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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Chicago Destroys the Myth That Voters Want Centrist Candidates

Brandon Johnson ran and won as an unabashed progressive who didn’t give in to “tough on crime” fearmongering. The lesson for the left is to stick to your principles. It is not more “pragmatic” to be a centrist.

There is a common narrative in American politics that I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s that in order for progressives to win, they need to ditch their progressivism and run to the center, adopting more conservative rhetoric, because voters tend to be moderate and are terrified of Radicals. This is the narrative that runs through a New York Times article on how Democratic Candidates are becoming Tough On Crime: 

Democrats have enlisted sheriffs to vouch for them, have outspent Republicans on ads that use the word “police” in the month of October, and have been using the kind of tough-on-crime language that many on the left seemed to reject not long ago — even as some Democrats worry that efforts to inoculate the party on a complex and emotional issue are falling short. 

These Democrats buy the narrative that if they appear radically Left Wing on crime, they will lose, because, as the Times has told us elsewhere, the Democratic “base,” “especially among communities of color,” has pressured the party to be more punitive and ditch police reform efforts. 

When incumbent Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her reelection bid earlier this year, plenty in the media said it clearly demonstrated this point: it was crime that had dominated the race and cost her her office. An opinion piece in The Hill confidently explained that Lightfoot’s loss was a sign that Democrats needed to increase police funding. 

Lightfoot’s underperformance was not an isolated incident; rather, it was one of many instances over the last two years where voters in blue states and cities explicitly rejected ostensibly soft-on-crime Democratic candidates and policies.  … Paul Vallas (D), Lightfoot’s opponent, recognized the potency of public safety and undertook an aggressive tough-on-crime messaging effort, winning the endorsement of prominent police groups. … On Election Day, Lightfoot received just 17 percent of the vote in a crowded nine-candidate race and didn’t even qualify for the April 4 run-off between the top-two candidates. … There is little question that high crime rates in major cities are going to undermine Democratic candidates at the local level, as well as the party at the national level, absent a broader shift in messaging and policy.

Indeed, national Democrats seem to have embraced this “lesson,” and Joe Biden has moved toward the “middle” on crime, for instance by taking the outrageous step of intervening to overturn Washington, D.C.’s criminal punishment reforms. Plenty of Democratic candidates, including those the Times says are touting sheriffs’ endorsements, have embraced the narrative, on the theory that it’s not pragmatic to pitch voters on mercy for criminal offenders. 

But this week, a giant hole was shot through the narrative, as Bernie Sanders-endorsed Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson defeated Paul Vallas (he of the above mentioned “aggressive tough-on-crime messaging effort”) to become the next mayor of Chicago. Johnson was notable for not embracing the police—the head of the police union warned of mass resignations and “blood in the streets” if Johnson was elected. Johnson has been up front about believing that prisons are a bad way to ensure public safety. As the Times reports, he “never disavowed the position that, in a city where violence and crime are surging, those in power must take a fundamentally different approach to public safety” and “instead of more police on the beat, he called for economic and community development, more social workers and mental health professionals.” 

Why didn’t voters in a “high-crime” city embrace the “tough on crime” candidate? Well, for one thing, as my colleague Yasmin Nair noted before the election, because only the New York Times thinks the complex politics of a city like Chicago can be reduced to a debate over Crime. But it’s also because plenty of voters are smart enough to know that the whole Tough On Crime schtick is a fraud. It isn’t that people who favor mass incarceration want to keep voters safe, while those who critique it want people to get shot in the streets. That’s certainly what the proponents of mass incarceration want you to think the positions are. But Brandon Johnson’s pitch is about creating  real public safety, which he argues (correctly) requires actually investing in making sure young people have good lives and don’t end up committing acts of violence. Johnson believes (correctly) that the “tough on crime” approach is not just inhumane but stupid. Listen to Johnson in his own words explaining why he’s not pro-crime, he’s instead in favor of preventing crime through building strong, safe communities: 

