The term “plantation politics” was coined by Chicago political writer Don Rose in the late 60’s to refer to the old Democratic machine system and the behavior or people under it. It takes its imagery from the old southern plantations, where an overseer would ride around on a horse, gun on hip and whip in hand, monitoring the slaves working in the fields. But it refers to any system in which people are beholden to an all-powerful in-group who dictate things primarily for their benefit. A parasitic system like that continues to sap the vitality of democracy in Cook County and Proviso Township.
But while Plantation politics is a useful metaphor to describe a certain political practice, describing the state of mind that allows this corrupt system to exist requires a separate metaphor. Two metaphors, one rooted in the black experience, one about as lilly white as it gets, intimately intertwined, explain how people willingly give up their power to others who consistently work against their best interests.
Plantantion politics cannot survive without voter’s implicit acceptance and cooperation. The best metaphor for that phenomenon of pliable voter docility comes from Stockholm, Sweden, which is about as far from the Deep South as it gets.
On August 23, 1973, four people were taken hostage at a bank in Stockholm following a failed robbery attempt. Over the next six days, to the amazement of police, those individuals became emotionally attached to their captors, defending them after they were liberated. One former hostage even reportedly became engaged to one of the felons.
Swedish psychologist Nils Bejerot, who worked with Stockholm police during the ordeal, coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome” to describe the psychological phenomenon he witnessed, in which people taken captive and even threatened with death formed an emotional bond with their captors. Mental health professionals also refer to such thinking as “identification with the aggressor.”
The phenomenon was later witnessed the horrendous skyjacking of TWA Flight 847 in June, 1985. Despite the viscious beatings of numerous passengers and the cold blooded execution of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, some passengers aboard that flight actually defended those who perpetrated those acts.
“They weren’t bad people,” opined one ex-hostage afterwards. “They let me eat. They let me sleep. They gave me my life.”
You don’t have to be a “24’s” Jack Bauer to be sickened and puzzled by that sentiment.
In light of all that, it’s not hard to imagine average folk accepting those who merely want to waste piles of our tax money for the benefit of themselves and their family and friends, and maybe boss us around a bit. After all, the thinking goes, they’re not that bad in the grand scheme of things, are they? Then again, no one is holding a gun to their head.
Those who run the numerous plantations throughout Cook County count on that attitude, that docility, that identification with people who, when all the rationalizations are stripped away, are aggressors, both to democracy and to the people they’re supposed to be serving.
I can at least understand the motivation of the plantation overlords. They want the power to do what’s in their selfish best interest and the interests of their friends and associates. What’s unfathomable to me is why so many citizens continue to accept that from people we elect to serve us.
It’s not like we have no choice. There are two types of politicians when it comes to plantation politics. Those who- both white and black- work to end the plantation system, and those who simply want to be the one in the saddle, whip in hand. The blatant injustice and undemocratic underpinnings of the plantation system don’t bother them so much as the fact that they themselves aren’t riding in the saddle over it all.
That’s not morality, that’s just envy.
On March 21, voters in Forest Park and the nine other towns that comprise Proviso Township have the opportunity to both knock two old cynical plantation style political bosses off their horses, and prevent another cynical young plantation boss wannabe from mounting a higher horse.
Karen Yarbrough is running for reelection as Illinois 7th District Representative, and for Democratic Committeeman of Proviso Township. By voting for Yarbrough, we can keep a woman representing us who has done a good job so far for this district. In the process, we’ll keep out a guy I believe would be a disaster in the Illinois House- Chris Welch.
Voting for Yarbrough for Committeeman would remove “Gene” Moore, a guy who has done little if anything for Proviso Township or Forest Park. And if enough people vote for Forrest Claypool for County Board President, we can send John Stroger out to pasture.
In 1963 Martin Luther King sent electric ripples of hope and imagination through out this society that still resonate today. He did so simply by sharing a dream of a time when human beings would no longer be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. King didn’t live to see that dream fulfilled, but we can.
When the populace voted Barack Obama and Jessie White and Kimberly Lightford into office, it was because people believed in the content of their character and in their competence. Next month, when I vote for Yarbrough and Claypool, it will be because I believe in their character and competence. Yarbrough has said she’s “unbought,” and Claypool has said he’ll put the public good before any other considerations.
That doesn’t mean I’ll blindly trust either Yarbrough or Claypool to do whatever they please. And if either turns out to be just another case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” I won’t be pleased. And I’ll say so loud and clear, for what that’s worth.
But I believe that Yarbrough’s and Claypools’s vision reflects the values implicit in King’s dream, and I choose that dream over the current nightmare of plantation politics.
Of course, if you believe that Moore, Welch and Stroger represent the values that you want reflected in our government, then by all means, vote for them. Just don’t pretend you’re anything other than either a willing resident of the Stockholm Plantation, identifying with the oppressors, or a political insider beholden to them for what they have given you or will give you. If it’s the latter, at least you’ll be voting for your own personal best interests, limited as they are. But you won’t be voting in the best interest of the majority.
The key question then will be whether, on March 21, the majority of voters continue to live in fear and accept an ongoing nightmare, or find the courage to embrace a dream.