voice for democracy

Fresh, engaging look at governing after Thomas Geoghegan's run for House seat in Illinois – Akron Beacon Journal

Run for the U.S. House, and you learn something — about yourself, district residents and the state of our democracy. Thomas Geoghegan did just that in 2009, jumping into a special election in Chicago to fill the seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel, who became White House chief of staff for Barack Obama.
One result is the book released last week, “The History of Democracy Has Yet to Be Written: How We Have to Learn to Govern All Over Again,” from Belt Publishing of Cleveland. It is charming, funny, thoughtful and provocative. Geoghegan weighs his own race, along with the decade that followed, including the more divisive Trump years.
Geoghegan didn’t win. He finished seventh in a cast of 14 Democratic primary candidates, the top vote-getter assured victory in the next round. He recalls the indignities and smaller triumphs of the campaign trail. He hoped to gain traction as his many years as a labor lawyer inspired union support. In headier moments, he saw himself bridging the gap between the working class of the party and the college graduates who now play a big role in its base.
That didn’t happen. He found the many working-class voters beyond his reach, and, as it happened, on their way to Trump. (See this part of Ohio.) Labor leaders spoke bluntly: Few knew who he was, and, anyway, whoever won would be friendly to their cause.
There’s a George Plimpton echo to this amateur in the ring, if that doesn’t test too many memories. Then again, Geoghegan achieves something more through his keen observations and the connections he draws.
So, put aside the latest accounts of the Trump presidency, the “tell-all” versions from insiders and the scoops from reporters.
With Geoghegan, you will find the engaging style of his essays and books the past several decades, including “Which Side Are You On?” about the labor movement and “See You in Court” about how we became a lawsuit nation. Mostly, you will find familiar subjects presented in fresh ways, something our public discussion desperately could use.
Consider those in the working class who have left the Democratic Party. With three in 10 Americans having college degrees, the country does need more graduates to thrive in a knowledge economy. Yet, as Geoghegan argues, “more college” isn’t a sufficient answer. He adds with emphasis, “This is a high school nation.”
Geoghegan cautions that “more college” amounts to “imitate us,” an elite approach that grates, to say the least. It makes people feel bad about themselves. It alienates.
For years, Ohio, and the country, have been lacking a coherent system to meet a pressing need — guiding people through the big transition in the economy so they land in a productive place. The arrival of Stark State College in Akron has been a step forward, but it belongs as part of a better whole.
Ohio started losing its economic edge in the 1960s, and still the state has not responded adequately to the harm for many residents and communities, made plain in labor’s declining share of overall income since 1980, down eight percentage points.
Geoghegan ran for the House, in part, because the chamber is what he admires most about our form of government. It reflects the country as it is, where representation is true (when spared extreme gerrymandering). That contrasts with the U.S. Senate, which, well, he would abolish. He knows how it came to be that Ohio and Wyoming are treated as equal. Whatever value there may have been in the arrangement has vanished.
For Geoghegan, the Senate is a barrier to action. House bills die there. The courts are now a replacement vehicle for action. This is about more than getting rid of the destructive filibuster, no tool of compromise as Mitch McConnell has made evident again with his recent ploy concerning the debt ceiling.
Geoghegan reminds that liberty involves more than the individual. There is the freedom of the state to act — on behalf of the people as a whole. That is equally fundamental, and not the case as gridlock grips and people lose faith in our capacity to govern.
There is much value in achieving greater inclusion and diversity. Geoghegan agrees, yet he tilts the frame, preferring the concept of “unionism.” Here is the labor lawyer going beyond a worthy pitch for increased democracy in the workplace, a path for honing our collective governing skills. He emphasizes how we’re all in this together.
These and other ideas in the book, including an end to gerrymandering because it involves state lawmakers interfering with federal representation, or why the Supreme Court struck down term limits, may be an uphill climb like his run for the House. They still merit engaging and especially mulling in this timely and perceptive book.
Douglas is a retired Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at [email protected]