It feels clever to be cynical, when talking about democratic government: to suggest that fixes are in, elected leaders are dominated by special interests wielding political machines, and their priority will always be delivering those backers’ core objectives and obligations on their terms, while deflecting from their resultant unsuitability to do much else. As a cynic, one never has to feel disappointed.
Pittsburgh in particular has had to contend with historically cynical examples of coercion and indifference. Local government never disappointed US Steel after the National Guard occupied Homestead on the company’s behalf; rather US Steel and other titans infested local governments and mega-philanthropies. The steel workers were dissuaded — often violently — from organizing until the run-up to World War 2, when the company brought John Lewis of the mine workers in to direct organizing efforts toward negotiating pay but little in the way of workplace power or democracy. The civil rights movement rocked Pittsburgh but didn’t rock Mayor David Lawrence’s generations-long ironclad grip nor his opera house where the Black people used to be, other than his creating our Commission on Human Relations where concerned community leaders can officiously pursue grievances toward more hopeful ends. Lawrence’s police’s relationships with illicit betting parlor operators rocked him only slightly more, especially as a friend of the sports and gaming-magnate Rooneys, but not enough to change anything.
Cynical paths were viable ones as long as enough money was pouring in from war, steel and the New Deal. That all ended around 1979, but there’s still a healthy trickle for a few, many more carry generational memories, and there are always new vultures looking for well-groomed suckers.
We deserve more from our obscure leaders than doling out important jobs and contracts with shameless opportunism of well-timed, state-financed commercials and roadshows for dog licensure.
We deserve more from our progressive leaders than trading away meaningful votes with blind eyes and bending backwards to prop up such dated regressive coalitions, in exchange mainly for symbolic or marginal victories.
And we deserve more from our historic leaders than their foremost political backer acting as their brain, right hand and mouth all at once, ensuring a tax dispute morphs into a gridlock of conflicted civic interests that could take a decade to unravel, while most everything outside its special interests drags along.
We don’t need to keep passing on the inheritance of Pittsburgh’s desensitization to crass power politics with its negligent costs and potentials for abuse. There are other stars even voters can follow; duties, disciplines, standards, which the pit of Pittsburgh pathologically rejects either as either naive, or some sort of trap. Yes, a trap: that “good government” is merely what “meritocrats” talk about to get good ol’ boys to ease off, as though they’re just a different sort of privileged. And to be sure, the last couple times “professionalism” was given room to grow around here, PPS Superintendent Roosevelt was given license to smash too much he didn’t understand, and Mayor Peduto wound up mesmerized by the 4th Industrial Revolution. It’s a real conversation, how to manage for independence. But just because fire burned us twice, we needn’t outlaw it. To grow, Pittsburgh needs to snap out of its incredulity over trying to do things right, and raise the bar just a little.
It makes sense to scrutinize who we hire to do public work and how, to erect guardrails for undue influence. It makes sense to address public matters on their own merits, rather than trade oversight or influence for political advantage. It makes sense for leaders to value and empower enough pubic service experience, that one’s politics don’t grow to suffocate themselves and everything else. And we need to do more that makes sense, because these old governments aren’t just enough to make you cynical, they’re expensive and difficult and we’re running out of lifelines.