Two years ago, during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Paul Simon repeatedly needled his conservative party mates with the quip “I’m glad there’s a Republican Party, but one Republican Party is enough.”
The problem in recent years has often been that voters couldn’t really tell the Democrats and Republicans apart. Now, as we listen to the candidates running this year in Illinois, the problem is worse: the Democrats and Republicans seem to have switched places.
Which state party chairman, for example, says his party’s message is “clear and concise: don’t look to taxes to solve every problem in this state”? Republican, right? Guess again.
Which party pledges to roll back income taxes (the most progressive revenue source), promises to take care of rising demands on government by cutting “fat and waste,” and accuses the opposition of years of failed “tax and spend” policies? Those are quotes from Democrat Neil Hartigan’s unrelenting assault on Jim Edgar.
Meanwhile Edgar, the Republican, wants to extend the temporary 1989 income tax surcharge in order to fund education adequately, especially in the state’s poorer school districts.
At least two members of Edgar’s slate–the Republican candidates for secretary of state, George Ryan, and attorney general, Jim Ryan–openly oppose the income tax extension. On the other side, Mayor Richard Daley and Democratic Cook County Board presidential candidate Richard Phelan, along with legislators like senate president Phil Rock, have favored the extension that Hartigan opposes.
So which party stands for what? From western Illinois, Knox County Democratic chairman Norm Winick looks at the ticket he supports and observes, “I don’t think anything is unifying them all. I don’t think [voters] see a coherent philosophy that distinguishes either [party].”
Closer to home, Cook County Republican chairman Richard Siebel says, “Fair question, but always difficult to respond to,” when asked to describe the difference between the Democrats and Republicans. He talks some about changes he hopes to see, then admits, “I guess I’ve been listening too much to campaign rhetoric. I get a little confused, too. I thought there was a difference. I hope there is a difference. I think Republicans are for reducing the size and impact of government.”
If thoughtful county political leaders are unsure of what their parties stand for this year, then the voters are surely in trouble.
There is one race in which the Democrat and Republican are running true to form: the Senate contest between incumbent Paul Simon and Rockford-area congresswoman Lynn Martin. Simon’s reelection campaign has stuck fairly close to his cautious, apple-pie liberalism; the candidate calls for cuts in military spending and federal support for education, literacy, care of “crack” babies, social security, health care, child care, and other humanitarian causes with broad appeal.
Martin, meanwhile, sounds even more conservative than her record. Democratic senator Alan Dixon actually voted with President Bush more than she did last year, according to Congressional Quarterly’s tally. (However, the National Journal rates Martin as more conservative than 70 to 80 percent of Congress; it ranks Simon among the most liberal senators, incidentally, and Dixon as one of the most conservative Democrats.) In her campaign, other than knocking small chinks in Simon’s political armor of moral rectitude, Martin has mainly emphasized her opposition to taxes and spending, except for the military. There are odd ideological twists in this race (both candidates are prochoice on abortion, both support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget), but otherwise it offers a fairly straightforward, if not extreme, choice on politics and policy.
Unfortunately, it does very little to clarify the statewide political picture. John Cameron, who sees things from the Democratic side, says, “The two major statewide contests are headed by two very different approaches to the identity of the Democratic Party.” Cameron is associate director of the Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), the citizen-consumer lobby that has endorsed the whole Democratic slate. “Simon is the traditional liberal. Then you have Hartigan, running as the conservative populist.”
Do political parties mean anything at all these days? Should we care? Over recent decades party loyalties have declined; ticket-splitting and voter self-identification as “independent” have risen in both Illinois and the country as a whole. People offer as a sign of political thoughtfulness the observation that they vote “for the man (or woman)” and not the party.
Certainly the distinctions between parties are not sharp enough to satisfy their most passionate constituents. Usually they’re not enough to inspire most dispassionate people, either, judging from the downward slide in voter turnout. But there are still differences worth caring about and voting for; parties still mean something–but not much.
