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Being Is Not a Substitute for Doing
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Being Is Not a Substitute for Doing

A plague of demosclerosis.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot waits to be introduced at a campaign rally on February 25. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Including all of you restaurateurs hiding in plain sight), 

Let’s say you are a left-handed, asexual, acromegalic immigrant from Burkina Faso with a profound fondness for Japanese body pillows. Let’s also say you run for mayor of Chicago. A big part of your messaging—not always explicit, but nearly always implicit—is that you would be the first giant southpaw Burkinabe-American Dakimakuraenthusiast mayor of a major American city. And you win! Take that glass ceiling!

Not long after getting elected, however, it might occur to you that for all the good you’ve done in being a role model, none of these attributes actually equip you for the tasks normally associated with the job of being mayor.

Sure, at the margins there are some advantages. Body pillow paramours rarely make a lot of claims on your time the way corporeal families do. Having extremely large hands would let you wield those giant scissors at ribbon-cutting ceremonies one-handed! But in general, none of those incidental attributes give you special advantages when it comes to negotiating with labor unions or solving massive debt issues. Sure, being 7 feet tall might make it easier for you to personally intervene in some petty crimes (“That’s right! You better run!”). But at the policy and managerial level, your personal distinctiveness is not going to come in handy for fighting crime.

Now, I don’t bring this up to denigrate the importance of role models. All things being equal, it’s great that Lori Lightfoot was the first African American lesbian to be elected mayor of Chicago. But as Noah Rothman—now at National Reviewnotes, these identity politics bonus points weren’t enough to outweigh the failures of her tenure. Crime went up; arrests went down. The flight of major business accelerated. Academic performance in schools cratered.

But Noah observes that for a lot of folks in the press, the major news was, in the words of the Associated Press, that “Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who made history as 1st Black woman and 1st gay person to lead city, loses reelection bid.”

That was also the takeaway Lightfoot wanted. “I’m a black woman in America,” she responded when asked by a reporter if she had been treated unfairly. “Of course.”  

Let’s pause here for just a moment. Yes, she’s a black woman in America. But the relevant jurisdiction isn’t America, it’s Chicago, a city where Joe Biden got nearly 9 out of 10 votes and whites make up just 31 percent of the population. The Chicago City Council has 50 seats, 46 of them held by Democrats. The other four are held by independents. William Hale Thompson, the last Republican to serve as mayor, left office in 1931, 11 years before Joe Biden was born. Lightfoot had fights with the Chicago Teachers Union, which is run by an African American woman, Stacy Davis Gates. The chief of police is an African American male. Lightfoot lost in a primary against two Democrats, because that’s how primaries work. One of them is a white guy, Paul Vallas, who ran to her right. The other is an African American, Brandon Johnson, who ran to her left.

So who, exactly, was treating her unfairly? And how did that amorphous unfairness lead to her failures and her ouster? Would a heterosexual white male have had an easier time fighting crime and dysfunction? How so?

I ask because these are good questions. But I also ask because I think one of the problems afflicting politics these days is the assumption that “being” something is more important than, or a substitute for, doing something—specifically doing your job.

Take it out of politics for a second. It’s great to have a surgeon or engineer who “shares your values,” or who “looks like you” as the pollsters put it. But most reasonable people don’t put such criteria at the top of their list of qualifications when looking for a surgeon or engineer. 

“Sure, he cut off the wrong leg, but he was the first Sri Lankan American Jewish surgeon in America. So that’s gotta count for something!” 

“It’s a shame the bridge collapsed thanks to faulty design, but at least the passengers in those crushed and burning cars can take solace in the fact that they got to drive over a bridge designed by a good Christian.”

Now, I understand that politics is different from other vocations. Representation matters to voters in the way it doesn’t—or shouldn’t—to medical patients or employers. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In a democracy, voters can take into account anything they think is relevant, and inclusiveness is a perfectly defensible value. But there’s a difference between saying that representation—ethnic, sexual, cultural, religious, whatever—is important and saying that it’s more important than other qualifications and concerns.

