Thoughts on media, democracy, and the 2023 Chicago municipal elections

Posted by Mitchell - February 2, 2023 (entry 741)

Happy Groundhog Day!

At the time I post this we are in February 2023, and Chicago will have its quadrennial elections by the end of this month. During CMA's most active time, from 2002 through 2012, it was during neoliberalism's strongest time, and local elections were not a great forum for progressive policies. Such policies, particularly of an antiwar and social justice persuasion, were exceedingly difficult to get through the Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations. The Chicago City Council was, in my estimation, largely a neoliberal rubberstamp.

Some things have changed since then. Neoliberalism is not the force it used to be. Chicago's mayoral election have grown much more competitive; fourteen candidates made the mayoral ballot in 2019; nine candidates are on the ballot in 2023. On the council itself, eighteen alders count as members of the Progressive Reform Caucus (founded in 2013). Five of those eighteen also count themselves as members of the democratic socialist caucus, a caucus so-named on Mayday 2021. One member of that caucus, DSA rep and 33rd ward candidate Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, defeated Deb Mell (Rod Blagojevich's sister-in-law) in the runoff by just 13 votes. And this is starting to translate into some policy wins -- for example, nine of Chicago's fifty wards now have some form of participatory budgeting.

And yet, there were opportunities still which could have improved things further. I'm particularly reminded of the 46th ward race, which saw Chicago Teachers Union rep Erika Wozniak Francis miss the runoff by just 170 votes (out of 13,801 votes cast). The runoff then saw the challenger lose by just 25 votes (out of some 14,133 votes cast). There are opportunities here for fresh faces and better policies, especially since twelve alders have announced their retirement. For what it's worth, eleven alders are running in uncontested elections -- more than a fifth of the council. That includes the ward where I live. (Sidebar: My Chicago ballot arrived in today's mail. There are five listed offices on my ballot to vote for, three of which have just a single candidate.)

The media situation for citywide races (like mayor) can encompass the citywide infrastructure for media. That's understandable -- everyone eligible to vote in Chicago can vote on citywide races, so media that span the city. For many years (and we may see this effect in the month to come), there's is something of a hypnotic self-fulfilling-prophecy effect for citywide races: Advertisements (particularly on television) drive awareness and polling. News coverage of that polling drives sentiment as to whomever is deemed "realistic". Voters take cues from that sentiment to vote for vote for those "realistic" candidates. Repeat every four years.

But there's more to Chicago politics than citywide offices (like alders), and the media situation on the alder level is more inchoate. Because of the issue of scale, many citywide outlets handle ward-level or smaller-scale races in an a la carte fashion -- frequently they present all the candidates or all the candidate fora. There are some local outlets (e.g., the Hyde Park Herald) and there should be more. Efforts like the Chicago Independent Media Alliance and its directory of independent Chicago media outlets tries to highlight, and raise funding for, independent and local Chicago media outlets. (That is also translating into policy wins, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that half of all annual City of Chicago advertising spending will go to community media outlets.)

But the relative de-emphasis on local coverage can sometimes be an advantage. With 50 Chicago wards, each with roughly 60,000 residents, it's possible to organize some 8,000 voters to vote for an independent or DSA-aligned or CTU-aligned candidate, and win. This has happened in a number of races already. The ads-to-polling-to-votes dynamic isn't as strong at the ward and local level, where it is easier (though not always easy) to defeat organized money with organized people.

The internet has been a mixed bag on this score. Independent candidates have long touted the use of the internet to address concerns of outreach; my interview with former Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia had this as a key point of emphasis. I sometimes wonder if I might enter the fray with developing some new communications technology. Kind of like Usenet but themed to geography rather than thematic topic. But resources like Nextdoor and Mastodon and Craigslist are already out there; their contribution to these efforts, I surmise, is not large.

One interesting proposal calls for a return to emphasizing protocols over platforms; it seems we're halfway there with the dominant internet communications platforms losing popularity.

But the main problem now, I think, isn't so much having a platform or a protocol or some means of communication; it's having useful, timely, relevant content on that platform. (This is a phenomenon I've documented myself in the past.) It's increasingly a cause for concern and happily there are now proposals to address the problem. With luck, and with more folks elected to positions of power, such proposals can come to fruition and further the causes of democracy and media reform.

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