The Chicago Roots of Obama's (and America's) Political Ideology
President Obama lives at a time when there are two very different and very well-defined political ideologies. On the one hand, the GOP is fighting for spending contraints, limited regulation, and more personal economic choice. President Obama and his party are more determined than any administration in U.S. history to promote and execute the idea that federal government is best suited to both meet the needs of the people and run the economy.
The most fascinating aspect of this yin and yang pull of ideologies is not just that they are taking place at this time in history, but that Barack Obama, with his Chicago past, is perhaps the only politician who has inherited both the ideology of social justice and the expectation of one-party domination to propel this dynamic to such heights.
His ideology -- that one's social group is the most effective determinant of one's destiny -- has its roots in Chicago. While some may say that Saul Alinsky and Frances Fox Piven, not Chicago; were the original catalysts for the political activist point of view, the interesting fact is that Alinsky and Piven are graduates of the University of Chicago; the university where Barack Obama taught constitutional law as a lecturer, and in whose neighborhood he bought a home. Today he can walk to the university from his house.
That some of the major players in sociopolitical activism came from Chicago is no coincidence. In fact, the academic field of sociology; the study of the characteristics of groups of people, started at the U. of Chicago in 1892. And The American Journal of Sociology, founded in 1895, is the oldest and still the most prestigious academic journal in its field.
Alinsky and Piven received their PhDs from the U. of Chicago. Alinsky, after studying archaeology, soon became a very energetic political activist and his first efforts at community organizing took place in Chicago. Obama's first political experience was as a community organizer.
The city of Chicago was also the epicenter of not just Democrat Machine politics in the 20th century but black politics. Jesse Jackson Sr. moved to Chicago to get into politics, as did Barack Obama. Chicago has had a strong black submachine since the 1920s. The stability of the Chicago Machine ensured that the black submachine would survive and its leaders would have the opportunity to rise to national prominence. Mayor Daley I had an influence on national politics and this fact was well understood by black leaders.
It was this organization of black politics and nurturance of political leaders that attracted Barack Obama to Chicago.
Remarkably, at the same time that Alinsk and Fox-Piven were studying at the U. of Chicago, Milton Friedman and other economists at the university were developing the ideas that government can help the most people by regulating and taxing the least. This idea is totally contrary to the federally-generated social justice policies of Barack Obama. It is a tribute to the intellectual freedom cultivated at the U. of Chicago that both of these ideologies, as different as any could be, existed side by side in the same hallways. Put together, these ideas are as explosive as matter and anti-matter, yet at the U. of Chicago professors were able to develop these concepts and supporting studies to great heights.
In the 1950s, while all of this was going on at the university, the nation's greatest political machine was being created by Mayor Daley I. His approach to politics is often called "retail" politics: building the organization from the ground up at the precinct level. An oft-neglected corollary of this is the macro-political aspect: Mayor Daley I had great pull with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson since he helped get them elected.
What this meant for Daley was that he could obtain federal dollars for the City of Chicago and use this financial support to build up the city and finance the workings of government.
This idea, that the federal government can support local community programs, has seen its greatest expression in the administration of President Obama. He filled the huge Stimulus and Recovery Act bills with thousands of grants and loans that went to local communities throughout the United States. He achieved what Mayor Daley I could not: he became the person who controlled federal spending, and he continues to expand federal spending every day.
The ideas of Friedman and others have also grown in influence. Friedman thought a school voucher system gave parents choice in schools, and would then allow the private marketplace dynamic of competition to make schools better. This is a battle that continues to this day. The Supreme Court of Indiana just declared its new school voucher program to be constitutional.
Friedman's book Free to Choose is built upon his university lectures and describes with great detail how allowing citizens to make personal choices is the best way to improve the lives of the most people. But Obama continues to insist that government knows better and his administration has seen the greatest expansion of federal power and reach in history.
The most fascinating aspect of all this is that President Obama, because he has little experience in leadership or compromise, is determined to carry his ideology through to the end. It will not be watered down or compromised to accommodate the GOP House. This single-minded attitude stems formt he fact that he never was a team player. He never put the organization first. He was not a bona fide member of the Chicago Democratic Machine.
Mayor Daley I would not have slated Obama to run for the Illinois state senate against incumbent Alice Palmers. And for Obama to aggressively remove her and others from the ballot so that he could run unopposed would have been unforgiveable. Daley I would have run him out of town.
But given his oratorical talents and background, Obama was able to survive as an independent, an outsider. Also Mayor Daley I was long dead and his influence diminished by the time Obama went to Chicago. And when the national media grabbed onto and pushed Obama's brand, that was all the organizational help he needed.
As this plays out, it is intriguing to remember that Barack Obama is perhaps the only politician in the U.S., due to his ideological and machine background, who could have so thoroughly and singlemindedly pursued his agenda. He saw in Chicago how a political organization could impose its will, and he learned from the Daley-created political culture that the real money comes from Washington. These fundamental guiding expectations for government were born in Chicago, perhaps more than he may realize.
In his first year Obama took the social justice vision to undreamt-of heights and by so doing instigated a great rational choice backlash. It is a great experiment that perhaps only Barack Obama, being from Chicago, could have made happen. And for good or ill, that may be his lasting legacy.