As presidential candidates roll through Illinois for the March 15 package of primaries, what they see, or choose to see, will hopefully reveal to them and our nation’s voters what a future under Republican rule would hold.
Presidential candidates typically spell out the futures their proposed policies promise to unfold; but when it comes to contemporary Republican policies, which are remarkably unified and consistent at state and national levels, we don’t need a crystal ball to foretell the dystopian world ahead. We need only look at current conditions of states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Kansas to see the scorched earth that their governors have inflicted on taxpaying citizens through policies which provide tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, undermine the rights of working people, devastate public education at all levels, and overall erode the public sphere and services state agencies provide to serve the public good and help create a healthy quality of life and economy. Keep in mind, too, that the services of this public sphere, including the education of our children, are not hand-outs or unpaid-for “entitlements,” as so often represented, but paid for by taxes ordinary citizens pay.
I use the phrase “contemporary Republican policies” because in assessing the world Republican policies promise to establish, it helps to recognize the way the meaning of “republican” has changed. Certainly it is laughable when Republicans, given their racist attitudes informing immigration policy and their never-ending quest to suppress the African-American vote, declare themselves the party of Lincoln. And certainly, the modern GOP bears little resemblance to the politics of Eisenhower, who saw labor unions as a vital and necessary component of social and economic democracy and who warned us of the dangers of the infamous “military industrial complex.” Ronald Reagan’s notorious efforts to bust unions as well as his costly commitment to the arms race indicate the GOP’s departure from Eisenhower’s version of republicanism. But the contemporary GOP even bears little resemblance to that of the iconic Reagan and the first George Bush, who raised taxes to deal with the deficits they had created through earlier tax cuts and increased spending.
Policies of the current GOP indicate little to no care for the public good and complete disregard for citizens’ welfare. The modern incarnation of Republican politics, boiled down to its core, is simply about accelerating the massive re-distribution of wealth that has been underway for decades, regardless of the consequences for the welfare of the nation’s citizen and even though that agenda isn’t even necessarily pro-business. In Illinois, as I’ve reported, while Rauner’s policies serve the wealthy, they do not create a fertile business environment.
Indeed, Bloomburg columnist Al Hunt, in reflecting on GOP politics in the context of Nancy Reagan’s recent death, suggested both Nancy and Ronald Reagan would have a hard time recognizing and supporting today’s Republican party.
Take Rauner’s stewardship in Illinois, for example. The state is hemorrhaging. Travis Brown reported in Forbes last January that, “While lawmakers squabble, Illinois loses $4,422 in net adjusted gross income every single minute – and between 1992 and 2014 (the most recent year for which IRS taxpayer data is available), Illinois lost a staggering $41.86 billion in net adjusted gross income.”
This loss of revenue, according to Brown, who is working with IRS data, is attributable to the mass exodus of Illinois citizens to other states. Brown attributes a substantial amount of this flight to “Illinois’ burdensome tax structure and economic volatility,” highlighting the uncertainty resulting from its $111 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and “corporate tax rates that rank among some of the nation’s highest.”
Brown’s specious narrative forwards the same illogic informing Republican policy insistent on more tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and on ignoring the lives of working and taxpaying individuals and their families and the overall social health and quality of life in the state. First, it is absolutely false to claim that Illinois has a burdensome tax structure, corporate or otherwise. Two-thirds of Illinois corporations pay no state income tax, and the tax structure for individuals is far less burdensome than in surrounding states such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri. If the state even had the tax structure existing in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Illinois would take in over eight billion dollars more in revenue and not have a crisis.
Thus, the flight cannot realistically be attributed to taxes. Brown himself quotes David Yepsen of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University who notes that while “businesses don’t like taxes, they hate uncertainty.” Rauner’s refusal to implement a budget nine months into the fiscal year, leaving public education in funding crisis and threatening the very existence of state higher education system, has generated this very uncertainty that, as I’ve reported, is driving businesses away.
More importantly, though, Rauner’s cutting of social services and defunding of public education in addition to his overall austerity measures, which are coupled with a refusal to raise taxes despite the state’s incredibly regressive tax structure, fuel flight from the state. Because of the lack of funding that is a consequence of his failure to implement a budget, workers are being laid off all over the state or taking substantial pay cuts. As one faculty member at a state university said regarding a recent furlough announcement, “We’re going to start looking for an out. Looking for another job, moving out of the state.” Students at state universities cannot even be assured of graduating or having a school to attend.
These are the conditions that account for flight–and for decreased tax revenues. We can see in Sam Brownback’s Kansas, where the school year was shortened due to revenue shortfalls attributable to his massive corporate tax cuts, that these Republican fiscal and tax policies are not benefiting the economic health of these states or creating a higher quality of life. Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court. Bobby Jindal wreaked similar havoc in Louisiana, granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations, now leaving the state in economic chaos and facing massive cuts to education and basic social services.
In Illinois, former Republican governor Jim Edgar, who campaigned for Rauner, has now expressed buyer’s remorse and been roundly critical of Rauner’s holding the state hostage until he gets the union-busting, anti-working-class legislation he wants passed by the legislature. Edgar has indicted his venture capitalist mentality in trying to run the state like one of his businesses: “He does not come from government. He doesn’t even really come from mainstream business. He comes from (being an) entrepreneur where you buy a business, you tear it apart and you sell it. … I don’t think you’re going to tear apart the state and sell it. He might want to, but you can’t do that.”
Clearly, effective governing and public policy must address the health and quality of living conditions for the working people of any state to ensure and foster the health of the state’s local economy and to attract citizens.
What is also clear is that the contemporary GOP has given up on governing and instead dedicated itself to the rapacious agenda of more aggressively continuing the re-distribution of wealth to the top at the expense of working and taxpaying citizens.
Hopefully, the primary tour through state’s like Illinois will shine the light brightly on the exactly what these GOP practices and policies hold for the future.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.