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Illinois: The Forgotten State

While larger, coastal states capture headlines as the progressive bastions of America, one Midwestern state has been a quiet leader in left-wing politics. Under the tenure of Governor Pritzker, the Land of Lincoln has established a firmly progressive stance and bucked the truism of Middle America being universally conservative.


Middle America is not the opposite of progressivism.

When thinking of progressive states, most people think of coastal ones like California or New York. The view of Middle America is that of conservatism and moderates. But Illinois, smack dab in the center of Middle America, has been paving the way on a wide variety of progressive issues. From criminal justice reform to environmental protections, the Illinois government has been a leader for the creation and passage of progressive policies. Between Illinois’ history of corruption and the dysfunction that defined the state government for most of the 2010s, many progressives had low hopes for Governor Pritzker after his 2018 election. J.B. Pritzker is the 10th richest person in the state of Illinois and had no history of political policy before becoming governor. Yet his tenure has been a bright spot for progressives over the past few years.

In 2019 alone, Gov. Pritzker signed into law several progressive bills that have improved the life of Illinoisians. In his first month in office, Gov. Pritzker signed into law comprehensive gun control laws to try and suppress the illegal gun trade. While Illinois already had progressive gun control laws, this measure helped close the gaps that still allowed the illegal gun trade to flourish. By June of that year, the Illinois state legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act which repealed the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 and protects the “fundamental right to make autonomous decisions about one’s own reproductive health.” This law will protect women’s right to choose as the Supreme Court starts to restrict abortion rights. That same month, the use of private immigration detention centers in Illinois was banned and Gov. Pritzker signed a bill to forbid state and local police from cooperating with ICE.

When Illinois legalized recreational weed in the summer of 2019, it also passed legislation to ensure that social equity would be at the forefront of its marijuana industry. It was the eleventh state to legalize marijuana but had the strongest measures to ensure that the new industry benefited those who were hurt the most by the War on Drugs. The bill did this by including provisions to make sure people hurt through the War on Drugs could access licenses to open dispensaries and investing some of the tax revenue from marijuana sales into marginalized communities. By December 31, Gov. Pritzker had pardoned more than 11,000 people convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. This flurry of activity all occurred within his first year in office.

Illinois became the first state in the nation to abolish cash bail in February 2021. That same criminal justice reform package also ensured pre-trial fairness and more transparency in its jail and prison system. The reforms also included a new process to hold police accountable and make it easier to decertify police who abuse their power. Illinois is no stranger to police brutality and these measures have not prevented further abuse, but they are a step towards holding law enforcement accountable.

Illinois rarely gets the level of coverage states such as New York and California receive. This is largely due to a lack of large news organizations within the state. Its largest newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, was bought by hedge fund Alden Global Capital in May of 2021, and dozens of talented journalists left the organization following the acquisition. With the exception of expansive hedge funds who damage the news industry, the lack of news coverage within Illinois is not the fault of any one person. Regardless, it is a detriment to the progression of the country. Illinois shows what progressivism in the heartland of the country could look like. The “coastal elites vs Middle America” dichotomy was popularized after the 2016 election, but Illinois proves it wrong. Middle America can have strong protections for abortion, comprehensive gun control, sweeping criminal justice reform, and weed legalization. Illinois is not a perfect state and not all of its problems have been fixed, but the current governor and state legislature are making large steps towards creating a more socially equitable state. With improved media coverage and visibility, Illinois has the potential to act as a catalyst for progress in other heartland states.

Anna Hickey is a third-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. They are the Editor-in-Chief for the American Agora.

Image courtesy Pedro Szekely, Creative Commons.

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