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Chicago-style politics

“Chicago-style politics” is a phrase used to characterize a supposedly offensive tough, “take-no-prisoners” or “hardball” approach to politics.

It often refers more specifically to the 1950s-1970s era of the Richard J. Daley political machine.

As Jacob Weisberg explained:

The strength and durability of the Daley machine was its ethnically based patronage network, a complex system of obligations, benefits, and loyalties that didn’t depend on televised communication with a broader public.

It was a noncompetitive system that in its heyday had a lock on urban power and the spoils that went with it.

More from Don Rose:

Time was the term ‘Chicago politics’ or ‘Chicago-style politics’ had a special meaning based on our history from the Al Capone years through the regime (1955-76) of one Richard J. Daley, aka Da Mare.

Nowadays, like our unique political lexicon, it seems to have become a generic insult for just about any politics one disagrees with.

More on “Chicago-style politics”

Unsavory and even corrupt aspects of politics as practiced in America’s third-largest city.

In the Chicago machine’s heyday that included patronage, nepotism, and activities that routinely drew the attention of federal prosecutors but were often shrugged off by locals.

The 1955–76 mayoralty of Mayor Richard J. Daley is often considered Chicago-style politics at its worst. Several of Daley’s subordinates were jailed for corruption. Bribes were a routine practice in city politics. City workers had to kick back a portion of their salaries to fund the political operation.

These days, Republican politicians and pundits frequently characterize Democratic officeholders and operatives as engaging in “Chicago-style politics” for arm-twisting and other unseemly acts.

The phrase took on new resonance in 2008 when Chicago’s own Barack Obama ran for president. GOP rival John McCain’s campaign ran ads described Obama as “born of the corrupt Chicago political machine”—though the charge had no basis in fact.

As Slate Group editor in chief Jacob Weisberg noted, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985 to be a community organizer in a politically disenfranchised neighborhood on the South Side. Though he had no link to the Chicago machine at all, his first White House chief of staff, the infamously profane and brass-knuckled Rahm Emanuel, is now the Windy City’s mayor.

In October 2009, the House minority leader and the soon-to-be speaker, John Boehner, charged at a weekly press briefing, “Chicago-style politics is shutting the American people out and demonizing their opponents.” Two years later, Mitt Romney routinely linked Obama to his political home in a negative way. “Chicago-style politics” has become a way to call Obama corrupt without saying it outright.

From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes © 2014 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Chicago-style politics” in a sentence

  • Accusations of Chicago-style politics have been levied against the mayor, suggesting that patronage and backroom deals are influencing policy decisions more than the public interest.
  • In the upcoming election, observers are anticipating Chicago-style politics to play a role, given the city’s historical penchant for political machines and ward-level organizing.
  • The candidate dismissed criticisms that he was engaged in Chicago-style politics, arguing that building coalitions and securing endorsements are standard practices in any political landscape.