Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago, former 44th Ward alderman, and retired minister of the United Church of Christ, said it became obvious to him over the last decade that democracy was in crisis.
Simpson said the U.S. faced challenges to democracy even before Donald J. Trump became president. Now, Simpson offers solutions for saving democracy in his latest book, Democracy’s Rebirth: The View from Chicago, which draws on what he learned in the tough world of Chicago politics.
According to Simpson, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, symbolized the longterm problems with American democracy he addresses in his book.
For the last 50 years, both in politics and while teaching at UIC, he observed activists and political and social scientists formulating solutions to the ills in our democracy, “But they tended to work in silos,” Simpson explained. “If they considered the problem of corruption, then they had specific solutions for that. If they considered systematic racism or income inequality or money and politics…they each came with different analysis and different solutions.”
Within their particular sub-areas, experts tended to reach consensus about what the problems were and largely agreed about solutions, a finding that surprised Simpson.
Few, however, “had taken a look at the total interconnected nature of the problems and why solving just one problem, like say corruption, wouldn’t be enough to solve all the problems of our democracy currently,” he explained.
Writing his book and working with his editor, it became clear that, by focusing on how problems with democracy work out in practice in Chicago, it was much easier to understand and see what needed to be done about them.
Democracy’s Rebirth: The View from Chicago devotes a chapter to each issue affecting democracy. For example, one tells how Chicago’s middle class has shrunk over the last three decades from 42% of the communities to just 16%.
“If you look at racism and income inequality together, the ten richest communities in Chicago [and in] the Chicago metropolitan region are all in the suburbs or nearly all White,” Simpson said. Meanwhile, Simpson said the ten poorest communities sit in the inner city, centered around the old Chicago Housing Authority projects, and are all predominantly African-American.
Income inequality and racial inequality are linked together, he said. Simpson also noted that, if you look at machine politics, Chicago and its suburbs rank as the most corrupt metro area in the country and Illinois’s political corruption ranks third nationwide.
“Chicago is a good microcosm in which to see the problems more clearly,” Simpson said.
In terms of solutions, Chicago actually is showing the way concerning non-racial voting patterns. In Mayor Harold Washington’s era, voting clearly was racial. Black Chicagoans were essential to his election, and Whites were split between Richard M. Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne at the time.
Fast forward to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who won by a mostly White vote and ended up winning all 50 wards in the runoff at 74% of the vote.
The two elections in different eras saw “vastly different combinations” of racial voting patterns, Simpson said.
He launched the book during a discussion with Mayor Lightfoot, who wrote the foreword, at the Harold Washington library a couple months ago.
“We didn’t spend as much time on the crime issue per se, but we did talk some about how a crisis like the pandemic and the economic perception of crime provide some motivation for creating the kind of movement necessary to bring about the changes necessary to change our democracy,” Simpson said.
The book is available as a print or ebook at the University of Illinois Press, www.press.uillinois.edu, and at bookstores and online booksellers. To contact Simpson, email [email protected].