Red State, Blue State: Among Its Neighbors, Illinois is Alone as a Predominantely Democratic Entity

Feb 1, 2014

In the final weeks of 2013, Illinois was among more than 20 states tripping over each other like eager suitors to woo a new Boeing production plant for its 777x airliner. The aerospace giant had put out word that it was abandoning its Washington state production plans over labor disputes and would consider the presentations of any states that wanted a shot at it. It said it would decide in January 2014 which state would get the estimated 8,500 jobs and other economic windfalls associated with the project.

At this writing, the winner isn’t yet known, but one thing already is clear: It almost certainly won’t be Illinois. 

“Zero, zilch, nada,” aircraft industry analyst Richard Aboulafia told the Associated Press in December, assessing Illinois’ chances of landing the Boeing plant. Though Chicago houses the company’s corporate headquarters, Aboulafia called the suggestion of an Illinois-based production plant the “worst I’ve heard yet, apologies to Illinois.”

Part of it is that Illinois doesn’t have a strong production history with the U.S. aerospace industry. But beyond that specialized issue is a more general one: Illinois today is inarguably the “bluest” state in the Midwest. 

It has among the highest minimum wages in America at $8.25 an hour, with Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn calling for it to go over $10. It has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in America at 7 percent. It has one of America’s most generous workers’ compensation systems.

Perhaps worst of all from Boeing’s perspective is the state’s strong organized-labor culture, the very factor that initially drove the company out of Washington state.

Kent Redfield
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

“Insofar as we are viewed as being a ‘blue’ state and a union state ... we definitely have a [negative] business-climate image,” says Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “That perception becomes reality. That certainly hurts us in terms of attracting companies and jobs.”

Of course, Illinois’ continuing blueness doesn’t necessarily color its ability to attract and keep business and industry in all circumstances. If it did, the state wouldn’t still be one of the most powerful economic engines in the nation, and it still is, with most of that power based in its deep-blue Chicago region. 

But critics point to what have become chronic problems after a decade of almost-complete Democratic control in Springfield: a state budget perpetually out of balance; rising taxes that somehow fail to clear backlogs of unpaid bills; unemployment stuck well above the U.S. average; a staggering public pension crisis that may or may not have finally been addressed by last year’s highly controversial pension reform legislation.

Doug Whitley
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

“Illinois has been a blue state since Bill Clinton,” says Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “The Democrats in Illinois had the perception they could do whatever they wanted to, beat up on business all they wanted to ... and that there would be no economic consequences. For many years, they got away with that.”

Illinois’ blueness is evident in more than just economic issues. On hot-button social and cultural issues, the state has become bluer than ever in the past few years. 

In 2011, as Texas continued to break records in the numbers of executions it carried out, Illinois banned capital punishment. Last year, the state legalized both medical marijuana and same-sex marriage. “Abortion restrictions never even get out of committee,” notes Redfield.

Meanwhile, Illinois held out longer than any other state in continuing its ban on concealed carry of handguns, caving last year only when forced to by a federal court — and then setting up a concealed-carry mechanism that’s likely to be among the more restrictive in the country.

“I came here in ’75, from Seattle, and the last thing I would have thought of was Illinois being a progressive state,” says Redfield. “Now, from the policy standpoint, that list of things is pretty dramatic. Quinn is by far the most progressive governor we’ve had in forever.

“Demographically, we’re a different state than we were 30 years ago. It fits more of a blue-state profile. We’re Massachusetts; we’re California. I think, nationally, people look at it that way.”
 

One of the few things that America’s left and right political flanks agree upon today is the current use of red to denote Republican/conservative politics and blue to denote Democratic/progressive politics. The red-blue system is now used so prevalently in media graphics, pundits’ writing and political activism on both sides that it’s virtually as official as the party names themselves.

The notion of using different colors (or other markers) on a U.S. map to denote the two major parties’ areas of influence has been around, in one form or another, throughout the history of American media and politics. But there was no standard, across-the-board agreement — until relatively recently — on which colors meant what.

Tim Russert
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

 The moment when that changed seems to have been during the 2000 presidential election campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore. To the extent that credit can go to one person, it may go to the late television journalist Tim Russert. According to multiple subsequent media analyses of the issue, Russert was on NBC’s Today show the week before the election, discussing a network electoral map — one that happened to label Republican-leaning states red and Democratic-leaning states blue, as many media maps that year coincidentally were doing.

“So how does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral ‘red’ states, if you will?” asked Russert, coining one colorful phrase and implying the other.

The red-blue concept quickly expanded beyond just an easy way to identify political parties during elections, becoming shorthand for broader demographic and ideological characteristics. RedState.com was founded in 2004 to “capture the pulse of the authentic conservative movement,” according to the site — a movement currently based largely in the South, Southwest and rural middle America. “Blue” came to describe the progressive political cultures of the coastal West, Northeast and in urban centers around the country.

