No city exemplifies the divide between rural and urban America more than Chicago. The Chicagoland area has some 9.5 million people, more than a quarter of which live in Chicago proper. This makes it the third largest city and third largest metro area in the United States. If Chicagoland was a state, it would be the 11th most populous — between New Jersey and Michigan in population rank. More than half of Illinoisans live in the Chicago area, not to mention the massive suburbs spilling over into Indiana and Wisconsin and, depending on how you count it, even into southwestern Michigan.
This highly concentrated population means that Chicago holds more political influence than any other in the nation. The only cities that are larger are Los Angeles and New York, both of which have other major cities in their states to balance out some of their pull. Not so in Illinois — the Rockford metro area’s 350,000 (and shrinking) population puts it in a distant second place in the Land of Lincoln.
Much of the rest of Illinois is made up of smaller towns and cities as well as rural farming and ranching land. But thanks to Chicago-centric policies enacted, the cost of living in downstate Illinois is much higher than most other rural areas. In addition, like most other rural areas, conservative politics dominate the region, and Chicago’s cultural and political hegemony is something of a sore point for many.
Chicago’s reputation for political corruption, while well-deserved, makes it an easy target for Republicans both inside and outside of the state. It is often painted as a dystopic wasteland, with gangs roaming the streets and politicians behaving like mafiosi, shaking down businesses and citizens and snuffing out opponents.
While the characterization may sound extreme, it is actually not terribly far from the truth. More governors than not have gone to jail over the last 50 years for corruption related charges, and the Chicago Police Department is essentially just another street gang known for shooting first and asking questions later. And speaking of street gangs, Chicago’s gang problem is unrivaled by any other American city.
Chicago’s answer for the most part has been the typical Democrat one — try to legislate the problem out of existence while at the same time disbanding enforcement — Mayor Rahm Emanuel disbanded the anti-gang task force in 2012. The city also has some of the strictest gun and drug laws in the nation, which has led to one of the biggest black markets in the world for both — among other things.
It isn’t just potentially dangerous items like drugs and firearms that were heavily regulated in Chicago either. Licenses were required for virtually any type of business activity — from sales to services — essentially locking out entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford the ever-rising business costs. Larger corporations or those with friends in government were able to get around the rules, however, and costs were passed on to consumers by de facto oligopolies and monopolies. Items like alcohol and cigarettes have massive sin taxes as well, and the cost of goods and services are higher here than in most other cities.
Under Emanuel, much of this has changed. Upon taking office, his primary goal was to bolster economic growth by removing barriers for entry into the market. As a result, Chicago’s economy has become one of the healthiest and most diverse in the nation — if not the world. Jobs poured in and incomes went up, and the costs of basic goods like groceries went down. But the unemployment rate has yet to catch up, at 6 percent it’s among the highest in the nation for large cities.
It’s this relatively high unemployment rate that has continued to feed into the city’s continuing crime problem, and the notoriously corrupt police department doesn’t help. Here, they tend not to enforce the laws, but rather to shake down criminals for bribe money and focusing their energies on harassing black citizens, even killing kids without any justification.
Until Chicago can get a handle on the corruption issue which permeates everything from the highest offices all the way down to beat cops, the city will continue to serve as an example for the right of what happens when Democrats have uninterrupted and unchallenged power for too long. While the same could be said for conservative leaning areas, like Houston’s city government or North Carolina’s leaders, the fact is that nobody challenges the idea that Chicago is a cesspool of corruption that has done little to correct that. The fact that President Obama made it his political starting point is at the root of much of the backlash to the political system that led to President Trump’s victory.