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Monday marked Rahm Emanuel’s official last day as mayor of Chicago, and America’s third-largest city is better off for it.
After eight years in office, Emanuel secured his legacy as a neoliberal archetype for urban governance and is leaving behind a city mired in a vast array of crises, spanning public education, gun violence, debt, police brutality, housing and economic inequality. Yet rather than take responsibility for his disastrous reign in Chicago, he has instead embarked on a rebranding tour to makeover his public image. The mainstream media is, unsurprisingly, complicit in this rehabilitation, but we should not be fooled.
On Tuesday, the Atlantic announced that Emanuel had taken a new position as a contributing editor at the magazine. This announcement coincided with Emanuel’s debut story for his new job, “It’s Time to Hold American Elites Accountable for Their Abuses.”
For those who have any familiarity with Emanuel’s background — a former investment banker turned Democratic Party operative, turned centrist architect, turned presidential chief of staff, turned mayor known for prioritizing the wealthiest over working-class residents — such an article premise is preposterous. Still, it’s worth interrogating why Emanuel’s foray into becoming a Serious Pundit is so abhorrent.
Emanuel is correct in his analysis that the 2016 election illustrated how fed up American voters are with the rule of elites in our society. Donald Trump won by riding a wave of this anger straight to the White House, whereas Hillary Clinton represented the very system of elite supremacy many voters blamed for helping stack the cards against them. But if Clinton was successfully painted as an avatar for this biased system, Emanuel has in many ways been its guru.
After all, it was Emanuel who, while serving in the Clinton administration, helped write NAFTA, the trade agreement which fueled offshoring of jobs, wage stagnation, upward redistribution of income and the collapse of the manufacturing sector in the United States. He similarly helped push through welfare reform, legislation that spiked extreme poverty and cut off a lifeline for millions of working-class Americans, as well as the 1994 crime bill which incited the mass incarceration crisis.
After leaving the White House in 1998, Emanuel dove into the world of investment banking where, over the course of four years, he made a staggering $16 million—more than 10 times what an average American will earn over their entire lifetime.
During his time as head of the DCCC in the late 2000s, Emanuel focused on pushing the Democratic Party further to the right, recruiting conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats who worked to implement austerity, deregulate Wall Street and oppose healthcare expansion. Later while serving as President Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel took a hard line against union workers during the auto bailout and worked diligently to convince Obama not to pursue Obamacare — a plan that would ultimately provide healthcare coverage to millions of Americans.
And as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel has continued his lifelong political project of advancing corporate-friendly policies while ignoring the needs and demands of the poor and politically unconnected. He closed down public schools and mental health clinics, oversaw a police department rife with abuse, fought public-sector unions, lavished corporate giants with tax breaks while raising regressive fines and fees, privatized public services, presided over horrific levels of gun violence and locked community groups and neighborhood leaders out of democratic decision-making in favor of his friends in high finance and corporate America.
In other words, Rahm Emanuel represents the very system of elite governance that he blames in his Atlantic article for creating our current political crisis — which should make us very suspect of the solutions he proposes.
So, what does Emanuel actually say will help get America out of our current status quo? Perhaps enacting policies that would rein in the banking and financial industries that have wreaked havoc upon the economy? Or provide social programs like universal healthcare and a jobs guarantee that would help lift millions out of poverty and provide a safety net for struggling families? Nope.
Popular programs like Medicare for All, breaking up large financial institutions and providing guaranteed employment are being embraced by a number of 2020 Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But Emanuel instead uses his new perch as a columnist to preach empty bromides about “justice” and “standing up for middle-class interests and values.” In fact, Emanuel says he doesn’t think embracing bold new policies is the answer, dismissingly stating that “Every time Democrats look at a problem, they think of a program.”
On one point, Emanuel is crystal clear, saying, “The answer certainly isn’t socialism.” In his view, a more egalitarian politics that confronts market fundamentalism head-on just amounts to a more powerful “bureaucracy.” Such slights at a left-wing approach to government are nothing new, but it’s telling that Rahm Emanuel — a scion of neoliberalism — feels the need to decry a socialist turn in the Democratic Party.
Emanuel can see the tectonic shifts occurring in the party he’s spent his political career pushing in a centrist direction. Socialism is rising in popularity, including in Emanuel’s hometown of Chicago where six democratic socialist city council members were just elected to office. It’s no surprise that he would be dismayed by such a development that stands as a direct repudiation of his time in office.
Whereas Emanuel carried out a “trickle-down” economic program that provided benefits to the top while poor neighborhoods were starved of resources, the new class of socialist leaders is advocating massive new taxes on the rich to fund social programs. If the Chicago’s 2019 elections are any indication, with progressives and socialists taking power across the city, Emanuel’s approach to governance has been proven an abject failure. Which is all the more reason he shouldn’t be taken seriously as a political authority.
We have only just begun to experience Emanuel’s new career in punditry. Tuesday also saw the announcement that he will join ABC News as a contributor. We can expect that he will continue to laud right-wing Democrat Joe Biden for his “discipline” on the campaign trail while attacking progressives such as Rep. Ilhan Omar and warning the party against taking clear stands on issues such as healthcare and the climate. After all, these are exactly the types of tired, backward-looking takes he was hired by these corporate media outlets to provide.
But for working people in Chicago and across the country, Rahm Emanuel’s centrist political vision has by now been fully discredited. Let’s make sure to never forget that.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin