The Chicago Complex

The roots of a city's corruption

The existence of such contrasts will probably be conceded by students of political science generally, and certain obvious explanations will readily suggest themselves. The most obvious is the influence of the size of the city itself. A community of three and a quarter millions is not a “community” at all. It is neither a polis, in the original sense of the Greek word, nor an urbs in the Latin sense. Chicago is a honeycomb of many cities, with many races, languages, topographies, and backgrounds. We call it a metropolis; a better word would be polypolis a city of many cities; and a poly pole cannot possibly familiarize himself with the personalities, affiliations, and relationships involved in the politics of his city, or the implications and bearings of movements, issues, and measures.

Furthermore, urban life means specialization, occupational, social, and otherwise,— which necessarily narrows the range both of one’s interests and of one’s intelligence. And, finally, urban life surrounds its victims with a “non-conducting” stratum of distractions, diversions, interruptions, and appeals to one’s attention, which provide effective insulation against vital contact with many of the significant things of life. In the midst of these, it requires a mental effort to manifest an intelligent interest in or familiarity with anything other than the superficial and sensational aspects of politics; whereas in smaller communities in many sections of the United States, strange as it may seem, politics is still an absorbing topic of neighborhood talk.

But these environmental handicaps do not explain all of the differences in political interest and intelligence. Long established political systems and “regimes,” traditional political standards, accustomed types of political leadership, systems of education, character of the press, and the customary attitude of influential individuals and groups in the community— all either stimulate or retard the development of political intelligence; and in many of these respects the antecedents of the present generation of Chicago citizens have not been fortunate.

Whatever the number and influence of the contributing causes, the result has been the establishment of a low level of political intelligence. Plato said man is a “political animal” ; the average Chicago man is not. And the Chicago woman is apparently less so. Women’s clubs and organizations have displayed a great deal of activity in civic matters, and along some lines have accomplished extremely valuable results. Politically their effect has apparently been nil— or worse. For they seem to have succumbed to picturesque, sensational, and misleading political devices even more readily than men; and where they have not succumbed to the devices of practical politics, they have imitated rather than sought to improve them.

Political organizations in Chicago have exploited the specialized psychology of appeal to women voters with admirable dexterity, in the organization of political campaigns, in utilizing the prestige of social leaders, and in the “line” of eloquence handed out by campaign speakers. When Mayor Thompson, for example, in speaking before a rather select North Side women’s audience in his campaign for reelection in 1927, addressed them as dear “fellow hoodlums,” the picturesque bravado of his salutation completely won his audience.

So far as Chicago is concerned, it way be doubted whether woman suffrage has thus far contributed any improvement to its politics.  And, without intending any discourtesy to the rest of the country, the area of doubt may well be extended. This is. not a reflection upon the principle of woman suffrage, in which the writer has firmly believed since the days of Frances Willard; and women will eventually contribute a distinctive and helpful influence in politics. But it has been the history of the past that every newly enfranchised class has lent itself to conspicuous types of political exploitation, and such has apparently been the history of woman suffrage thus far.


Upon this low level of political intelligence is set up a deflated scale of values attached to qualities of political integrity and honesty. Indeed, such qualities are not thought of as prerequisites for public office; and it may be doubted whether they would longer be reckoned among political assets at all. Public officials are convicted of graft, corruption, and outright crime; and it is accepted with a cynical smile or a gesture of indifference. So much so that after the experiences of recent years it is difficult to conceive of any form of political malfeasance that could shock the sensibilities of Chicago people. Tacitus observed nearly two thousand years ago that in Rome, contrary to the usual laws of supply and demand, “virtue is least valued in periods when it is most rare.” His observation would be true of Chicago.

And, strangely enough, one factor that has impaired the quality of citizenship in recent years is nothing other than the high level of political welfare that has been attained by the people of the United States, and particularly by the dwellers in our large cities. The quality of citizenship has always reached its highest levels in periods of storm and tress when there were crit ical issues at stake or large objectives to be won. When civil and religious liberty, the right of suffrage, representation, national independence, freedom from oppressive restrictions, or fundamental constitutional rights were the things to be attained through political agencies, the political sphere was overwhelmingly important and political interest was intense.

