“Illinois, you put me in a happy state.” That was the tagline from Illinois tourism ads in the mid-1980s, which were near-ubiquitous in an era when John Hughes was filming Chicago hits like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and, of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. President Ronald Reagan’s birthplace attracted visitors to rural Illinois, and the stark yet hopeful inner city attracted political romantics like one young Barack Hussein Obama.
O’Hare was still the busiest airport in the world, the city had recently elected its first black mayor in Harold Washington, and the Chicago Bulls had placed their hope in a promising young man from North Carolina named Michael Jordan. The lions outside the world-class Art Institute wore Bears helmets, the steel mills were still running, and the worst thing to happen to the state’s agriculture was the droughts of 1983 and 1988.
Fast-forward almost thirty years. A recent Gallup poll shows that 50% of Illinois residents want to leave the state – the highest of any of the 50 states. Connecticut, at 49%, is a close second. What both states have in common is that they each defied the Tea Party wave of 2010, electing union-backed Democrats who promptly raised taxes. (Yes, they are also cold states – but that did not bother Montanans, of which fewest wish to leave.)
That was only the second bad Gallup poll for Illinois in recent days. In another survey, 25% of Illinois residents said their state was the worst place to live in the U.S., again topping the list. And to add to that bad news, Illinois learned that Gov. Pat Quinn was being investigated by federal prosecutors in connection with an anti-violence project funded with unspent federal stimulus funds and allegedly used to fill political patronage jobs.
The state’s previous two governors, Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican George Ryan, were both convicted of federal crimes, so Quinn has a precedent to honor. The real political problems lie in the legislature, where State House Speaker Michael Madigan holds near-absolute power over everything – that is, everything except the bondholders and the ratings agencies, which continue to ring the alarm bells as loudly as they can.
The decline of Illinois did not happen in one election. It took decades – decades of false and unaffordable promises to unions and state employees, decades of complacency about the state’s importance as a transport and manufacturing hub, decades of corruption by politicians in Springfield and Chicago, decades of political poisoning by Saul Alinsky’s acolytes, and decades of academic indoctrination by the likes of Bill Ayers.
Worse yet, the state seems to have exported its political model to Washington, D.C., with Obama’s rise to power. He brought his Chicago cronies with him, none of whom seemed particularly interested in, or even aware of, their home state’s death spiral. In fact, there was the lingering, if softly spoken, belief back home that Obama would find a way to use his power to solve all manner of problems, from deficits to mounting gang violence.
Alas, the disappointment of the Obama presidency has been reflected by sagging hopes in the Land of Lincoln. In California, which often joins Illinois at the bottom of the fiscal and economic charts, the weather at least keeps residents happy. In Wisconsin, they have bitter cold, but happy residents managed to turn the state’s fortunes around by electing a brave, reformist governor who faced up to the public sector unions and won.
There’s not much of that kind of hope in Illinois. Republicans have, belatedly, found a political champion in billionaire Bruce Rauner, but the state’s problems are so staggering that it may be too late to fix them.
And to think, Illinois once actually advertised itself with this jingle: “I like your smiles, they go for miles and miles, you’re a happy state, Illinois. As far as I can see, there’s lots of fun for me, in the happy state, Illinois. Oh Illinois, you put me in a happy state. Oh Illinois, you put me in a happy state. Come on in for a visit, now I’m thinking ’bout living in it. Illinois you put me in a happy state. Oh Illinois, you put me in a happy state.”
Visiting Illinois will still put tourists in a “happy state” – largely because they will be reminded that they live elsewhere. There are still a few things the politicians haven’t managed to ruin – yet. But just give them time.