It’s Springfield’s fault

Does geographic isolation explain why Statehouse politics are corrupt?

It’s Springfield’s fault
Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich
A few weeks ago the nation was briefly distracted from the work of buying, stealing and subverting this year’s elections by the release of a report from researchers at the Kennedy School of Government. “Isolated Capital Cities, Accountability and Corruption: Evidence From U.S. States” by political economists Filipe R. Campante and Quoc-Anh Do offered an interesting new analysis of political corruption at the state level. They sought to test this proposition: “Having a capital city that is geographically isolated from the main centers of population is conducive to higher corruption, as the distance would lead to less accountability.”

Measured by the sparsity of population around them, the authors found Springfield to be one of the two most geographically isolated capitals in the U.S., along with Pierre, S.D. Why mere distance from other towns might lead to less accountability is left unexplained, since Campante and Do only point to city size as an issue. “Big cities have big newspapers, big civic associations, and big blocs of newspaper-reading, civic-minded voters,” they explain. “State capitals, by contrast, are usually located outside the major metropolitan centers of the state in smaller cities with small-city newspapers, few (and weak) civic associations, and relatively few attentive citizens with high and vocal standards of public morality.”

Thus are Derrick Smith and Rod Blagojevich explained – it’s Springfield’s fault.  

Now I don’t want you to think that I think that this analysis is nonsense. I want you to know that I think it is nonsense, and not only because most of the crimes committed by state lawmakers are committed in the Chicago area by representatives from the Chicago area. Yes, big cities have big blocs of newspaper-reading, civic-minded voters. Are those blocs bigger in proportion to the total population than those in smaller cities? That is not explained. The authors used campaign contributions given to state-level politicians as a proxy for corruption, and found that such contributions, compared to Springfield’s population, are higher than any other capital city. Surely the relevant standard is to compare campaign contributions to state-level politicians to the population of the state, not its capital. As for media coverage, sessions are covered by more than Springfield papers, and in any event the assumption that citizens still get their political news from newspapers is quaint. I’m surprised they didn’t bring up how hard it is for the stageoaches to reach Springfield every spring when the creeks rise.

Few readers will be surprised that academics looking at it from an ivory tower 1,200 miles away in Cambridge don’t have a very good view of Springfield. They might be surprised to learn that the view from Chicago’s Tribune Tower is lousy too. “In the 19th century when capital cities were chosen, many states picked central locations that were removed from the main economic centers,” explained the Trib in an editorial. “The idea was to insulate state governments from urban areas dominated by money and the power. In doing so, however, some states created capitals where corruption could fester undetected.”

This is bad history as it pertains to Illinois; when Springfield was chosen the capital, Illinois had no urban areas. The state’s rural areas later were able to insulate themselves very well indeed from Chicago, not because of where Springfield was located but because of where gerrymandered legislative districts were located.

Springfield is a corrupt state capital not because it is isolated but because it is the state capital of a corrupt state. The invisible hand that guides a society’s fate is not the market but culture. The state’s political culture was conclusively analyzed by the late political scientist Daniel Elazar. His 1970 book, Cities of the Prairie, identified the dominant strain in Illinois’ political culture as the individualistic tradition imported from our Southern cousins and perpetuated by subsequent migrants from peasant cultures who have found that tradition congenial.

The individualistic culture sees the democratic order as just another marketplace that can be exploited by individuals and groups to improve themselves socially and economically. As a result, wrote Elazar, “Politics in Illinois came early to be centered on personal influence, patronage, distribution of federal and later state benefits and the availability of economic gain of those who were professionally committed to politics as their ‘business.’”  

The result is that corruption is vastly more widespread than law-breaking, and vastly more important, and there is nothing undetected about it in Illinois. Everyone knows what’s going on, indeed important sectors of the Springfield economy are devoted to making it go on. Patronage and sweetheart deals for insiders and influence peddling and buying access – all legal as practiced by the wily pros. As for the citizens, they, acting through their associations and unions and paid advocates, are among the most eager corrupters if that means, as Elazar put it, they might improve themselves socially and economically.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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