enough to make possible the choice not just of a new member of Congress but of a new way of thinking about what progressivism advocates, about what Democrats should propose, about what Washington can do for America?
While a lot of Democrats are still busy complaining about George Bush, and a lot more are absorbed by the work of cleaning up the mess that the former president left behind when he helicoptered out of Washington, Geoghegan is knocking on the doors of bungalows and telling retirees they need a raise. This candidate is not proposing to “save Social Security,” he wants to expand it — providing recipients with a raise and creating a real national pension program.
Geoghegan does not propose to tinker with a broken health care system. He wants to “re-enact” Medicare — for everyone,” arguing that, “We should take our single-payer health-care system and just make it wall to wall.”
Banks and bailouts and the credit crunch? Geoghegan starts with the basics: stop foreclosures and put a cap on abusive interest rates.
And so it goes, on issue after issue. Geoghegan runs in Tuesday’s special election to replace Chicago Congressman-turned-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as a Democrat who is up off his bended knee, done offering apologies and ready to deliver that new paradigm.
At the doors, the soft-spoken and cerebral candidate takes the time to explain his ideas, answers questions patiently and enjoys the remarkable experience of watching as Democrats who have been taught to lower their expectations wake up to the fact that they can and should expect more. “People reach out and grab my arm, big smiles on their faces,” says Geoghegan, “and they say: ‘I’m for that! I’m for you!”
The question, of course, is whether a late-starting candidate with big ideas and an uncommon penchant for taking the time to explain them, a relatively small bankroll and a name so generally unknown that his literature and campaign pins feature pronunciation cues (“/gae-gun/”) really make a dent in the most aggressively and edgily political city in the country?
It is appropriate that this testing of our political limits would take place in the first special election for a U.S. House seat since Chicagoan Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in” election to the presidency. On the day after the vote, Obama plucked Emanuel, the congressman with the biggest elbows not just in Chicago but in Washington to serve as his chief of staff. And a seat with a checkered past of sending Chicago pols named Blagojevich and Rostenkowski to the Capitol became open.
An available congressional seat in Chicago always attracts a crowd. And the race for the 5th district seat representing north-side neighborhoods with rich and energetic political traditions has drawn the usual suspects — and the unusual. Twenty-five candidates, most of them Democrats, are putting up street signs (the boulevards are festooned), buying television ads (seen by millions of viewers who cannot vote in what will be a low-turnout primary) and posing as superheroes (hey, anything to get noticed in a crowded competition).
There is even another public intellectual in the contest: former Economist magazine writer and University of Chicago professor Charlie Wheelan. He’s the one in a superhero outfit.
The usual suspects, and the pool from which the likely winner of this race will be drawn, are the ward commiteemen, aldermen, commissioners and legislators with roots in the Democratic politics of this very Democratic city — where you can still find folks who ask, “What did Blagojevich do wrong?” or tell you that: “Burris is doing O.K.” For reasons that need not be explained in a state that has already impeached a governor this year, even the veteran politicians are running as reformers.
Unfortunately, the pols are not getting along. One frontrunner, Cook County Commissioner Michael Quigley, who has the backing of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times newspapers, says it is “predictable and pathetic” that another frontrunner, State Representative Sara Feigenholtz, who has the backing of the Service Employees union and Emily’s List, is accusing him of hanging out with the wrong political crowd. Feigenholtz has had to square the accusation with the news that the two sparring contenders used to date one another.
Then there is Tom Geoghegan, author of a transformative book on why liberal intellectuals who don’t tend to get their hands dirty should be enthusiastic about trade unionism, Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back, and a brilliant call for political reform, The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life.
A decade ago, in an annual “best books of the year” review for The Progressive magazine, I named The Secret Lives of Citizens as the standout. Here’s what I wrote:
Thomas Geoghegan’s The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life (Pantheon, 1999) presents the utopian pessimism of a battered progressive on the cusp of the twenty-first century.
A labor lawyer from Chicago who moonlights as a perceptive essayist, Geoghegan wrote a fine book about American labor–Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991)–at a time when the current resurgence of the trade union movement was nearly unimaginable.
Now he returns with an argument for the rebuilding of a progressive movement that is rooted in a faith in the possibilities of politics and government. Geoghegan comes out of the closet as an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat, a wide-eyed believer in the notion that citizens can still use democracy to forge communal solutions to the crises of our times. In doing so, he emerges as one of the angriest critics of Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats,” who have turned the party of Roosevelt into a mushy advocate for “free trade,” “market solutions,” and a thousand other compromises.
“It is often said that the Democrats in the 1960s promised too much,” he writes. “But in what way? If we wanted to eliminate poverty, we could have. If we wanted the median wage to rise in a broad and long-term way, we could do it. Most developed countries have essentially wiped out poverty. Over the decades, many of those countries had a true `continuous social improvement.'”
Why hasn’t this happened in America?
Geoghegan suggests that it has a lot to do with a failure on the part of progressives to dream big dreams. In a democracy, he argues, the great danger for reformers is to offer too little. Toward the end of The Secret Lives of Citizens, Geoghegan quotes a sign from the Third World that in many senses sums up the plea of his text: “No more austerity! Give us promises!”
Tom Geoghegan is giving us promises, perhaps even the promise of a different politics.
His campaign is an uphill one, run out of a small storefront headquarters far from the bank towers of downtown Chicago, with not enough television advertising to be noticed by dollar-obsessed pundits, not enough endorsements from cautious unions and newspapers and not enough name recognition to presume even his supporters know how to pronounce “gae-gun.”
But he has attracted the support of those Democrats who recognize the need not just talk about change but to demand it — Dr. Quentin Young, the Chicago physician who has led the charge for national health care; former Chicago Councilman Leon Depres, the “liberal conscience of Chicago” who took a young Tom Geoghegan on as a law partner decades ago; brilliant Chicago political strategist and activist Don Rose, who with Geoghegan recognized the promise of Harold Washington’s transformative Chicago mayoral campaigns; as well as the appropriately radical reformers of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and Progressive Democrats of America.
No matter how this race finishes, Tom Geoghegan has begun to outline that new paradigm that, ultimately, will prove not merely to be visionary but to be necessary for the future of a political party and a nation that will not be repaired or renewed with half-steps and compromises.