Now, with the people of the United States in full possession of civil liberties and political rights, with a highly developed scale of social legislation, with universal public-school education and with various forms of higher and technical education made available to practically everyone at government expense, with universal postal service, rural free delivery, and air mail, with concrete highways stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific that everyone may travel freely except for the cost of gasoline, with modern systems of sanitation and protection of health, with parks, playgrounds, bathing beaches, and what not, one might almost inquire what more there is for the citizen to ask through the agency of government. It is true he has the right to demand more honesty, economy, and efficiency in the performance of these services; but after all, these are rather abstract” ideals in comparison with the concrete and pressing things he has needed for hundreds of years and is now getting. In terms of political economy, the very abundance with which our political wants have been satisfied through the progress of the past century has greatly reduced the “marginal utility” of further action through political agencies.

Now this situation, abstract and theoretical as it may seem, has contributed enormously toward perpetuating conditions existing in Chicago in this way. Many a business man and representative of large property interests has been shown the injustice of assessments, including his own, and has expressed sincere and vociferous resentment. That is as far as his protest goes. He cannot take the time to attend conferences, serve on committees, or participate in any organized movement to improve conditions. And, unhappily, the truth is that in most eases it probably would not pay him to do so. He might save thereby a few thousand dollars a year in taxes or in the process of having his taxes taken care of; but in the position he occupies and the general scale of living he has reached, the same amount of time devoted to business, recreation, or almost anything else would yield more than an equivalent return. “It isn't worth the trouble,” is the way is generally put, and probably nine times out of ten it is perfectly true— from the standpoint of the individual.

The writer has conferred from time to time with a considerable number of men of means, who have sat in their offices and talked—in some cases as long as two hours at a time—about the evils of the tax system; but who do not take occasion to do anything about it because it simply isn't worth the trouble. He has talked with a large number of small property owners and home owners, many of whom are in the habit of making cynical observations about the graft and corruption of the tax system. In a surprising number of cases, they do not know what their homes are assessed for. The taxes generally run around $300, $450, or $500, as the case may be. When assured that their particular properties are clearly over-assessed (if that is the case), and that they ought to look into the assessment— “Oh, well, it isn't worth the trouble.”

And so in practically all walks of life our political amenities are so great, compared with anything the world has known before, that additional effort in this field will no longer bring as large returns to the individual as the same amount of effort directed toward business and professional pursuits, or toward automobiles, radios, sports, and vacations, where our shortages are more acute. The result is a mass of indifference that is the more dangerous because it is a fairly enlightened indifference. But it has probably contributed more than any other single influence toward bringing about the tax conditions now existing in Chicago; and at the present time it is the one greatest obstacle to their removal. If diminished prosperity would change this attitude, as it has already brought the real estate and other groups to the “mourner’s bench,” there is probably no city in the United States to which a period of “hard times” would come as a greater blessing than to Chicago.

Finally, organization, standardization, and “patternization” have probably been carried as far in Chicago as anywhere in the United States. Everybody is “organized” in one way or another, and one is fortunate if he has not been organized in half a dozen different ways by as many different organizations and organizers. Everyone’s conduct is standardized or in process of being standardized by some code of business or professional “ethics” or some committee on standardization. The gangs and rackets are only pathological variants of what is in Chicago the “normal type.”

The consequence is that one rarely travels outside the intellectual orbit of his own organization or affiliations, whatever these may be. He moves when the caravan moves and would be unaffectedly surprised at anyone who expected him to move differently. “Footprints on the sands of time” do not interest him. The typical Chicagoan prefers to stay on the concrete and follow the traffic. The real estate man must wait to see what his “Board” is going to do about it. The building owner thinks he is meeting the issue squarely when he tells you “they” have a committee on the subject, “they” being either the Chicago Building Managers Association or the National Association of Building Owners and Managers. The banker is waiting till the State Bankers Association meets at Rockford or elsewhere. The manufacturer tells you with naïve finality that that issue was settled by the report of the Illinois Manufacturers Association last year. Individual independence is not so much condemned as simply unknown.

On purely business and technical matters, or matters of direct pecuniary interest to their members, these organizations of course function with a high degree of efficiency. But on broader questions of public interest they tend to a large extent to displace individual conviction and action and to substitute nothing in its place. The result is organized inertia.

Now, when we have a citizenship which, however spectacular its achievements otherwise may be, is nevertheless characterized by a low level of political intelligence, a citizenship which habitually places a low valuation upon political honesty and integrity, a citizenship steeped in the chronic indifference that comes with prosperity and a high level of general well-being, and a citizenship which habitually evades intellectual conviction and independence of action by the easy alibi of a committee or an organization, we have the soil from which no other political growth could be expected than the present government and governmental conditions in Chicago. And it is uknlikely that these conditions will be greatly or permanently changed until the soil from which they grow is changed.

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