Since I’ve framed this as an identity politics thing, I’ll just note that this is a point that the left actually agrees with in certain circumstances. One of the refreshing things about Herschel Walker’s absurd Senate candidacy was that it elicited an enormous number of objections from black Democrats and liberal journalists that skin color alone is an insufficient qualification for a senatorial candidate.

Un-what now?

But my point is broader than identity politics.

In the wake of Lightfoot’s defeat, The Atlantic’s David Graham declared that “Big Cities Are Ungovernable.” He writes:

Being mayor of Chicago used to be almost a lifetime appointment. Richard J. Daley and Harold Washington both died in office. The former’s son, Richard M. Daley, served 22 years before retiring. Until Lori Lightfoot, only one mayor in the past 75 years had been denied a reelection. And she’s not the only U.S. mayor in jeopardy. Also this week, campaigners in New Orleans went to court to put a recall of LaToya Cantrell on the ballot. Being mayor of a big city has become a nearly impossible and miserable job.

Graham makes some perfectly fine—if debatable—points. Though I’m tempted to vent about the cliche that whenever liberals fail, the argument immediately goes to how the job itself is impossible.

But maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t that big cities are ungovernable, but that the entrenched Democratic machines dominated by fringe activists and pampered by friendly journalists are incapable of governing?

After all, everyone said New York City was ungovernable until (pre-crazy) Rudy Giuliani revealed that it was, in fact, governable. Everyone said the presidency was “too big” until Ronald Reagan proved it wasn’t.

What is progressivism for?

Before I go on, it’s worth pondering what it would mean if Graham is right.

If there’s a single thing that binds together progressives of all stripes, it’s the belief that public policy matters a lot. For more than 20 years, in every debate I’ve had with a prominent liberal, the response to conservative arguments for letting the market or the people figure out things for themselves has been some version of “You don’t understand that we know how to do it better.”

Historically, since at least Woodrow Wilson and FDR, the Democratic Party has literally been the “party of government.” But figuratively, progressives are the “party of government” in the sense that the core tenet of progressivism is that government can and should direct society in a desirable (to progressives) direction. If you really doubt this assertion, I can give you several hundred books—including a couple I wrote—to clear things up for you.

In a country where 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, if big cities are ungovernable, all of the earnest wonks and progressive technocrats should close down their little journals and think tanks and open sandwich shops—though perhaps not in big city downtowns where drug addicts can drop a deuce in their doorway.

Public interest vs self interest.

I’m an increasingly passionate believer that we are plagued by demosclerosis, the term coined by Jonathan Rauch to describe the way democratic governments get all gunked up with regulations, rent-seeking, interest-group capture, and self-dealing among entrenched bureaucracies (an idea first developed by Mancur Olsen, praise be upon him). This is a huge problem at the national level. Noah Smith recently penned an excellent “rant” about how liberals think the proof of progress on infrastructure and housing is spending money on building things rather than actually, you know, building things. He doesn’t mention it, but education spending is another example. We’ve poured hundreds of billions of extra dollars into education in just the last decade, and the money just sloshes around for the benefit of the education bureaucracy while the students fall further behind.

The question I posed above, “What is progressivism for?” actually misses the reality on the ground. The real question today is, “Who is progressivism for?” And the answer is, to a very real extent, professional progressives. It’s no coincidence that public sector unions give $9 to Democrats on average for every dollar they give to Republicans. They’re protecting their investments.

Speaking of protecting investments, consider all of this sturm und drang about ESG—short for “environmental, social, governance” or “whatever the fashionable policies people want corporations and other institutions to pursue because ‘we’ think they’re super nifty.” The Biden administration wants to make it easier to sluice public pension money into the vast, mythically parched valleys of social justice activism and economically dubious green technology. I’m sure they believe their own rhetoric about why this is important, but they think it’s important at least in part because all of the experts they rely on are the ones who will disproportionately benefit from the windfall. The actual retirees who depend on these funds are a secondary consideration. It’s like Democratic politicians who think using Latinx is good politics because the professional activists tell them so, even though actual Latinos hate it.