[T]here’s a direct correlation between youth employment and violence reduction. As mayor of Chicago, I’m going to have the most robust youth-hiring programs that the city has seen. Not just over the summer, year round. … Young people have to know that people actually care and are willing to invest in them. … City Councilmember Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is pushing an ordinance called “Treatment, Not Trauma.” This is an effort to make sure our front lines are loaded with social workers, counselors, and therapists to deal with the trauma that exists within our communities. These are the individuals who need to respond to what 50 percent of 911 calls are anyway: matters like mental health crises that could benefit from having a trained professional, to help de-escalate, to defuse the tension, and to make sure that services are being provided. We have to reopen our mental health clinics, and we cannot be afraid to make them a part of the public space. My older brother had untreated trauma that we didn’t have a language for twenty-five years ago. Because we didn’t have that language, all my parents knew to do was just to pray for him. I wonder if his life would have shifted had he had a therapist or a mental health provider that could have helped him in his wrestling with the type of trauma that he experienced. Unfortunately, my older brother died homeless and addicted to drugs. My nephews and my niece are without their father, and we are without our brother. 

Does Johnson care about public safety? Of course he does. He just doesn’t accept this nonsense that if you believe in any solutions other than more policing, you want people to get attacked by muggers. Voters are capable of understanding such subtleties. Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s progressive prosecutor who is loathed by Tough on Crime types, was reelected easily in 2021, even with high crime in the city, because enough voters understand that addressing “root causes” is not pro-crime. (Crime was said to be a top issue in Los Angeles’ mayoral election last year, too, but the Tough On Crime candidate lost there as well.) When I interviewed Robert Peters, the democratic socialist Illinois state senator who holds Barack Obama’s former seat, he explained that his constituents understand perfectly well when he says that locking people up isn’t a viable solution to crime. The question he asks of Tough on Crime types is “And then what?” Meaning: you send a teenager to prison for a few years for stealing a car or robbing someone. And then what? What happens when they get out? Well, unless you’ve got some kind of plan for how you’re going to help them build a life, you can expect to see them back in prison again soon.

Johnson’s victory is also notable because he crushed a proponent of the dubious “education reform” (aka education privatization) movement. Another narrative to emerge over the pandemic has been that teachers’ unions are the enemy of parents, because they pushed against in-person schooling when the spread of COVID-19 was feared. Well, Chicago voters rejected anti-teachers union rhetoric, and didn’t buy the privatization candidate’s agenda. 

Johnson has a different narrative to The Hill about why Lori Lightfoot lost. He notes that when she ran for office, she “agreed with [the teachers’] demands — for social workers, nurses, counselors, and therapists in schools, and reducing class size.” But then she got “sworn in and renege[d] on all of those promises.” Lightfoot, he said, was one of a long line of Democrats who “run like Frederick Douglass, and then they govern like Jefferson Davis. They take on this platform of equity and justice for the people, and then try to convince people that these things aren’t possible.” So maybe Chicago voters weren’t craving a Tough On Crime school privatizer. Maybe they were just tired of being lied to and disappointed by someone who wasn’t fulfilling her promises and was betraying the progressive values she ran on. But that doesn’t mean voters were repudiating the values themselves. 

Johnson’s victory is exciting because he seems to be intent on actually delivering, on showing a clear contrast with the previous mayor. Having a former labor organizer in charge of city government means we can expect the public schools to actually be strengthened during Johnson’s tenure, rather than constantly having to defend themselves against efforts to destroy them (see, for instance the Chicago teachers’ fight against Rahm Emanuel a decade ago). Johnson’s victory should shut down all those silly newspaper op-eds about how Democrats need to start getting tough on immigrants and criminal offenders, and repudiating Wokeness, if they want to get elected. (There’s a whole species of op-ed I think of as “If Democrats Want To Win, They Need To Become Republicans.” They’re often written by actual Republicans, whose sincerity on questions of Democratic strategy can be called into question.) This is nonsense. Progressives need to stand by their convictions and make their case persuasively and effectively. They need to rebut silly right-wing talking points, and show convincingly how they will make voters’ lives better. If they do, they can beat centrists, without ever having to compromise their convictions. 

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