The Advent of Unstate Illinois
Demographics threaten to undo Illinois
Politics is reckoned to be about votes, but politics is really about populations. Over the period of my working life, Illinois politics has been (and is still being) wrenched out of its familiar shape by two population trends—its slow growth compared to other parts of the nation and the shift in populations within the state. I addressed the impact of these shifts more than once; this one appeared on CE’s Politics & Policy page.
Ask its ordinary citizens and many of them might say an Illinois with fewer congressmen in it would be a better Illinois. The state's political pundits, however, have played as bad news the preliminary results of the 1990 U.S. Census, which will cost Illinois one or perhaps two seats in Washington. The house that most of the census stories missed is the Illinois statehouse, where the new census numbers promise to add up to a profound shift in legislative power.
Traditionally, Illinois politics has been defined in terms of its historic regional rivalries. But "downstate vs. Chicago" is a simple conceit that has obscured profound intrastate population shifts over the years as Illinoisans of each generation move to where the jobs are.
Rural Illinois has been bleeding people since the early 20th century and, indeed, the movement of people from its farms and small towns to its cities has been vastly larger than the migration from more foreign shores. Population in only 20 of the state's 102 counties increased since 1980; virtually all of the 82 counties that lost people were rural.
For decades, Illinoisans driven from the countryside by mechanization and consolidation were absorbed by the state's smaller downstate cities, as the children of people who once harvested Illinois' grain (to pick just one example) made their living building the machines that replaced them. East St. Louis, for example, nearly tripled its population in the 20 years after 1890. Springfield's working population so swelled just after the turn of the century that giddy boosters predicted it would someday be the No. 2 city in the state.
More recently, Downstate's blue-collar towns have suffered as massively as Chicago from deindustrialization. (Metropolitan Decatur has shrunk by nearly 11 percent since 1980, according to the preliminary census count, and Peoria by ten percent.) The only downstate cities that grew—and they did so only modestly—were those such as Springfield and Champaign-Urbana, whose economies rely heavily on government spending.
A more remarkable transformation has occurred around Chicago. To no one's surprise, the city appears to be at risk of shrinking to fewer than 3 million people for the first time since the 1920s, despite the influx of foreign-born immigrants. However, its suburbs—outlying Cook County, along with the collar counties of Kane, Will, Lake, DuPage and McHenry—continue their postwar boom. Naperville has nearly doubled in size since 1980, to 82,340.
It's the same kind of boom that transformed so many of downstate's small towns into cities a century ago. (In early September, the Illinois Department of Employment Security predicted the Chicago-area economy will add 400,000 new jobs by 2000; during those same 10 years, the other 96 Illinois counties combined are expected to generate only 166,000 new jobs.) If this trend continues, Aurora may well be Illinois' No. 2 city by 2010, comprising 148,000 people, with Naperville and Arlington Heights joining Rockford and Peoria in the state's top echelon.
The postwar suburban boom altered the state's demographics, but it is only slowly transforming its politics. The General Assembly, for instance, is stuck in 1970, thanks to some creative work by Democratic-controlled legislative mapmakers who gerrymandered legislative district boundaries to preserve the Chicago bloc's voting strength in Springfield.
So substantial is the population tilt toward the collar counties, however, that even a Democrat with a computer will not be able to forestall forever the enfranchisement of Reagan's Illinois in Springfield. For Chicago Democrats to retain a foothold in these new districts, experts calculate, mapmakers will have to extend the boundaries of the new districts far enough into adjacent suburbs to take in as many as 750,000 residents. Such districts are likely to harbor as many Republicans as Democrats, or at the very least enough swing voters to make them risky for regular Democrats.
It is not just the pace of suburbanization that threatens Chicago's traditional political dominance, however, but changes in its character. Through the 1960s, most suburban Chicagoans dwelt in traditional bedroom communities. Physically separate from the city, they wore nonetheless functionally and economically a part of a single urban entity and possessed a political and social consciousness formed (or deformed) by the city. That's still true in many of the city's older, inner ring of suburbs. For instance, Hispanic Cicero differs politically from the Bohemian Cicero only in its accent.
But Aurora or Round Lake are worlds away from Cicero. Their citizens who are not emigrés from out of state might as well be, having been raised not in the big city but in Illinois's small towns and suburbs or its downstate cities. When they move to "Chicago" they settle in ersatz small towns like Carol Stream and thereafter never venture into the city except perhaps to tour the Marshall Field's windows at Christmas.
These "urban villages" have evolved their own diverse economies and political agendas. When Richard M. Daley traveled to Schaumburg last winter to address a group of suburban mayors, it was less like George Bush paying a call on Congress than Sadat going to Jerusalem.
Future general assemblies will almost certainly be more receptive to the interests of the propertied middle class than to those of either the urban poor or the urban elite and what now is described as a collar may come to seem more like a noose.
Happily for the city, suburbanites in the new century may find themselves too preoccupied with their own woes to connive too energetically against Chicago. Precisely because of their growth, the suburbs are no longer the placid places of legend where (as one astute observer put it) it is forever 1962. The traditional enthusiasm for economic growth among our transplanted Main Street Rotarians owes much to the fact that growth heretofore meant factories in cities. There, the stink and noise and crowds were borne conveniently by immigrants or blue-collar ethnics—people who, confused by their misery, voted Democrat.
Today, economic growth is exploding in the Republicans' own safe haven. The congestion, the pollution, the rising taxes that for so long were the especial inheritance of the city dweller are today being borne by the middle class. And the middle class, as you would expect, doesn't like it. Writing recently in Illinois Issues magazine, former Chicago Tribune reporter John Camper took note of what might be called the politics of disappointment in Chicago's suburbs. The "tax revolt," he argued, is in fact merely a vehicle by which residents express inchoate resentments over the suburbs' failure to live up to expectations.
Such disappointments must seem modest, even laughable, to a public-housing resident or a displaced farmer. But just as the Chicago Democrat starts thinking like a Republican when he acquires a suburban lawn to mow, so the Republican in the suburbs starts thinking like a Democrat when his basement floods. As the suburbs come to resemble cities in density and form, they begin to resemble them politically as well.
Illinois legislative politics will never be so simple again. In the meantime, people in the opinion business will need to update the political lexicon. To such familiar terms as "Chicago" and "Downstate," we need to add a new word to describe the behemoth beginning to stir where the corn grows. The "boonies" smacks of derogation and "the burbs" is not specific enough. "DuPage" has already-been harnessed as a verb (as in the "DuPagification" of rural townships) but it makes a clumsy generic noun. "The Collar" perhaps? "The Ring?" Or—given its peculiar and characteristic placelessness—"Unstate Illinois?" ●