Bad Government Is a Cultural Defect
The sociology of the Illinois Way
April 1, 1976
An ambitious pre-Prejudices essay that attempts to explain why Illinois . . . well, why Illinois is Illinois. Nothing of what I’ve seen in the intervening 40 years suggests that the basic thesis offered here is not sound, although this version of it could have been refined.
The Willis J. Spaulding mentioned here is described more fully in this piece.
"Each meeting of the city council resolve[s] itself into a side show for the public, the sessions being invariably marked by prolonged and acrimonious debate, discord and unbusinesslike proceedings . . . . "
So ran a common gripe about Springfield's city government—in 1910. The city then was divided into seven wards; two aldermen were elected from each of these wards and sat on a fourteen-member council which, with a separately elected mayor, tended to the people's business. The system prevailed from shortly after the city's founding until 1911, when mounting dissatisfaction led to the abandonment of the aldermanic form of government and its replacement by a new five-man commission.
Lately, pressure has been building to change the form of Springfield city government for the second time this century. In the March 12 Illinois Times, for example, Phyllis Murphy, a member of the Springfield/Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, echoed the views of many disgruntled citizens when she characterized the present commission government as remote, inefficient, unprofessional, and dominated by political hacks. Murphy favors the adoption of some variant of the aldermanic form of government, a system which she believes would help keep city government "out of the hands of ambitious politicians and business people who are motivated by greed," make it possible to establish "a truer merit system for civil servants," replace the politicians now heading the city departments with professional administrators, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, reduce "the remoteness of people from government."
Considering the claims being made for it, it might be instructive to examine the city's experience with the aldermanic form of government prior to the commission reform of 1911. For example: operating on a plan similar to that proposed by adherents of aldermanic governments, city departments (including such offices as city engineer, street and water superintendents, and city attorney) were filled by non-politicians appointed by the mayor and approved by a majority vote of the city council.
How businesslike the system was is debatable. The historical evidence suggests that the old government proved itself efficient only at the padding of public payrolls. The practice was so common, and the tax hikes it caused so steep, that C. J. Giblin, president of the Springfield Business Men's Association, took the unprecedented step of resigning in 1909 as a public protest. Giblin's criticism was shared by backers of the referendum authorizing the switch to the commission form, who damned the aldermanic system for being "unbusinesslike."
The city had a civil service system of sorts, but most city employees were left unprotected from political pressures. Hired by the council majority and responsible to that body, they were frequently held political hostage in fratricidal wars between mayor and council or between factions within the council. Council approval of even the lowliest city job had a price—some new paving work in an alderman's ward perhaps, in return for his vote approving a new street superintendent. A few of the city's seven wards sent capable men to the council, among them Joe Farris and Frank Bode. But the good-government element in the council never had the votes to do more than talk against gang rule.
Even when the council lost a battle to the reformers it usually was able to muster the votes to win the war. Such was the case when John S. Schnepp, riding a reformist tide into the mayor's office in 1909, was able to ram through his appointment of fellow reformer Willis J. Spaulding as water superintendent, only to see his man harassed by an unsympathetic council over hiring, budgets, and contracts. Blocked by a stubborn council, Spaulding was unable to make any progress toward the modernization of the city's outmoded water system until his election as the city's first public property commissioner after adoption of the commission form of government in 1911.
Neither was the aldermanic government immune from pressure from "business people who are motivated by greed." Local businessmen looked to the council for favorable zoning rulings, franchise grants, tax breaks, etc. Many aldermen were happy to oblige them for a price—sometimes a discount or a job for a relative—that most businessmen were only too willing to pay. In fact, the trade in profitable city franchises was so brisk that, as the Illinois State Register once noted, "there was a time in our city when the citizens found it necessary to appear at the city hall with a greased rope" in order to prevent their being given away.
All this is not necessarily an argument in favor of the commission form of government or an argument against the aldermanic; each has advantages. Neither is it a denial of the legitimacy of the complaints of Murphy and those who share her unhappiness with the current system of rule. It is an argument against the assumption that the quality of city government in Springfield is solely—even principally—a function of its structure. Springfield city government under both the aldermanic and the commission forms has been hack-ridden, inefficient, frequently corrupt, a source of revenue and influence for a few of its citizens and a source of embarrassment to the rest.
Bad government is a cultural defect, not a structural one. Since shortly after its founding, Springfield's political life has been dominated by representatives of what sociologist Daniel Elazar has dubbed the "individualistic" political culture, a culture in which politics is seen as more a business than a calling, in which the control of governmental office is an end rather than a means, in which one's obligations are more to party than to ideology, more to people than to causes, more to neighborhood or ethnic group than to the city as a whole. First introduced in this area by nineteenth century emigrés from eastern states like New York and Pennsylvania, this view of the relationship between politics, government, and the public has been reinforced by new waves of immigrants—some from Europe, some from other parts of the U.S. —in which the individualistic political culture predominates. So, in spite of the best efforts of a century by middle class reformers to reduce its influence, the individualistic political culture still dominates the Springfield political scene.
The truth of Pope's couplet—"For forms of government let Fools contest/What e'er is best administer'd is best"—has rarely been better illustrated than by the Springfield example. The notion that changing the form of Springfield city government will change its substance is naive and betrays a view of the city and its people at odds with history. ●