What Democracy Means To Me
Telll the story of how the meaning of democracy has emerged in you life:
I grew up on Chicago's Southeast Side when Richard J. Daley was mayor, and Mike Royko was continuously railing against machine politics. When Daley died in December 1976, the machine died with him. There are still vestiges of it remaining in pockets of the city, but, overall it's on life support.
1968 was an explosive year in Chicago, beginning with the black community's angry response to the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Democratic Convention in August and culminating in the election of Richard Nixon.
My brother, home from spring break, came to the side door of the neighbor's house where I was having lunch before going back to school. "Martin Luther King has been shot," he explained. "Do you want to go back to school?" I told him I did. When I arrived at school, at least half of my classmates were out. Some of them had parents who owned businesses that were looted.
We stood around the playground before the doors opened for school. "Who are your parents going to vote for," was the question being asked of all of us. Each kid said "Walllace." My best friend said her parents were voting for Nixon. Then I said my parents were voting for Humphrey. "Humphrey," they exclaimed in disgust. You'd have thought I had just said something truly outrageous.
I was scared. My parents and their friends had discussed moving to Israel if somehow George Wallace managed to get elected president. I knew what the implications of that would be. Antisemitism as well as racism would be on the rise. Meant they feared we wouldn't be safe here, as American Jews. Chicago was my home. I didn't want to have to move. Even though we wanted Humphrey to win, I was still relieved when Nixon beat Wallace. I was only ten at the time, so I didn't understand about the cynical use of the Southern Strategy.
Politics to me meant heated conversations around the dinner table. My father was an old fashioned Republican, that is to say more aligned philosophically with Teddy Roosevelt or Eisenhower than a Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon. My grandma, an immigrant from Lithuania, was a staunch Democrat. She would often quote her sister claiming to be a PHD, a poor, honest, Democrat. Sometimes my mom and dad's votes cancelled each other out, but not on more important issues. If he were alive today, he'd undoubtedly admit that his party left him and not the other way around.
I went to school with the alderman's niece and the state senator's son. Our alderman was Ed Vrodolyak who later headed up the group of aldermen hellbent on stonewalling Mayor Harold Washington's legislation. It was impossible to grow up in Chicago and not be aware of the political drama that still remains a constant part of the city's fabric.
The difference now is that the machine is a shadow of its former selt. Washington did not live long enough to put his own machine in place, nor perhaps would he have wanted to. Some may argue that he did, but I believe what he did was level out the playing field.
When I turned 18 in 1976, I was very excited at the prospect of voting for the first time. Since I was a student at the University of Iowa, 1976 was a particularly exciting time. Almost all of the presidential hopefuls came to Iowa City. Fred Harris, Mo Udall, Jimmy Carter and Eugene McCarthy trying for a second shot all came to speak at Iowa City. When I went to hear Jimmy Carter, I made a point of sitting in the front row. When he entered the room, he shook everyone's hand in that row. Little did I know that I was shaking hands with the future president of the United States. I ended up working for Eugene McCarthy's third party campaign. Not sure why I did that now, except that I had remembered him from 1968, and I remembered my older cousin being energized by him. I was also a political novice at the time. Very idealistic. But his stands on the issues aligned more with mine. I also liked Mo Udall. I don't recall him coming to Iowa City, however, and Eugene McCarthy spoke very captivatingly of his ideas. Jimmy Carter seemed like a nice guy, but I had no idea what a truly great man he would become later on in his life.
Since that time more and more money has entered politics, and seems like people at the grassroots level have been scrambling to fight back. Based on my experience, there's very little evidence that there's much left in the way of precient captains and ward committeemen. What's needed is the grassroots equivalent.