Defund the police candidate sweeps Chicago
Brandon Johnson's narrow victory highlights the lack of Democrat consensus
Forty years ago this month, Congressman Harold Washington became Chicago’s first African American mayor with 51.7% of the vote. The 1983 mayoral election was not only one of Chicago’s closest but also one of its most racially inflamed. In fact, so central were the city’s ethnic divisions to its politics that the Wall Street Journal christened Chicago ‘Beirut-on-the-Lake’.
Yesterday, Brandon Johnson was elected mayor of Chicago with nearly the exact same share of the vote as Washington. Johnson, a progressive African American, defeated a white moderate, Paul Vallas. Yet Johnson is no Harold Washington: the two opponents clashed not over race but ideology. Both Democrats, Johnson and Vallas represent the party’s Left and Right. They offer substantially different visions of the kind of policy agenda that the Democrats should champion, which also reflects the looming divisions within the party.
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The two areas of starkest disagreement in Chicago were over education and crime. Crime has featured centre stage in many recent mayoral elections, but it is a particularly acute problem in Chicago. Nearly two-thirds of Chicagoans don’t feel safe in the city, and in February close to half of voters in the first round of the mayoral election cited crime as their most important issue. This almost certainly cost incumbent Lori Lightfoot her mayoralty.
Since Lightfoot’s election in 2019, more than 700 Chicagoans have been murdered every year, excepting last year’s total of 695. Before that, only one out of the previous 20 years broke the 700 deaths threshold. Even more notably, property thefts have surged, with over 21,000 vehicles stolen in 2022, compared to 10,000 in 2018. Tens of thousands of people are leaving Chicago as a result.
Both candidates promised to tackle crime, but with fundamentally different emphases. Vallas pledged more police officers and tougher penalties for non-violent crimes. Johnson said he would prioritise addressing the root causes of crime, such as poverty and poor healthcare, a core demand of the ‘defund the police’ movement.
In a city that voted 82% for Joe Biden, voters were split down the middle on these two solutions. And while Chicago is not representative of the United States electorate more broadly, these two visions do reflect a central divide within the Democratic Party. Does the party embrace a high-tax, redistributive, pro-union message? Or should Democrats present themselves as the ‘sensible’ party of sound fiscal management, which will take a tough approach to crime?
Other cities have faced a similar dilemma. In 2021, voters in New York City backed Eric Adams, who took the latter approach. Adams was elected by an even narrower margin than Johnson, showing that there appears to be no consensus. While Joe Biden is naturally pulled to the more moderate position, he has been careful not to alienate the Left of the party, incorporating some of their key demands in his policy agenda through bold executive actions on drug amnesty and university loans.
But, after Biden, the battle to choose the next party leader will be bitter. There is no clear heir apparent, and the President has so far done a poor job of nurturing a successor, partly due to his own insecurities about his grip on the nomination next time.
Once Biden and Trump (who has strengthened Democratic unity), are out of frame, whether that is one or four years from now, the ‘negative partisanship’ holding Democrats together will weaken. In Chicago and other strongly blue cities, where there is no viable Republican threat, the debate is already taking place. It could be a preview for a national battle for the direction of the Democratic Party in the years to come.
It’s hard to overstate the ideological divide within the US. Chicago is a profoundly dysfunctional city where, as the author notes, law and order have almost broken down. Yet, by a narrow majority, Chicagoans have voted for more of the same dysfunction in the name of progressive ideology. A similar thing happened last year in San Francisco’s mayoral race (SF is probably the only major US city more dysfunctional than Chicago).
The election results might have been close, nonetheless a majority of voters preferred a progressive ideology that is profoundly destructive over the moderate alternative. It is easy for us to rail against progressivism here in the comments section of Unherd, but it is a real, vital ideology and those who believe it are not dissuaded by the poor outcomes of its policies.
How many are casting carefully considered votes for the ideology rather than just voting, as usual, for whoever promises the bigger handouts?
Many who have been dissuaded just move out, leaving dwindling numbers behind to continue voting for this lunacy. Fewer than 560,000 votes were cast in this election. In the 1983 Mayoral election referred to in the article almost 1.3m votes were cast. The loser in 1983 received more than twice as many votes as Johnson did this time.
Those figures suggest that many voters have just given up on the current democratic system – thus leaving the field open to those who want to see hardline activists in power.
And very year the tax base shrinks until there is nothing left to redistribute and nothing left to pay the bloated public pay roll and someone else will be to blame.
Just like during Covid, the Federal government will come to the rescue with freshly printed dollars after the next “crisis”.
Lunacy is the right term. It aptly describes the scene, where crime is the #1 issue and yet the defund candidate wins.
