Winning elections in downstate illinois: unsolicited advice for economic progressives

Surprised by Trump’s election in 2016, pollsters have had to do some soul-searching. How could their statistical models have missed so many Trump voters? Polling organizations and pundits failed to see Trump’s populist base: the disaffected, white working class.

The narrative goes like this. These Americans felt left behind by globalization and neglected by national political elites. Where jobs are not fleeing across the border, wages were stagnant. Though wages don’t improve, financial networks like CNBC celebrate the S&P or Dow’s record-breaking highs with bells and whistles.

For the downstate Illinois voter, the economy on TV does not look like life in Charleston with its scenes of boarded up storefronts and abandoned theaters. Just as cable news  seems detached from the lived experience of small town Illinois, downstate voters grow skeptical of the wealthy political establishments in Washington and Chicago.

Wikipedia picture for Charleston. Note the brutal honesty in the visual depiction: the abandoned Will Rogers theater and boarded businesses. Photo: jrmyers – CC BY-SA 3.

Income inequality in places like Charleston can spike to levels on par with developing economies like Brazil, a country notorious for its gated communities separating the poor from the wealthy. Clearly there should be a broad public sentiment that would take to a message of income equality.

But how can progressives sell policies that address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in political territory Trump won handily? Republicans are suspicious of so-called class warfare and easily dismiss economic agendas that would put more money in their pocket. We find, for example, more support for repealing the Estate Tax than plans to alleviate the burden of student loans, an agenda much more likely to improve the economic standing of those living.

Republican, conservative orthodoxy has a grip on the region, and knee-jerk rejection of the Democratic brand means a Democratic candidacy is all but doomed. (The Dem candidate won around 33% of the general vote in 2014). This political situation requires a candidate run as a Republican. At once, candidate X must show how arresting the growth of wealth inequality fits into the conservative traditions: equality of opportunity, individual liberty and economic growth. Since the Republican Party has a lock on downstate voters, any pro-public economic reforms need to be clearly argued from Midwestern values and spoken in a language Republicans can relate to.

Charleston is in Illinois’s Assembly District 110. Economic data show a median household income of under $30,000. Graphs of income distribution in 110th district have a significant “bulge” in the lower incomes. This means the district has a greater number of low income residents relative to the rest of Illinois.

Data also shows how many unwed mothers a candidate would represent. A candidate could emphasize a pro-children agenda. In addition to the generic appeal of a call to support mothers, candidate X could seek to expand daycare options with subsidies that can free unwed mothers to pursue degrees or careers.

Charleston median income 2017
Source: statistical atlas

If we look closely at the data, the presence of a university partly explains Charleston’s high wealth gap. Students earn little, pushing down on average incomes. Champaign, home to the University of Illinois, also has high wealth inequality (mid to low 50s).

Still, incomes are disproportionately low. As a result, this kind of unending rural recession will fail to attract new business development. And this is the beginning of a longer list of ills afflicting small towns like Charleston.

  • The Illinois fiscal crisis and partisan polarization in the House and Governor’s office has triggered furloughs among university staff.
  • Budget impasses prevent a predictable pay schedule for local contractors employed by the university.
  • Students who rely on the state funding often have their entrance to school subsidized by state schools when bipartisanism fails in the statehouse. This pushes institutions of higher education further into debt  to honor their educational mission.
  • Public services are also threatened by dysfunctional state politics as budget deadlines pass without appropriating funds for essential services.

The sum total of these tribulations is a municipal economy that ends up lurching from one emergency appropriation to another with little stability for long-term financial planning and investment.

So, a progressive economic message may have some appeal in places like Charleston, but selling this idea requires understanding the values of rural America, i.e. Trump country. And yet I can’t help thinking about what it would take to address income inequality in a deeply red district.

Core message/audience?

What can the campaign emphasize? Pro-business and pro-EIU (higher education) funding.

“If EIU thrives, so do we.”

A candidate who is business-friendly but also recognizes that the economic base of the region is EIU can argue for both greater support for higher education. EIU relies on the funding of public education. Therefore, you are “business growth through public funding.” Being pro-consumer is being pro-business.

The economic base is consumption. That means we need expendable income. So, how is the average consumer doing in the District? It does not look good. Average household income in Coles County, for example, is lousy. Median is 37,040/yr. And this is low compared to surrounding counties (also in the 110th district). Charleston is just a particularly bleak part of the county.

The more elaborate argument for this is simple economics. State funds for the university (as well as student aid programs like MAP) make stronger consumers. Greater consumption is good for current business and future business development which, in turn, funds public projects. A smart Republican can combine a pro-business platform with the ‘compassionate conservative’ respect for public programs (like DCFS and public higher education).

Now, I’m not naive. I recognize that Republicans dominate as a political brand in East Central Illinois. Since Democrats don’t have much of an operation, there might be a place for a moderate Republican to capture what would be Democratic voters (and hope they vote in Republican primaries).

The key fight is in the primary. Jockeying for position might push the campaign to focus on conservative planks. Taxes, guns, and economic growth, I imagine. The trick is selling public funding of EIU to help boost salaries and business development. Maybe even shifting the state tax burden more to Chicago-level incomes.


Stump speech excerpt:

“Look at our median income. It is unacceptably low. Why does Charleston pay for Chicago’s prosperity? We need policies that support downstate businesses, downstate communities, downstate mothers and the educational opportunities for the next generation to thrive.”

An inconvenient truth for a Republican: the Gini coefficient

Data can point a campaign in the right direction, but it is not always good for partisan politics. Republicans may not like the issue, but I believe the pressing political problem in Charleston and the surrounding regions is income inequality.

Basic data shows Charleston has one of the worst wealth gaps in the state and, perhaps, nation. The poor are very poor and the rich are very rich.

The problem with this kind of chasm between economic groups is about more than the loss of social cohesion and problems of poverty in general. There is an economic reason to fear weakening consumer power. Middle class shrinkage pulls money from the economy by cinching the belt on those who spend the most.

The economics term for the divide between rich and poor is the Gini coefficient. To offer some perspective, Mexico is at 47. Brazil, the highest concentration of wealth, is at 61. Charleston is at 54. Some economists argue that revolution is probable at around 60 or higher. These are key data points that can rebrand a Republican as both pro-business and concerned about sustainable economic growth.

Stump speech excerpt:

“Charleston should not rank with Third World economies when it comes to the welfare of our people. Policies that empower our middle class will increase our paychecks and drive growth from the bottom up. Illinois citizens deserve better than Third World economics from Chicago.”

I believe there is a place for moderate Republicans in Illinois. Too often, Republicans sell corporate tax cuts as “relief” for the middle class. But we can no longer endure politicians who sell the myth of a classless society and ignore the ills of the growing wealth gap: a tearing of the American social fabric and continued political polarization.

Rural Americans are entitled to feel cheated by a system that has been oversold by rhetorics of free trade, deregulation and competition. A clear message about good paychecks to those who spur production is crucial. Progressive policies put more money in the hands of those who buy then spur production. That creates jobs. A clear and direct appeal to economic security.

Regardless, the current trajectory is not sustainable for places like Charleston. The middle class floats on a bloated raft of credit card debt while the poor slide deeper into deprivation. The need for change in these communities is clear. Gracefully, framing issues of wealth inequality, a bold candidate can lead on these issues and make Republicans a pro-middle class party.

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