Reasons for suburban legislators leading the Illinois Democrats

As American political divides currently sit in the suburbs, the tension between Chicago Democrats and suburban Democrats in Illinois is interesting to consider:

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In adding suburbia to the Democratic base, it turned out, Madigan also created a party that would no longer tolerate his Chicago ward boss style of leadership.

“Suburbanites tend to be less enamored of machine politics,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “Machine politics is about one thing: getting jobs. Suburban voters tend to be more concerned about corruption. They’re a little better off,” and thus don’t need the government jobs political bosses can dole out…

While many suburban representatives had benefited from Madigan’s operation, the ComEd scandal marked the moment that “a limit had been reached,” Mooney said. “They felt that his usefulness was over. The fact that they were from the suburbs allowed them to have some cover. Madigan’s political tentacles are more effective in the city of Chicago or Cook County.”…

Suburbanites haven’t just changed the way politics is conducted within the Democratic Party, they’ve also made certain issues more important to the party. Abortion, for instance. In the 1980s, the Catholic Madigan declared himself “100% pro-life.” In 2019, he supported the Reproductive Health Act, which ensured that abortion will be legal in Illinois if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and declares that a “fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this state.”

The explanations here suggest the changes in suburbs have had significant consequences for politics. As noted above, corruption turns off suburban voters – who often like the idea of more virtuous smaller local government – and there are more pro-choice suburban voters.

I could imagine several other factors involving suburbia that have influenced this change:

  1. The increasing suburban population compared to the population of Chicago. As a proportion of Illinois residents, there are more suburbanites than in the past. This does not necessarily guarantee changes toward what suburbanites want but it could be a factor.
  2. The suburbs have changed in demographic composition. There are now different kinds of suburban residents, including more racial and ethnic minorities and more lower-income residents. The whiter and wealthier suburbs still exist in places but so does more complex suburbia. The suburban voters today are not just more educated whites.
  3. While the comparison above is between Chicago style politics and suburban politics, I wonder how suburbanites view the big city more broadly as compared to the past. Are more suburbanites interested in life in denser communities with more cultural opportunities (even if they are in the suburbs)? How essential is Chicago to the region and state compared to all of the activity – business, cultural, civically – in the suburbs?

Searching for the perfect name for a slate of candidates in local elections

Keeping in mind regulations, non-partisan traditions, and what might appeal to voters, candidates running for local elections in the Chicago area come up with some clever names for their slate:

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A court ruled in 2017 that candidates in Illinois don’t need to be part of a slate to run under the banner of a political party. So Dubiel decided to create a party of which he would be the only member — LZ Thrive…

When the calendar turns to the spring municipal elections, political passions are no longer contained to Republicans and Democrats. In suburb after suburb, you’ll find parties with monikers like People Before Politics, We’re in This Together, You Are the Village’s Heart, the Common Sense Again Party, the United Party for Progress or, most expansive of all, the Party of the Past, Present and Future…

One way to avoid such complications is to change the party’s name for every election, thereby making it a brand-new entity that can control its slate. That has been a routine practice in Bolingbrook, which for more than three decades was run by former Mayor Roger Claar under a variety of party names…

Those included Citizens for Bolingbrook First, the Bolingbrook First Party, Bolingbrook First and, in its most recent iteration following Claar’s 2020 retirement, the First Party for Bolingbrook.

I imagine there is an art to this. What exactly can capture a particular local spirit? Many of the names quoted above emphasize a bright future or emphasize a collective community spirit. There is a sense of optimism or forward momentum. (There could be the occasional anti-growth or preserve the community slate names in there as well – just not quoted above.)

If many of these are in the suburbs, other names might fit with the broad themes of suburbia: Making the Best Suburb for Your Children! Boosting Your Property Values! Keeping Certain Land Uses (and People) Out! Maintaining Our Lead Over Other Nearby Suburbs! And so on.

What if this was possible at the national level? What could Democrats and Republicans come up with every two and/or four years to really emphasize their particular focus in that election? Since each party does reconfigure their platform each election to fit current priorities, perhaps this would make some sense. It could also help eliminate the confusion over long-term shifts where one party used to support something but now it is the other party that pushes it.

