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Culture Wars: Wisconsin vs. Illinois

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Culture Wars: Wisconsin vs. Illinois
Culture Wars: Wisconsin vs. Illinois

CHICAGO - FEBRUARY 20: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn holds a press conference to call for the resignation of Senator Roland Burris (D-IL) and to voice his support for special elections to be used to fill future vacancies in the U.S. Senate in order to help prevent the controversy surrounding the seat vacated by President Barack Obama February 20, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's named Burris to Obama's senate seat shortly before being impeached and removed from office. Burris is currently accused of lying under oath in an attempt secure the appointment. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the same day Illinois abolished the death penalty, Wisconsin abolished unions. The 90-mile drive from Chicago to Milwaukee is now a trip from the 21st Century to the 19th.

What happened in Wisconsin would never happen in Illinois. Not even with a Republican governor and a Republican legislature. We don’t go in for such radical gestures.

On the other hand, on the same day Wisconsin abolished unions, the former governor of Illinois begged a federal judge to sentence him on a felony conviction of lying to the FBI. That would never happen in Wisconsin. The only politicians in prison there come from Chicago.

So how can two neighboring states have such wildly different political cultures? It’s simple. Wisconsin was settled by revolutionaries. Illinois was settled by people trying to make a buck.

Wisconsin is renowned for its German culture, but it’s important to understand the type of Germans that settled there. The first German settlers were fleeing from the Revolution of 1848, which attempted to establish a republic with free speech, trial by jury and freedom of the press. After it failed, the rebels needed a place to hide. They chose Wisconsin. As a result, Wisconsin became an innovator in progressive reforms: the “Wisconsin Idea” championed public education and workers’ compensation. Wisconsin was the first state with a public radio station, the first state with a presidential primary, and it abolished the death penalty in 1853.

Chicago, on the other hand, was settled by people looking to make a killing in the fur trade, or in real estate. Our very first mayor, William Ogden, arrived here from New York to sell some land that belonged to his brother-in-law. From then, Chicago attracted men who were trying to Make It Big, from Cyrus McCormick to Al Capone. With all that money flowing, the politicians had their hands out, too. “Good government,” a cherished tradition in Wisconsin, was a dirty term in Illinois, because it interrupted the orderly flow of cash between business and politics. Illinois politics was never about advancing ideals. It was about getting jobs and contracts for your friends, family members and campaign contributors.

While Wisconsin’s revolutionary instincts have usually been directed toward progressive reforms, they’ve also advanced conservative causes, if the political winds are blowing in that direction. We saw that with Sen. Joe McCarthy. We’re seeing it again with Gov. Scott Walker. That’s why Madison is in chaos, and Springfield is still a place where the House Speaker’s son-in-law gets a six-figure job as a lobbyist for a state agency.

That would never happen in Wisconsin.

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