National politics provides the framework for what goes on in the states, but its influences are always refracted through local prisms–distinct traditions, institutions, personalities, and economies. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much Washington events determine the shape of the local political battlefield.
In the 80s the Republican right triumphed, culminating a process that had begun with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. With Nixon, there was a calculated abandonment of blacks–even after the New Deal a meaningful Republican constituency–in favor of traditionally Democratic whites in the South and their brethren in the North who were angry about civil rights and worried about social order. As liberalism became less associated with blue-collar economic issues and more with cultural tolerance of diverse values, and with emerging movements like feminism, the New Right mobilized a grab bag of social forces to oppose it: the growing number of fundamentalist Christians; antiabortion crusaders, often drawn from traditionally Democratic Catholic ethnic groups; gun enthusiasts; and so on. Meanwhile the low-growth, high-inflation economy of the 70s (“stagflation”) seemed to further discredit liberalism, although the sole Democratic president of this period, Jimmy Carter, was not an economic liberal of the New Deal stripe but rather a precursor of Reaganism.
Kevin Phillips, the conservative who conceived Nixon’s original “Southern strategy,” has recently summarized the damage done during the Reagan years in The Politics of Rich and Poor. Although the Democratic left had long been making the same points, Phillips’s conservative credentials gave his arguments a special imprimatur (as if some Democrats had so lost their nerve and bearings that they could only endorse views sanctioned as conservative).
“The 1980s were the triumph of upper America,” Phillips writes, a time when Republicans managed to “tilt power, policy, wealth and income toward the richest portions of the population.” There was a massive shift, of nearly unparalleled proportions, in wealth and income from the lower four-fifths of the population to the upper 1 percent, producing a staggering number of billionaires and decamillionaires. The income of families in the bottom 80 percent of the population dropped from 2 to 15 percent–with the poor losing the most–from 1977 to 1988, Phillips recounts. Meanwhile the top 1 percent gained 50 percent, and the upper 10 percent–including most professionals, managers, and opinion makers–also did quite well.
This great transfer of wealth, Phillips argues, was largely a result of concerted federal policy: making the tax code much less progressive, cutting federal outlays to the poor and working class, deregulating businesses (from savings and loans to airlines and trucking), and tightening monetary policy (producing high interest rates). The wealth and income shifts “have hurt the bottom half of Americans by effects ranging from rural and small-town decay to urban crime, weakened families and lost economic opportunity for the unskilled,” Phillips writes.
He could have added that these policies, combined with the huge Reagan military buildup, particularly hurt states like Illinois: this state lost social service money, failed to receive needed funds for infrastructure and housing, and lost jobs because of monetary and trade policy. In general the tax and budget cuts of the 80s shifted burdens–and often created new ones, like homelessness–back toward states and localities. These government bodies had to raise taxes while the federal government cut, but they relied more on regressive taxes–sales, utility, property, and so on–than on potentially more progressive income taxes.
The tragedy for the Democrats’ hard-core constituencies is that their party–which Phillips tellingly describes as the second most enthusiastically procapitalist party in the world–in large part jumped on the bandwagon of booming “heyday capitalism,” proposing their own deregulation schemes and tax cuts for the rich. The Democrats were rapidly losing their working-class roots in the 70s, as Thomas Byrne Edsall argued in The New Politics of Inequality. But especially as the cost of campaigns soared, Democrats discovered that they could successfully hit up business political action committees, which were at least as interested in currying favor from powerful incumbents as they were in pushing any broad political agenda.
Some consequences of this high-stakes “money politics” can be seen in races this year: northwest-side Democratic congressman Frank Annunzio, whose New Deal instincts led him to oppose savings and loan deregulation, nevertheless accepted large political contributions and favors from the charmingly misnamed “thrift” industry. That may have influenced him to cast a proindustry vote that raised the cost of the S&L bailout. And Simon, scrambling to fund two expensive Senate races and a presidential bid, was influenced to make questionable phone calls on behalf of contributors.