Residential segregation – by political party

Residential segregation by race is a large issue and voting patterns in recent elections generally show Democrats winning in cities and close suburbs and Republicans winning in outer suburbs and rural areas. Put these two ideas together and you have residential segregation by political party.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/17/upshot/partisan-segregation-maps.html

As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans are effectively segregated from each other, to varying degrees by place, according to the Harvard researchers Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos. And at least over the past decade, they believe this partisan segregation has been growing more pronounced…

For each individual voter, tied to an address, the researchers looked at their thousand nearest voters, weighting those next door more heavily than those a mile away. Drawn this way, about 25 million voters — urban Democrats especially — live in residential circles where at most only one in 10 encounters is likely to be with someone from the opposite party. Democrats in parts of Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City live this way. So do Republicans in the reddest parts of Birmingham, Ala., and Gillette, Wyo…

These studies together suggest that as places become more politically homogeneous, people there are more likely to conform and to publicly signal their partisanship. Maybe no one says, “I want to move here because of all these Biden yard signs.” But perhaps one neighbor is swayed by the people who put them up, and another neighbor concludes, “This isn’t the place for me.”

Lots of confounding variables to examine across a lot of locales. But, the underlying patterns are fascinating to consider: do geographic communities, even in an era of reduced neighborly contact and participation in local institutions, influence people’s political belief and behavior? With more focus in recent years on how online and social media behavior influences politics, this connection to geography has the opportunity to reinvigorate conversation about the power of local communities.

I would be interested to see how this plays out among local governments of communities with similar traits. Take a suburb closer to a big city that leans Democrat and a suburb further out that leans Republicans. Are the local decisions made that different? Do local elections look different?

Or, how often are there tipping points across communities and neighborhoods where a majority of voters are of one party or another? The patterns now show some stability but these have changed in the past and could change again in the future. What happens when they do change and does the character of the community change?

Abolish townships or worry about turning them blue (or keeping them red)?

Illinois has many taxing bodies and government units. Illinois moved to stop creating new government bodies and DuPage County resolved several years ago to work to reduce the number of government bodies. Townships are a common target; they exist above municipal governments and below counties so are they necessary?

I thought of this recently with the lead-up to the upcoming local elections. On one side, I have seen signs urging voters to “Turn Milton Blue.”

This might be a strategy to boost local turnout and connect to broader political patterns. But, I do not know what these candidates want to do at the township level. What significant changes are needed?

On the other hand, I have seen campaign material for Republican candidates for Milton Township. This material listed all the things that the township does, presumably because of the Republicans there. For a party that at least talks sometimes about limited government, should they argue townships are unnecessary rather than fighting for political seats?

More broadly, how much do these township races benefit the people and communities of Illinois? In a time of budget deficits before COVID-19 plus further issues because of COVID-19, is it more important that one party or another holds the majority of seats in townships?

Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

Gallup CEO criticizes measurement of unemployment in the US

The CEO of Gallup says the current unemployment rate is “a Big Lie” because of how it is calculated:

None of them will tell you this: If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job — if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking over the past four weeks — the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. That’s right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news — currently 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast “falling” unemployment.There’s another reason why the official rate is misleading. Say you’re an out-of-work engineer or healthcare worker or construction worker or retail manager: If you perform a minimum of one hour of work in a week and are paid at least $20 — maybe someone pays you to mow their lawn — you’re not officially counted as unemployed in the much-reported 5.6%. Few Americans know this.

Yet another figure of importance that doesn’t get much press: those working part time but wanting full-time work. If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find — in other words, you are severely underemployed — the government doesn’t count you in the 5.6%. Few Americans know this…

Gallup defines a good job as 30+ hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck. Right now, the U.S. is delivering at a staggeringly low rate of 44%, which is the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population, 18 years and older. We need that to be 50% and a bare minimum of 10 million new, good jobs to replenish America’s middle class.

How an official statistic is measured may seem mundane but it can be quite consequential, as is noted here. What exactly does it take to get a government agency to measure and report data differently?

This critique may make some interesting political bedfellows. Conservatives might jump on this in order to show that the current administration hasn’t made the kind of economic progress they claim. Liberals might also like this because it suggests a lot of Americans still aren’t doing well even as big corporations and Wall Street seem to have profited. Neither political party really wants to take on Wall Street so they might support these numbers so stocks keep moving up.

Can sociologists be the ones who officially define the middle class?

Defining the middle class is a tricky business with lots of potential implications, as one sociologist notes:

“Middle class” has become a meaningless political term covering everyone who is not on food stamps and does not enjoy big capital gains. Like a sociological magician, I can make the middle class grow, shrink or disappear just by the way I choose to define it.

What is clear and incontestable is the growing inequality in this country over the last three decades. In a 180-degree reversal of the pattern in the decades after World War II, the gains of economic growth flow largely to the people at the top.

