Campus politics, then and now

Alum disagrees with Axelrod, reflects on vibrant political culture of ’70s UChicago.

By Peter Draper

Congratulations to David Axelrod (A.B. ’76), whom the Maroon featured on its front page last week, for the central role he played in President Obama’s reelection. The article was short, but Axelrod might have mentioned what was perhaps the most extraordinary (and, in my view, negative) aspect of the election: the unprecedented expenditure of billions of dollars by interested parties to influence the outcome of the presidential and congressional races. Such spending, unbridled since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, will further undermine the democratic aspects of our inherently corrupt electoral system, in which candidates and elected officials give at least as much attention to donors as they do to voters, and further degrade public discussion of issues. Unfortunately, Obama’s campaign said far too little about this. Another critical issue about which the President and his surrogates said little was global warming. ‘Climate Silence’ was a bitter reality of the 2012 campaign.

Much was said, at least on the Republican side, about ‘Obamacare.’ Perhaps the main factor in its unpopularity (beyond its maligning by right-wing propagandists), and one which did much to propel Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections (as Mr. Axelrod mentioned), is the requirement that uninsured Americans purchase private health insurance. An alternative to this mandate was the then-popular “public option.” It was abandoned by Obama, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, and others as they struggled to salvage the Affordable Care Act, after having squandered their momentum in 2009–10 looking for 60 votes in the Senate that they later concluded they didn’t need after all. But now that the watered-down ACA is the acknowledged law of the land, let us hope that it can be made to work towards its stated and laudable goals of making health care available and affordable for most, if not all, Americans.

As a University of Chicago alumnus who graduated from the College one year before Axelrod, I was surprised to read that he thought that political opportunities weren’t available to our generation of U of C students. I recall protesting against the war in Vietnam, which finally ended in the spring of 1975, just before my graduation. I remember listening to prominent anti-war intellectual Staughton Lynd speaking to us outside Cobb Hall, urging us not only to read Aristotle’s Politics, but also to continue our active involvement in current politics. I recollect organizing student support for striking University tradespeople and maintenance workers. On the electoral front, I remember working on the Fifth Ward aldermanic campaign of progressive activist Al Raby and on the ill-fated but worthwhile presidential campaign of the late George McGovern, as well as fighting against the corruption and brutality of Richard J. Daley’s mayoral administration.

And I recall September 11, 1973, when the Salvador Allende government in Chile was violently overthrown with U.S. support and overhearing an argument about this on campus involving a student who was the son of the U.S. ambassador to that country. (Years later we learned that famed University economist Milton Friedman was involved in helping the bloody military regime which replaced the elected Allende.) I also recollect, during the Watergate scandal, listening to Friedman speak at our dorm, when he said that he saw no reason to believe that there had been wrongdoing by then-President Nixon. Certainly, there were not only political opportunities but political imperatives for those of us who were college students back then, and there were plenty of people at the University who wanted to talk about events which occurred “after the year 1800,” in contrast to Axelrod’s quip.

I wish Axelrod well on the ‘Institute of Politics.’ I hope that it will go beyond electoral politics, and that it will not further Chicago’s reputation as “the Windy City” (a nickname owed to its politicians, not its weather). Rather, I hope the Institute will play an active and significant role in grasping the critical tasks of our time: building true democracy and fostering economic prosperity with fairness, combating the impending environmental catastrophe, reducing the bloated U.S. military budget and promoting peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, and redirecting our resources toward housing, health care, education, and other human needs, including, in many parts of the world, basic necessities such as food and clean water. These are the daunting but unavoidable challenges that face us all, as members of a community that is not only national, but international.

Dr. Peter Draper is a graduate of the College in the Class of 1975.