Far more damaging, the Democrats lost their distinctive political character, so when the excesses of the Reagan years come home to roost–with scandal in the financial markets, the S&L debacle, the budget deficit, etc–the Democrats could not take advantage of these events: they offered no meaningful alternative to what voters began to see as the distinctive Republican character. Just in the past three years, according to a recent Los Angeles Times survey, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of voters who see the Republicans as the party of the rich and as “not for the people.” But a declining percentage of voters have any clear image of the Democrats; worse, the survey shows a sharp drop in the percentage of voters who see the Democrats as being for working people, long the party’s ace in the hole.
In the 90s, Phillips believes, there’s potential for a reaction against politicians and policies that favor the rich. For example, this fall in Minnesota, despite being outspent ten to one, a fiery anticorporate populist, Paul Wellstone, is on the verge of defeating a heretofore popular conservative Republican incumbent, Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Vermonters may choose independent socialist Bernie Sanders over moderate incumbent Republican congressman Peter Smith. Throughout the midwest, Democratic populists like Iowa senator Tom Harkin, Indiana congressman Jim Jontz, and Illinois congressman Lane Evans are apparently winning in fairly conservative areas with a left-populist critique of class inequities–against tax breaks for the rich, for example.
Simon, more the traditional liberal than the new populist, links Martin to savings and loan deregulation in his TV ads but has made less of an issue of his votes against–and her votes for–Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich. On the Democratic state ticket, treasurer candidate Pat Quinn is the most outspoken economic populist, a loose cannon brimming with ideas (he proposes expanding use of state bank deposits as leverage over loan policies, for example, and establishing an equivalent of the Citizens Utility Board for consumers of financial services), but he is prone to the cheap political appeal. His predecessor, Jerry Cosentino, now running for secretary of state, often takes a populist tack (withdrawing state deposits from First National Bank for excessive credit card rates), but his use of a flimsy front in Indiana as a way of escaping his trucking firm’s union hardly qualifies him for tribute as friend of the workingman.
Dawn Clark Netsch, candidate for state comptroller, is also more a traditional liberal than a class-conscious populist, though she did lead the fight in 1985 to rewrite the public utilities law, which arguably has been responsible for saving nearly $3 billion in rate hikes. (Attorney General Hartigan, despite pleas from consumer groups, took no active role on behalf of the legislation; later he endorsed an ultimately rejected rate hike and reorganization plan that Commonwealth Edison wanted.)
Overall, says Illinois Public Action director Robert Creamer, “In the Democratic Party there has been this extraordinary failure of leadership to tap into the growing wellspring of populist, progressive concern about the failures of the economy. My personal view is that the Hartigan campaign’s choice of the way to position themselves on this tax stuff is not correct politically or from a policy view. God knows there’s an enormous amount of pinstripe patronage and waste. . . . I think it’s great for Democratic candidates to talk about waste in government, but I disagree with Hartigan on the need to extend the surcharge. He would have been well served to talk about making the state income tax more progressive. . . . I’d rather see the question as who pays and not whether.” (Jan Schakowsky, candidate for state representative from Rogers Park and Evanston and, incidentally, Creamer’s wife, is the rare candidate who is calling for more progressive taxation.)
Even without amending the constitution, which permits only a flat-rate tax, the state income tax could be made more progressive with a higher threshold or increased personal exemptions. Even without such changes, the income tax is fairer than any alternative.
Why don’t the Democrats seize the opportunity that conservative strategist Phillips sees? Why are the party contrasts so befuddled this year?
There are some general explanations: (1) contributions from business and the relatively affluent dominate the increasingly costly campaigns; (2) as party strength has declined, candidates typically take their base constituencies for granted, then muddle to the middle with the hope of attracting undecided voters with no party loyalties. James Nowlan, a professor of public policy at Knox College in Galesburg, argues that “both parties are reactive–captives of the tyranny of public opinion. Candidates follow public opinion because of the nature of polling, the cost of campaigns, and the importance of capturing the great American middle.” Candidates and parties react to public opinion rather than lead it.
