Imagining revolutions

Does the French Revolution hold lessons for Citizen Rauner?

PHOTO BY Anthony Souffle/TNS
PHOTO BY Anthony Souffle/TNS

Drowsy after a heavy holiday meal, I settled in to finish Stefan Zweig’s classic 1934 biography of Marie Antoinette. As I drifted in and out of sleep, the Versailles in Zweig’s account of the final days of Louis XVI and his queen faded and was replaced in my imagination with the people’s Versailles at Second and Monroe, which shares with the palace outside Paris the same elaborate etiquette, the same sycophancy, the same ambitious courtiers – and the same resentful crowds outside the gates, yearning to pull it down.

One of them, of course, is Bruce Rauner, who famously, bought himself a governorship so he could bring down from the inside a regime that is complacent, corrupt and sclerotic. He did not come to Springfield to head a government, but to foment an insurrection. When Rauner looks at the unionized public sector workers and their politician-protectors, he sees the privileged clergy and the aristocracy of old France. The government that served them was tottering under the weight of debt left by decades of foolish extravagance, and the petit bourgeoisie was up in arms about paying the taxes needed to retire it. The only interesting question was, who would push it over, and in what direction?

As in 1770s France, Illinois is split between liberals who would reform a bad system by altering the basic contract between public workers and government, and those who distrusted reform because it might drain the energy from the fight they really want, which is to alter the basic contract between citizen and government. Rauner is usually characterized by the press as merely an unconventional politician, but I suspect he prefers to think of himself as a revolutionary of sorts, like the many French aristocrats who demanded liberty in the name of The People. He is devoted not to a career but a cause; if by winning the revolution he loses the office, he will be satisfied.

Indifferent to constitutional order or to bureaucratic necessities, he is willing to use any tactic that advances his aims. These include conventional politics when it is convenient, but when it isn’t, he is perfectly willing to resort to extra-political measures. What is withholding funds for crippled children but a low-grade form of terrorism, in which violence is visited upon the innocents in order to excite a frightened populace to accept political change that would have been unthinkable had not the State of Illinois been reduced to crisis? What is his threat to withhold state financial help from Chicago’s public schools if Mr. Emanuel doesn’t help pass his anti-union legislation but extortion? What was his attempt to rouse local governments to his agenda but a rewording of Pierre-Joseph Cambon, who urged, “To reject with more efficacy the defenders of despotism, we have to . . .  convert the people to the cause.” Rauner has even drawn up his own list of opponents of the Revolution and doomed them to the guillotine next fall.

I began to wonder whether the revolutionary generation portrayed by Zweig has other counterparts at the Statehouse. If Rauner embodies the ambitions of the Commune, Mr. Madigan is a Girondist to his core. That faction stood for the politics of the legislative chamber; Rauner will take comfort in the fact that the Girondists were defeated by the politicians of the streets, who roused the ignorant against them with half-truths and executed them en masse during the Reign of Terror, which, if things work out Rauner’s way, will happen again on Election Day, 2016.

Temperamentally, Rauner the corporate predator reminds me of the Comte de Mirabeau, deputy to the National Assembly from Aix-en-Provence. “The other members of the National Assembly,” Zweig reminds us, “worthy and well-meaning intellectuals, shrewd lawyers, convinced democrats, thought in idealistic terms of order and reorganization.” Mirabeau in contrast was better fitted than they to guide the Revolution, “being the very spirit of revolt, the human embodiment of the will to liberty, insubordination, and anarchy.”

But temperament is not a program. The French Revolution was a profound reordering of society from top to bottom, but the new Illinois imagined by Rauner the governor utterly lacks that kind of boldness. Rauner seems more likely to end up as our Jacques Necker, France’s director general of finance in the late 1770s, who aimed to restore the finances of the state but ended up proposing only puny efficiencies of the sort contained among the recent recommendations of Rauner’s consolidation task force.  

After a while, I put down my book. The only clear lesson I took from it is that nothing in the past is precisely like the present, and that Mr. Rauner, like his very distant ancestors in 18th century France, will have to make up his revolution as he goes along. It is easier to imagine revolutions than to achieve them, as I suspect that Mr. Rauner is beginning to realize.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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