Both labels even got their own stereotype-laden film versions: Blue State, released in 2007, is a romantic comedy about an angry Democratic activist who moves to Canada in response to Bush’s re-election; Red State (2011) is a bloody action-horror flick set in a small rural town.

“For the first time in more than 50 years, one party controls both chambers of the legislature and governors’ office in 37 states — Republicans in 23 states, Democrats in 14,” noted the National Conference of State Legislatures in a major examination last year of ideological polarization among the states. “This stark political divide has significant political and policy consequences in highly charged partisan areas such as health care, labor, social issues, immigration and tax policy.”

In the middle are that minority of states we now call “purple”: neither solidly red nor blue but a mix of both. Electionwise, this is, of course, just a more colorful way of saying “swing state” — something that Illinois once was but today emphatically is not.

It wasn’t always a one-party show here. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the two national parties were becoming more polarized, Illinois remained an island of bipartisan, nonideological stability. Former governors James Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan were often outsiders among their national Republican counterparts for their aversion to culture-war battles and their detente with the opposing party. Ditto with Democrats such as Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Illinois politics on both sides was largely defined by joint practicality — admittedly devolving at times into joint criminality. 

Whitley is a frequent critic of Democratic policies and a supporter of Republicans, but he nonetheless lays part of the blame for the more recent polarization of Illinois politics on the GOP. He maintains that many in the state party have moved right on cultural issues to the point that more pragmatic moderates are being driven out by ideological “litmus tests” — the crucial question being whether the test comes out “red” enough.

“Increasingly, what you have had has been a schism in the Republican Party. What has played out in the national level played out here, too,” Whitley says. “Moderate Republicans began to believe the party was no longer welcoming of them. Just in terms of party I.D., you’ve had a diminishment of the number of people who are willing to identify with the Republican Party.”
 

At the same time, Democrats expanded upon their historic advantages in Chicago, making inroads into the once-solid-red suburbs, largely on the strength of new minority voters, particularly Hispanics. 

According to the U.S. Census, the portion of Illinois’ population defined as “white” has dropped from about 78 percent in 1980 to about 64 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population has exploded, from less than 6 percent to almost 16 percent — with most of that growth occurring in the Chicago suburbs. 

Like most blue states, Illinois has vast regions that are virtually as red as Texas. A red-blue map of Illinois isn’t a purplish combination of the two colors, or even a checkerboard; it’s essentially a sea of red, with a big blue base at Chicago and a few other blue islands: the Metro East area, Rockford, a handful of smaller blue smudges denoting urban or collegiate populations. 

But those blue areas are the ones where population rates have been more stable than those of the rural “red” areas, which have been dramatically losing headcount for years now. Says Whitley: “Ultimately the population centers, particularly Cook County and St. Clair, are sufficient to overwhelm outstate regions.”

That said, the state’s demography still isn’t as “blue” as its politicians, Redfield argues. “The policies are more divided than the public opinion.”

That factor comes back to the national polarization of the two major parties, which have become ideologically estranged from each other, in large part because of gerrymandering on both sides. As has been well-documented nationally in recent years, states where one party has a political advantage have used that during the redistricting process to cut political districts that ensure that party’s ease of re-election — which in turn makes it easier for more stridently ideological candidates to win and keep those seats.

As Whitley puts it: “When the party in power has control of the crayons, they get to draw districts that help their own kind.”

One result has been a U.S. House where the Republican Party still dominates in numbers of members, even though it lost the combined national House vote to the Democrats in 2012. Another result is a solid-blue Illinois legislature skewing significantly left of its generally moderate populace.

An example may be last year’s Illinois victory by gay-rights advocates, after a generation of attempts, to finally get a same-sex marriage bill passed. Though overall public opinion here (as nationally) has clearly been moving toward acceptance on the issue, the legislature got there first, approving same-sex marriage at a time when most polls were still showing less than 50 percent support statewide.

“The gay community is not a political force downstate ... but it is in Chicago,” where the legislature’s ruling Democrats are most responsive, says Redfield. “It’s one of the things that happens ... when you get a party in control of the whole enchilada. You’re more responsive to your [ideological] base, and that creates polarization. Policy ends up being skewed more to the left or the right than what public opinion is.”

Like everything else in today’s red-blue political world, the question of whether that kind of unified ideological thrust is a good thing or a bad thing largely depends upon which side of the color chart you sit. 

“How many people in Illinois are dependent upon government funds, and how many are productive members of society?” asks Whitley, offering one of the more bluntly “red” definitions of a “blue” state like Illinois: “The greater your social welfare system ... the greater the inclination to be blue as opposed to being red.”

Gov. Pat Quinn
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

  Not surprisingly, Quinn offers a very different definition of the blueness of his state. 

  “We’re not Pottersville, and we don’t intend to be Pottersville,” Quinn told The Washington Post in December, referring to the greedy banker-villain in the film It’s a Wonderful Life. “There is a choice between a Bedford Falls that cares about your neighbor and the scorched-earth-don’t-care-about-your-neighbor policy of Mr. Potter.”

Kevin McDermott is a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, February 2014