Also, there’s some truth to the bromide that all politics is local. As a result, the framework created by national politics is often taken for granted. All across the country there have been pressures pushing up state and local taxes–and increasing local problems, many of which are simply ignored–as a result of the policies stretching from late Carter through Reagan to Bush. And compared to the federal government, states and local governments have more difficulty levying progressive taxes, because they are much more subject to the economic blackmail of businesses threatening to move.
Hartigan’s attacks on Governor James Thompson’s “25 new tax increases” ignores that framework, which was created by Thompson’s own party. Of course, Hartigan also neglects to mention that the Democrats controlled both houses of the Illinois legislature through most of Thompson’s tenure and approved those taxes, most of which were needed even for the inadequate job state government did.
Contrary to what many Illinoisans may think, this state is comparatively rich and undertaxed, and what taxes it does have are especially regressive. Illinois ranks 10th in disposable per capita personal income, and 34th in state and local tax per $1,000 of personal income. Compared with other states, Illinois relies disproportionately on local taxes, especially property taxes, as well as regressive utility and sales taxes, and relies relatively little on state or income tax revenues (Illinois ranks 35th in its reliance on income tax). The same pattern of heavy local burden and light state responsibility shows up in even starker terms in the formulas for school funding.
Overall Illinois has cheap (not to say necessarily efficient or effective) state government: we rank 47th in state expenditures per $1,000 of personal income. In per capita expenditures by state and local governments combined for elementary and secondary education, we come in 39th–down in the company of mainly retrograde Southern states.
American political parties, more than European parliamentary parties, tend to be tenuous ad hoc coalitions formed for the purpose of winning elections rather than political institutions built around shared principles. “It’s been said that the Republican Party is made up of rich people who hate the AFL-CIO and poor people who hate the ACLU,” IPAC’s Creamer quips, “and the Democratic Party is made up of rich people who don’t like the Moral Majority and poor people who don’t like Mutual of Omaha.” Within each party, groups driven by ideology, ethnicity, or special interests fight to impose their mission or share in the power. The task for party leaders and candidates is to hold those disparate pieces together and reach out for other votes.
Illinois has long been regarded a bellwether swing state, balanced fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. There are some indications, such as votes cast for University of Illinois trustees, that the party-identified voting population has shifted from slightly Republican to slightly Democratic in recent decades. On the other hand, a survey by Richard Day Research of likely registered voters showed a strong rise of Republican identification in the 80s–from 30 percent weak or strong Republican in 1976 to 43 percent from 1984 to 1988. During that same time overall Democratic identification dropped from 52 percent to 43 percent. In his latest survey, completed in September of this year, Day found the Democrats holding steady, but Republican identification slipping to 39 percent.
Once dominated by downstate rural and small-town conservatives allied with corporate and wealthy elites, the Republican Party is increasingly centered in the Chicago metropolitan suburbs. These white middle- to upper-class suburbs have provided a fertile environment for such Republican right-wing insurgents as congressmen Henry Hyde and Philip Crane and state representative Penny Pullen. Downstate Illinois (not counting the traditionally conservative Democratic far south of the state) has, with some notable exceptions, supported a less rigidly ideological Republicanism and has actually shifted toward the Democrats as the number of farmers has shrunk and local farm and manufacturing economies have suffered under Reagan. But conservative, lower-middle-class Democrats in Chicago have increasingly shifted toward the Republican Party in local races after many years of favoring Republicans for president.
The big strain in the Republican Party is between the ideological, “movement” conservatives and a moderate, pragmatic camp. Steve Baer, director of the United Republican Fund, who mounted a surprisingly strong right-wing challenge to Jim Edgar in this year’s gubernatorial primary, dismisses his opponents as the “payrollers . . . those people in gray suits who may be good-government types, but most of them see [politics] as a way to make a living.” Baer sees “corporate types” behind the party’s history of relative moderation and condemns the “Republican establishment” for its “habit of paying off special interest groups and serving their needs first.”