I like the idea of a sociological magician but this is an important issue: many Americans may claim to be middle class but their life chances, experiences, and tastes can be quite different. Just look at the recent response to possible changes to the 529 college savings programs. A vast group may help political parties make broad appeals yet it doesn’t help in forming policies. (Just to note: those same political parties make bland and broad appeals even as they work harder than ever to microtarget specific groups for donations and votes.)

Given some recent conversations about the relative lack of influence of sociologists, perhaps this is an important area where they can contribute. Class goes much further than income; you would want to think about income, wealth, educational attainment, the neighborhood in which one lives, cultural tastes and consumption patterns, and more. The categories should clearly differentiate groups while remaining flexible enough to account for combinations of factors as well as changes in American society.

Political campaigns combining big data, ground games

Close elections mean both political parties are combining ground games and big data to try to eke out victories:

Workers like Ms. Wellington and Mr. Noble are, in the end, critical to any ground campaign, no matter how sophisticated data collection and targeting models are, said Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”

“The great irony of the modern ground game is it’s this meeting of incredibly modern analytics and data married to very old-fashioned delivery devices,” he said. “It’s people knocking on doors; it’s people making phone calls out of phone banks; but the calculations that are determining which door and which phone are different.”…

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ramped up its commitment, creating the “Bannock Street project,” a multimillion dollar, data-driven effort to persuade, register and turn out voters.

“The easiest way to look at it is our strategy to winning is expanding the voting universe,” said Preston Elliott, Hagan’s campaign manager, in an interview in his Greensboro office. “It’s a little more machineish than just catching a wave and riding momentum.”

Republicans say they are catching up. In Raleigh, campaign workers and volunteers showed off a new smartphone app that helps canvassers target their door knocks. But Republican officials refused to reveal volunteer numbers, paid staff totals, field office locations or a tabulation of voter contacts. Nor would they allow reporters to recount the phone-bank pitch, “the secret sauce,” as they called it.

This is taking new information about voters – something political parties always want – and putting it into real-time (or close) models in order to produce more effective targeted efforts with limited time and efforts before elections.

Two other thoughts:

1. It would be interesting to then see how these new efforts fit with broad appeals politicians make to the public. Does this new kind of information and targeting mean that politicians will spend less time making big claims and instead focus on smaller segments of voters?

2. Americans aren’t always thrilled with the kind of information corporations or tech companies have about them. Are they happy with political parties having more information? Of course, people don’t have to give out this information but this information is going into the hands of political parties who don’t exactly have the highest ratings these days.

Growing American political divide between urban and rural areas

The urban/rural political divide has grown in the last few decades:

As Democrats have come to dominate U.S. cities, it is Republican strength in rural areas that allows the party to hold control of the House and remain competitive in presidential elections…

The U.S. divide wasn’t always this stark. For decades, rural America was part of the Democratic base, and as recently as 1993, just over half of rural Americans were represented by a House Democrat, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Conservative Democrats often represented rural districts, including Ms. Hartzler’s predecessor, Ike Skelton, who held the seat for 34 years before she ousted him in 2010.

That parity eventually gave way to GOP dominance. In 2013, 77% of rural Americans were represented by a House Republican. But in urban areas—which by the government’s definition includes both cities and suburbs—slightly less than half of residents were represented by congressional Republicans, despite the GOP’s 30-seat majority in the House…

In 1992, Bill Clinton won 60% of the Whole Foods counties and 40% of the Cracker Barrel counties, a 20-point difference. That gap that has widened every year since, and in 2012, Mr. Obama won 77% of Whole Foods counties and 29% of Cracker Barrel Counties, a 48-point difference.

And with this divide between cities and rural areas, the suburbs, particularly ones in the middle between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs, are where politicians fight for votes.

The profiles of a suburban county outside Kansas City and a rural county in Missouri suggests that most people make conscious choices about where they want to live. In other words, everyone in America can live wherever they want and they make these choices based on culture and politics. A common illustration for this is the plight of high school and college age adults and fears of  a rural “brain drain“: they can leave their small town for the big city where they see there is more excitement. To some degree, this is true: Americans are a mobile people yet it is a more complicated process than simply selecting a cultural milieu and parking there for the rest of their lives. On one hand, people can make much more finer-grained decisions than on a county by county basis (particularly in denser areas where there are plenty of communities to choose from) and on the other hand people are pushed and pulled by particular places through race and ethnicity, social networks, economic opportunities, and life changes. The article mentions cultural factors quite a bit but says little about race and ethnicity, a long-standing factor in where people live and evidenced today by continued residential segregation.

Just a note: the second author of this piece is Dante Chinni, also the co-author of Our Patchwork Nation. His analysis could be contrasted with sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s recentl book on small-town America.