The Biggest Barrier to Progressive Change in Illinois is the Democratic Party

The Biggest Barrier to Progressive Change in Illinois is the Democratic Party

The failure of a constitutional amendment to allow a Graduated Income Tax in Illinois is a devastating defeat for the state’s working class. The continuance of a flat income tax — wherein all income is taxed at the same rate — means that the state government is now left with mostly regressive means to plug the state’s budget deficit, and more importantly, no new source of income to increase state spending. As Governor Pritzker warned after the amendment failed, “there will be cuts, and they will be painful.” In addition to cuts, Illinois residents can expect tax increases, whether in the form of a property, sales, or income tax, or some combination, all while seeing a reduction in state services. The Governor correctly posited that the failure of the amendment to pass showed “a significant lack of trust in government in general”; a distrust his administration will be addressing by charging working people more to get less. 

While the proposed amendment to allow a graduated income tax in Illinois, branded as the “Fair Tax” failed handily, Arizona passed a similar referendum, branded as “The Invest in Education Act”, to impose a 3.5% income tax surcharge on those making over $250,000 dollars, winning 52% of the vote. Progressive ballot measures overperformed Biden and Democrats in states like Florida, but in Blue Illinois the opposite was true with Biden easily clenching 55% of the vote in the state to the Fair Tax’s 45%. Why? 

While the impact of an opposition campaign with massive funding by billionaires like Ken Griffin cannot be overstated, the Fair Tax’s vulnerability for defeat can largely be attributed to two deeply connected factors: messaging and messenger. Of course the former is informed by the latter. The amendment was pushed by member organizations of the Responsible Budget Coalition that would later become Vote Yes for Fair Tax (a different entity than the Governor’s “Vote Yes For Fairness” campaign) who helped craft the amendment, but who were then sidelined as the Fair Tax became co-opted by Pritzker as his major legislative push. 

Instead of a campaign focused on explaining what a graduated income tax is, Pritzker and Illinois Democrats focused their campaign around convincing voters that the amendment would mean “fairer” taxation. Whereas a graduated income tax is good or bad for you objectively depending on your income, whether a tax is “fair” or not is entirely subjective. If you’re rich, having your income taxed at a higher rate is not in your material self-interest; if you’re poor, your income being taxed at a lower rate while at the same time public services are expanded very much is. But whether the rich paying more in taxes is really “fair” is not so cut and dry. Isn’t a flat tax more fair because everyone is taxed equally? Rather than trying to show voters that allowing the state a mechanism for taxing income at a graduated rate would be in their class interests, the Vote Yes for Fairness campaign focused on making vague moral appeals. This left the campaign pushing platitudes instead of aspiration or agitation. It also left the campaign making promises that voters didn’t trust them to deliver them on — no new taxes and even tax cuts for residents making less than $250,000 annually. 

A campaign birthed by a billionaire governor necessarily meant that a campaign to “tax the rich” would never be on the table. But even with weak messaging, the biggest nail in the coffin for the amendment was the electorate’s distrust of the Illinois Democratic party, and in particular, party chairman and House speaker Mike Madigan. After all, what reason do voters have to trust a party led by a lawyer whose firm specializes in corporate real estate property tax appeal and who is currently under federal investigation for allegedly accepting bribes from ComEd, the largest electrical utility in Illinois with a monopoly in Chicago? Madigan’s campaign war chest might be well funded by organized labor, but his loyalty is first and foremost to the social force most responsible for his power: capital. That Illinois Democrats mostly shrugged at the ComEd scandal only gave voters more reason to doubt that the same politicians could be trusted with, as the opposition framed it, “a blank check” to tax and spend. The “don’t trust Dems” line was the most successful attack pushed by the opposition because ultimately it was grounded in truth.

Yet even though the Fair Tax was largely associated with Madigan and the Illinois Democratic Party, the party neglected to do much campaigning for the amendment. Many swing-district Democratic candidates running for the state legislature avoided associating themselves with the Fair Tax rather than running on it, according to someone close to the Vote Yes for Fair Tax campaign that I spoke to. The Vote Yes For Fairness campaign also lacked, just as the Democratic Party did across the country, any sort of meaningful field operation. Whether local county parties within the state were pushing the amendment largely depended on their leadership; there was no clear directive or program passed down from the state party to push for the amendment at every level. Despite the popular image of the state party being run entirely from the top-down with Madigan pulling every lever, the campaign showed that at its core the party is rather decentralized, a cluster of fiefdoms acting fairly autonomously rather than one big well oiled machine.

But it’s not just Springfield Democrats that voters distrust. Indeed, voters distrust the Cook County Democratic Party “machine” just as well, even if they still continue to overwhelmingly vote Democratic. It’s this distrust that largely fueled the election of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on being a good government reformer and progressive independent of the party machine. Lightfoot ended up trouncing Cook County Democratic Party chair and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in part due to Preckwinkle’s association with Alderman Ed Burke, who was indicted by the federal government in January 2019 for shaking down a Burger King in his ward for a campaign contribution. In reality, Lightfoot has governed to the right of Preckwinkle, while the Democratic party “machine” of decades past has long rusted, leaving  Preckwinkle lacking the level of boots on the ground support that the party could once muster.

While the retention election for Cook County Judge Michael Toomin is still too close to call, Toomin’s slim margin above the threshold for retention is a contrast to the 52% yes vote that Judge Matthew Coghlan received in 2018 when he became the first county judge to lose retention in 28 years. In both cases the Cook County Democratic Party refused to endorse the judges for retention and campaigned against them. Unlike Coghlan’s retention race though, the narrative that dominated Toomin’s race wasn’t his record of incarcerating children as young as 12 during a pandemic, but that the push to oust Toomin was a “political hitjob” by Preckwinkle’s party machine in retaliation for Toomin appointing a special prosecutor in the Jussie Smollett case. Toomin also benefited from the endorsement of Mayor Lightfoot who campaigned for Toomin with the message that a yes on retaining Toomin was a yes for a “independent judiciary” free from “political” influence. 

Ultimately, the social forces of the bourgeoisie are the biggest opposition to true progress in Illinois, whether that progress takes form through taxing the rich, decarceration, or rent control. But the Democratic Party remains an essential contradiction, as the party is both under the control of and under attack from the capitalist class. The policy that would translate to major material wins for the working class in Illinois are popular. The main vehicle for making that policy a reality though is the Democratic Party, and the party’s brand, while still winning seats, has emerged as a major liability in actually winning change.