For Republicans even more than Democrats, the dividing issue in years to come will be abortion: For the hard core, of course, abortion is an evil that can’t be compromised on. But prochoice Republicans have become more organized, and increasingly candidates see public opinion leaning toward a firmer prochoice position. The battle may shift to placing restrictions on abortion, such as parental notification (which Hartigan favors) or parental consent (the slightly more restrictive position Edgar takes. On the other hand, Edgar supports public funding of abortion for poor women, which Hartigan rejects; the rest of the Democratic slate identify themselves as prochoice, but the two Republican Ryans–the favorites of the party’s right wing–are antiabortion.)
The near defeat of prominent abortion opponent Penny Pullen by a prochoice primary opponent last spring and Baer’s strong showing against Edgar, which was buoyed more by antiabortion voters than by any tax revolt, are harbingers of future internal party conflicts. Edgar stands to lose some ardently antiabortion Republicans in this election; one hard-line group has put up billboards promoting “No One for Governor.” The ardent antiabortionists angrily see themselves as being taken for granted by Republicans, the way African Americans are treated by the Democrats.
But abortion is also a proxy for a different division within the Republican Party–that between upper-class, probusiness, antigovernment economic conservatism, sometimes allied with the small but intellectually important libertarian element, and the resentful, fearful cultural conservatism of a beleaguered, confused Republican middle class desperately clinging to its tenuous affluence.
Jim Thompson managed to finesse many of these divisions. He was a master of corporate giveaways (even Edgar now takes issue with some of them) and patronage politics (his practices were the focus of a Supreme Court rebuke in the recent Rutan decision limiting patronage hiring). For many years, Republicans could claim with some legitimacy–especially compared to the Chicago Democratic machine–to be the party of good government and efficiency. Now, with the records of Thompson, Sheriff Jim O’Grady (who set new speed records violating his “reform” campaign pledges), Lieutenant Governor George Ryan and his family payrollers, and the collar county Republican organizations, the Republicans in Illinois are at least the equals of the Democrats in patronage and partisan abuse of government. Cook County state’s attorney candidate Jack O’Malley is one of the few Republicans running this year who seem to be cut from the older, good-government cloth.
Thompson satisfied many conservatives with a tough line on crime (his expensive prison building boom produced a good deal of patronage potential but no noticeable diminution of crime), successfully neutralized or won over organized labor (opposing an antiunion “right-to-work” law), and fudged abortion politics enough to keep economically conservative and socially liberal yuppies in the fold.
Edgar is in this same moderate Republican mold (which has also included figures like former senator Charles Percy, state’s attorney Bernard Carey, and attorney general William Scott). He is probably more cautious, principled, and frugal than Thompson, somewhat more in line with the small businessman’s conservative mentality. He frustrates conservatives who are accustomed to lambasting all government and taxes. Yet they support him for partisan reasons, much as many liberal Democrats reluctantly support Hartigan: the next legislature will redraw state legislative districts, and if Edgar wins, there’s a 50-50 chance Republicans could control the map. Nearly everyone agrees that the balance of power in both the state legislature and the congressional delegation could be tipped from Democratic to Republican control depending on how the map is drawn.
But ideological conservatives face a tough choice. As one organizer argued, “If Edgar loses, the Republican Party will be decimated–no patronage jobs, no money. It will be in the ash heap.” Yet if Edgar wins, “conservatives will be shut out.” An Edgar loss would “leave conservatives to rebuild the party.” Which way will they gamble?