While I get your last point, I do believe the only way to effectively kill this ideology is to let it fall apart on its own. It’s so full of contradictions, naïve viewpoints, inability to tackle actual problems and soulless dogmatism that it’s almost begging to be wiped off the political map.
It’s odd that, according to the progressive Left, the solution to every Govt and Institutional problem is greater funding.
Yet the solution to policing problems is defunding.
It’s almost as though there was an agenda at play.
700 murders a year, a crazy number, how many people a year are shot ?
I wonder what the murder rate would be if not for modern medical techniques
Not to worry, I’m sure the Democrats will fix the problem soon enough
Indeed, the Democrats only just gained power in the city a hundred years ago, and as any Chicago Cubs fan knows, anyone can have a bad century.
LOL, that’s an instant classic. Wish I could you give you 10 upvotes but, I’m not a democrat from Chicago. Sorry
Thanks, yours was pretty good too.
” Nearly two-thirds of Chicagoans don’t feel safe in the city, and in February close to half of voters in the first round of the mayoral election cited crime as their most important issue. This almost certainly cost incumbent Lori Lightfoot her mayoralty.”
Wtf is the difference between Lightfoot and Johnson??
The Teachers Union bought the election. Johnson was well behind in the polls until the Union spent millions flooding the media with promotions for Johnson. Now they own him.
“Does the party embrace a high-tax, redistributive, pro-union message? ”
This is not the “defund the police” or the “woke” message at all. In fact, this is the much older blue-collar / class-based Democrat Party message which has been displaced by the woke / race-based message. Johnson may have tossed out some redistributionist ideas, but his wing of the Democratic Party completely repudiates the Roosevelt / Kennedy / Tip O’Niel wing.
And, of course, many of the Republicans, Independents, and Vallas voting Democrats will leave Chicago ensuring its ‘progress’ and failure.
But that is only half of the solution to Chicago’s problems.
The other half is encouraging more blacks to move there.
This article is so outdated. The battle is a distraction, The sheep will be pulled back and forth, but the real need is to drain the swamp. Unfortunately Trump was not up to the challenge.
Lightfoot didn’t lose her job because of ideology, she lost it because of incompetence. She had no idea what she was doing. And now the city has elected another pol who has no clue. You can fund or defund all day long, and it won’t matter if you have no idea how to administer a massive city with a massive bureaucracy. It would be better to split the city into its districts and once and for all declare the South side a ward of the state.
With that near identity of voter support, a smart administration would do both. I know that, for politicians, walking and chewing gum at the same time is a severe cognitive challenge, but sooner or later someone must take it up.
The real world is complex and nuanced, which the quiet majority, those forming the bulk of the bell curve understand. Whilst there is a minority of ‘defunders’ who just want to weaken the police as expression of radical views (I say they are best ignored), most are merely calling for a shift of resources away from intervention after the crime, to interventions before crime; and for the de-militarisation of the police. A standard goal in all developed countries – only in today’s febrile USA is there such splitting over what ought to be a consensus, commonsensus view. The situation is similar with culture wars, and with socialism/capitalism splitting. The successful, stable developed countries of Asia or Europe are not pulling themselves apart over these issues, for now. For example UK, Nordic countries have quietly closed down or wound down surgery and drugs for trans teens; and it is generally understood that govt endeavours such as welfare provision, universal healthcare, strong governance are not essentially at odds with, but in harmony with business and individual freedom.
You could take 100% of the resources currently allocated to policing and it wouldn’t come close to paying for what this new mayor is promising on the front end. Good luck with turning the gun wielding participants of the drug trade into scholars. And good luck turning the rapping hip hop culture into model citizens by giving them free healthcare and better housing to trash. Rebuilding Cabrini Green won’t solve these issues.
and yet all other developed countries, are much more able to do this (a mix of social and legal interventions to reduce crime and social problems). America overall has the greatest incarceration rates, the severest legal penalties (3 strikes, death penalty, war on drugs), the weakest social welfare provision, and….the highest violent crime rates. As a Mexican president once lamented ‘Oh, Mexico, so far from God, so close to America’.
Indeed, ‘tougher penalties’ ain’t going to fix the problem. It’s a right wing trope that we have to be tougher on crime, but it really doesn’t do the trick – take some time to look at the evidence from European countries where lower incarceration rates actually correlate with lower crime rates!
Yup; and it seems that many on the wings, both right and left, would rather complain and pose, than find or acknowledge solutions. They are perhaps not committed to solving crime but to fighting culture wars for their amusement and psychological satisfaction.
How to say I’ve never lived in a black neighborhood without saying I’ve never lived in a black neighborhood.
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