If companies want to incorporate ESG stuff into their businesses, that’s literally their business. But if such decisions are smart on the merits, investors will recognize it without prodding from government or activists. The whole point is to give political actors an excuse to distribute money to endeavors that can’t be justified purely on the returns they provide to retirees.

Similarly, the Biden administration also wants to use the much ballyhooed CHIPS Act, sold as a vital national security necessity in our “strategic competition” with China, to goose priorities that have nothing to do with making technologically advanced chips. According to the New York Times, “companies seeking awards of $150 million or more” will be required “to guarantee affordable, high-quality child care for plant construction workers and operators.”

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo “has said child care will draw more people into the work force, when many businesses are struggling in a tight labor market.” Maybe. But if it’s in the interest of these businesses, let them do it. “Applicants are also required to detail their engagement with labor unions, schools and work force education programs, with preference given to projects that benefit communities and workers.”

Again, that all sounds very nice. But that wasn’t the argument for the CHIPS Act, and the party of government can’t resist hanging other, self-dealing priorities onto everything it does. Sell stuff as a solution to a discrete crisis, and then open the trough to your allies. Crises, after all, are terrible things to waste.

Again, I’m sure Democrats think I’m presenting a “false choice.” Investing in unripe or inefficient technologies will reap benefits thanks to “Keynesian multipliers” and other broken window fairy dust. They believe that padding the pockets of public sector unions and the education industrial complex is an “investment” that will pay dividends for everyone in principle, but they know it pays dividends to them or their allies in practice.

Nowhere is demosclerosis a greater scourge than in big cities where the arteries of government are spackled over with calcium by entrenched interests, NIMBYers, and well-fed social justice activists. The movement to decriminalize a lot of crime is just the most obvious example of how big cities are stuck in a riot of theoretical omphaloskepsis. Sending criminals into the “prison industrial complex” must stop, even if that means there will be more crime.

Again, the first duty of government is to protect law-abiding people from crime; the first duty of public educators is to educate kids. But thanks to decades of entrenched incumbency, combined with the introduction of palpably stupid social engineering ideas, big city Democratic machines have forgotten what their actual jobs are.

There’s so much blame to go around that it’s somewhat unfair to single out the various culprits. But the one group that doesn’t get enough attention is voters. Middle class people increasingly vote aspirationally but mobilize cynically. NIMBYism is at least in part a way to defeat the policies you voted for. “Sure, I voted for the hyper-progressive candidates, because I’m the sort of person who votes that way. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let those crazy radicals muck with my property values!”

And at the national level, vast numbers of people vote for politicians based not on their ability to do the job, but on how having their avatar in office makes them feel. (Nobody votes for Marjorie Taylor Greene in the hope that she’ll be a legislator.)

“Democracy,” H.L. Mencken famously quipped, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

I don’t want to argue that voters don’t know their interests. I’ve always hated that stuff on the left. But I do think voters are interested in a lot of stuff that is best left out of the ballot box.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: First, we got a nice welcome when we got back from vacation. Afterward, the Fair Jessica did some spring cleaning in the garage, and one of the things she put out on the curb was a large, animatronic headless dude. The only problem was that later that night, Zoë saw it from the upstairs window and was very, very alarmed. For a solid half hour or more, she barked and howled at it. “You, in the shadows, state your business! Don’t make me come down there! I will bite you in the groinal region!” Even after I went outside and laid the thing down flat, she wouldn’t stop until we locked her out of the room with her window. She’s still pissed about it. Meanwhile, Empress Gracie has long been annoyed by Pippa’s insistence on sleeping in her cat bed. So we finally got Pippa her own. Also, this morning Zoë and Pip made a passing friendship.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.