The Democrats face even more divisions. Their constituency can be crudely divided into four parts: downstaters, Chicago African Americans, ethnic Chicago and Cook County white working class, and the socially liberal lakefront/suburban good-government voters. Then there are institutional or ideological groupings: organized labor, feminists and prochoice groups, black insurgents, environmentalists, and varied liberal and populist organizations, like IPAC.
Could a strong progressive-populist Democratic Party unite these elements? If so, why hasn’t it come to the surface?
Despite the decline of the old apparatus, the Irish-led Chicago machine remains the dominant tradition of Illinois Democratic politics. As Steven P. Erie argues in Rainbow’s End: Irish-Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985, the Irish skillfully used local politics as a mechanism of ethnic advancement, mobilizing coalitions of nonvoters to gain power. But with limited resources to dole out, they then resorted to fraud and repression to avoid sharing power with other newcomers to the cities. Democratic machines in Chicago and elsewhere used New Deal and Great Society programs to mollify and pay off new constituencies while holding on to the key local centers of power. As their core supporters became more middle-class, Erie writes, the machines became more conservative, focusing on low-tax provision of minimal government services and welfare for blacks and Hispanics. In maintaining their machines–providing rewards to clients, placating businesses, pacifying or repressing malcontents–Democrats “lost opportunities to represent working-class interests more fully,” Erie writes. “The failure of labor parties in the big cities can thus partly be understood in terms of the threat they posed to the entrenched Irish machines and their ethnic beneficiaries.”
Despite its blue-collar cultural heritage, the machine tradition stymies development of a more populist (or, in Erie’s term, “labor”) politics that seeks to unify working- and middle-class constituencies around common economic interests against a government agenda by and for the rich and big business. “The machine has always had this divergence strategy,” argues Illinois Institute of Technology political scientist William Grimshaw, author of a forthcoming book on blacks and the machine. “They had patronage favors for the poor and policy favors for the rich,” which is one reason why the otherwise Republican business establishment was relatively happy with Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Among insiders, Democratic politics remains divided mainly over personality and ethnicity, not ideology. The old patronage days are gone, replaced by “media-money politics,” which Mayor Richard M. Daley has cultivated as well as his father worked the old machine party formulas. Yet the new media-money politics makes Democratic candidates even more obliged to rich benefactors, tempering any populist temptations, and independent of parties and their active participants.
Hartigan has developed his own “divergence” strategy: his principal antitax message is aimed at the conservative whites who have recently left the Democratic fold. Meanwhile the candidate has rushed from one liberal constituency to another promising action on issues concerning the environment, women, consumers, education, and more. His general image is conservative, his tailored policy proposals liberal. For example, Hartigan advocates strategies for strengthening home-grown businesses; such measures, employed for several years by other midwestern states, have been ignored by Thompson.
Hartigan’s political challenge is overcoming–or obscuring–what Edgar adviser Jim Andrews calls the inconsistency between “the message and the messenger.” Many liberals who support Hartigan rationalize away his antitax posture, hoping that he will do as Thompson did–promise to hold the line on taxes before the election, suddenly discover they’re needed afterward. Hartigan risks voter cynicism and rebellion if he does go back on his promises, budget crises and inadequate revenue to deliver on promises if he doesn’t.
Hartigan’s plan to cut the budget by 2 percent across the board runs up against many obstacles. First, critical areas of the budget are already underfunded for next year and will need more, not less, money. Second, a recession is developing that will surely undermine his anticipated revenue increases. Third, by the time one excludes various “earmarked funds” (for roads and bonds, for example) and the budget items Hartigan would have great difficulty cutting–education, public aid, interest on debt, and formula redistribution to local governments–there remains only about $4 billion out of a $26 billion budget, including corrections, mental health, children and family services, and other departments already underfunded. Hartigan’s easy, unspecified 2 percent cut then becomes more like a 15 percent cut in these budget areas.
The state needs the money from the income tax surcharge, argues Toni Hartrich, research director for the budget watchdog Civic Federation; she agrees that there is “a lot of fat” and unnecessary layers of management in state government, but she doesn’t believe Hartigan can trim enough to make up for the revenue that will be lost if the surcharge is not extended. “Hartigan says he’ll do it through savings. No way.”
Hartigan’s tax ploy looks cynically crafted, but his adviser William Griffin insists that back when the surcharge was enacted, Hartigan conditioned his support for it on the money going to classrooms, not school bureaucracies, and to property tax relief, not more municipal spending. Since he now judges that neither of those conditions has been met, he is simply being consistent in rejecting the surcharge. Griffin maintains that Hartigan is addressing “the people in the bungalows who don’t see it [government expenditure] coming back to them.”
Yet Hartigan does not seem to have evaluated whether the cities spent their share of the surcharge on useful things they needed. And if the schools haven’t performed, to be consistent he should not only reject the income tax surcharge but also the continued funding he’s promised. In any case, Hartigan is justified in condemning Thompson for letting the state share of education funding slide from 48.4 percent to 38.2 percent–when it should be 50 percent according to law. So why not keep the income tax, make the cuts of waste and fat, and increase the school funding now? In general, even if Hartigan succeeds in his cuts, he’s going to need the surcharge revenue for the worthy projects with which he woos liberals who want to see a more active government.
Hartigan could have devised a strategy, including property tax relief and more progressive state taxation, that addressed the worries of the people in the bungalows who think it isn’t “coming back to them.” But Democrats must also please many people in the bungalows who increasingly believe that anything from government will simply go to blacks in housing projects. Meanwhile many blacks, feeling aggrieved at their long history of neglect by the machine, are becoming less loyal as Democrats. That Neil Hartigan, in 1987 the highest-ranking Democratic official in the state, backed independent candidate Tom Hynes against the Democratic nominee for mayor, Harold Washington, doesn’t exactly inspire feelings of party solidarity. Ironically, Hartigan has sought African-American votes mainly by appealing to party identification.
The biggest problem for the Democrats remains the resistance of party leaders to including blacks in an equitable fashion. As historian Erie argues, this is a long-standing problem for Irish machine politicians, one that will become increasingly stark if Daley, Madigan, Hartigan, Hynes, Phelan, Sheahan, and their compatriots hold the reins of power throughout the state.
Over the past four years, since the debacle in which two Lyndon LaRouche disciples won in a Democratic primary, the state party has been strengthened considerably as a technical instrument for winning elections. Recently the incorporation of progressive black aldermen Danny Davis for Cook County Board and Bobby Rush as a vice-chair of the party indicate some flexibility on both racial and ideological fronts. But at this point it’s too little, too late as far as many blacks are concerned–and to support their argument they need look no further than the recent fiasco in which Democrats tried to suppress the Harold Washington Party–a disastrously undemocratic move in the great machine tradition.
Ironically, the Washington Party shares little of the urban populism that its namesake preached. It appeals only to African Americans and almost exclusively in terms of disrespect and resentment over exclusion from the spoils of power. Washington himself depended on coalition building as much as black mobilization and upended the machine tradition by appealing to the majority of Chicagoans on the basis of policy, not patronage. Washington also refused to accept the limits on local politics imposed by Reagan’s policies, organizing big city mayors to resist with a new urban political agenda. But the opening he made for a progressive populism has vanished–ignored by blacks acting in his name and by the resurgent machine Irish now practicing more conventional money-media politics. The remnants of the Washington coalition–Rush, Davis, David Orr–have largely been absorbed into the liberal eddies that swirl beside the Democratic mainstream; they do not unduly compromise their own principles, nor do they have very much effect on the wielders of power.
Like their counterparts to the right of the Republican mainstream, many liberal Democrats ultimately argue that though they dislike Hartigan’s message (and may even distrust him), there is one strong reason to vote for him: the remap, to preserve Democratic Party strength.
But some liberals and blacks, remembering the 1980 Democratic- controlled redistricting, think that minorities may actually gain more seats with a Republican remap. Republicans have a stake in concentrating minorities, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, in districts where they won’t help marginal white Democrats and where Republicans can ignore them. Establishment Democrats typically want to preserve the more vulnerable seats of their white colleagues on the fringes of the city by gerrymandering black or Hispanic voters into their districts. Judiciously creating small but secure majorities can maximize the overall number of Democrats, but that’s not the same as maximizing the number of liberals or progressives; many of the Democrats on the outskirts of the city are fairly conservative. If the party really wanted to, it could also maximize Democratic seats while increasing black representation, but there is reason to doubt that Hartigan, Madigan, and friends intend to do that.
When all is weighed in the balance, is there any point voting in order to strengthen the power of parties or officeholders that seem to stand for so little?
To answer that question, lobbyist Julie Hamos compared Democratic and Republican votes on several controversial bills introduced in the General Assembly during the past decade. This legislation included the affordable housing trust fund for low-income housing; guaranteed unpaid family leave for care of newborn children or sick family members; the first public aid increase in five years; 90 days’ advance notice of plant closings; and community right-to-know about hazardous wastes generated by businesses. In most cases, Democrats in both houses typically supported the legislation by more than 90 percent margins, and Republicans opposed them by more than 90 percent. (On abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, the difference was much smaller.)
Likewise, IPAC’s scorecard on the Illinois congressional delegation had Democrats like Dixon and Congressman William Lipinski dipping as low as a 50 percent rating (there were six who rated 100 percent for last session), but the highest-rated Republican, Lynn Martin, scored only 20 percent.
Voila! There is a difference, if you look hard enough.
But in terms of real leadership, giving clear choices about the direction of the state and of the parties, the verdict is less cheering. “There’s no sense we might be embarking on a new era,” laments Roberta Lynch, public policy director for AFSCME, the public employee union that endorsed nobody for governor. “Neither candidate is equipped to do the creative things that need to be done.”
“The parties have become bankrupt of the will to induce change,” agrees liberal Republican James Nowlan, the Knox College professor of public policy who served in Thompson’s administration and later challenged him for governor as an independent. “As a result we see a more intense feeling among the public that the parties not only stand for nothing but have lost the capacity to do anything.”
If Edgar loses, Nowlan observes, “the conservatives will use it in support of their case that the party has to become militantly antitax.” On the other hand, Lynch says, “It could be very bad for the Democratic Party nationally if Hartigan wins. It might be interpreted to mean that Democrats should move rightward, be more Reagan than Reagan.”
Edgar may have taken the responsible position on taxes, but except for a few interesting ideas about schools, he has largely failed to project a clear sense of what he wants to do with government. Also, he doesn’t seem to have brought much of his party with him. His brand of moderate Republicanism may have the greatest potential for capturing statewide majorities, but large blocs of his party, kept under wraps by Thompson, now seem anxious to flaunt their conservatism, even if the national and state political moods seem to be shifting away from their brand of Reagan Republicanism.
The seeds of a new populist Democratic resurgence may be floating through the air somewhere, but if they land in Illinois, the machine-tilled political soil is still not very hospitable. Despite his advocacy of worthy initiatives and an attempt to identify with liberal elements of his party, the fundamental political message of Hartigan’s campaign is antigovernment, and that will make it difficult for him to do the many things he has promised. It is also a message completely ill-suited to capture the popular sense of revulsion at the Republicans’ catering to the rich, highlighted by President Bush’s performance in the federal budget debate. Hartigan has cast himself as a Democratic Bush just when Bush is sinking in popularity.
To the pros, ideology is just one chip among many in the political poker game, but clarity in the beliefs around which parties coalesce and in the differences between parties is important for a well-functioning democracy. When Simon talked about one Republican party being enough, he wasn’t talking only about tactics. The not-so-affluent need a voice, and the historic mission of the Democrats, which lately they have pursued with great reluctance, is to speak out for a vigorous government that acts on their behalf.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.