Why has Illinois always been so corrupt? In a word: adaptability.

Even in the era of Jack Abramoff and Ted Stevens, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged crimes--selling the president-elect’s Senate seat, trying to force the firing of Chicago Tribune staff--seemed over the top. Yet, as we’ve been reminded over the last week, Blagojevich is hardly an outlier in Illinois politics. Since 1971, according to University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson, at least 1,000 state and local politicians or businessmen have been convicted of political corruption charges, including 30 Chicago aldermen, as have two of the last four governors (with Blagojevich poised to make it three out of five).

What is it about Illinois that has led to such a dismal record?

The simple answer is that the state’s political machines--both Democratic and Republican--have become so adaptable and have so deeply influenced the state and local political culture that reformers, despite periodic victories, just don’t have a shot. Political machines typically maintain power by distributing patronage and personalized benefits and by building coalitions of ethnic groups that share, at least symbolically, the political pie. They encourage everyone to adopt the motto--suggested by the late journalist Mike Royko in Boss, his book on Mayor Richard J. Daley—“Ubi Est Mea?” or “Where’s Mine?” And it’s not hard to see how this attitude can tip over into illegality, especially when crime figures as well as mainstream businesses are eager to gain advantage.

Corruption has plagued Illinois politics since 1869, when three county commissioners, arguably the first convicted local politicians, accepted money for painting a public building, but only gave the structure a cheap whitewash. And since 1871 political machines have persisted in the state, despite vanishing in most other parts of the country, in no small part because they sacrifice ideology to the pursuit of money and power. Chicago’s Democratic machine is the most famous and influential--but Republican machines thrived in Chicago before the 1930s, and they still do in its suburbs, like working-class Cicero and affluent DuPage County. They’re even strong downstate, where George Ryan, Blagojevich’s now-imprisoned predecessor, learned “pay to play” politics in his modest hometown of Kankakee. “We have very pragmatic, non-ideological politics,” says University of Illinois at Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield. “It’s all about winning and getting a piece of the action.”

The anti-machine politicians’ main problem is that they’ve never been able to combine the appeal of governmental reform with a platform that economically benefits the working-class. (Reformers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, on the other hand, have been able to do exactly that, and those states have been relatively clean for decades.) In late 19th century Chicago, socialists and labor leaders repeatedly launched labor parties, but both of the major parties not only countered with class appeals, but they also played on divisions over ethnicity, religion, and booze. The machines divided working-class voters from the ideological reformers, and, as a result, the reformers rarely won more than 30 percent of the vote.

And even when the reformers have been successful--ousting many corrupt aldermen in 1896 and electing reform Mayor Edward Dunne in 1905--the machine politicians rebuilt or retained their power in the wards. That way, they could block many reforms in city council and develop a more disciplined, business-like approach to politics. It’s just one of the many adaptations that have kept machine politics alive over the years.

After World War II, when other big city machines were dead or dying, Mayor Richard J. Daley strengthened and modernized the machine. Chicago technically has a strong city council and a weak mayor, and prior to Daley, the mayor was not the party leader of the ward organizations. Daley held both levers of power, making him a far more potent boss than his predecessors. He also forged a close relationship with business, and like many of his contemporary big city mayors, he encouraged urban renewal, real estate development, and roadbuilding--a political regime commonly referred to as the urban growth machine. He maintained the allegiance of most of the labor movement and also built a huge patronage army. Daley claimed that Chicago was “the city that works,” despite widespread corruption.

But Daley wasn’t always as nimble as he needed to be. While previous Democratic mayors recruited blacks into the machine in the 1930s and 40s and supported racial integration, Daley wanted to placate white voters who resisted integration and rejected many civil rights movement demands. And it turned out that his unwillingness to adapt to a changing city by confronting racism and giving African-Americans their share in power, city services, and the largesse of the machine led to his undoing.

Eventually black voters--aligned with progressive white reformers and Latinos--overturned the machine. In 1979 voters elected the erstwhile reformer, Jane Byrne; then more decisively, in 1983, Chicago elected Harold Washington, its first black mayor. Washington was determined to stomp out patronage and machine politics by delivering both good government and progressive policies--making Chicago “the city that works for everyone.” But he died at the beginning of his second term, well before he could implant his reforms deeply.

Richard M. Daley, first elected in 1989, also could have broken with machine-style politics. He supported some Washington-based reform initiatives, especially those concerning education, and he won big bucks from the global corporate elite and enjoyed a broad electoral base (eventually swaying even some black establishment support). But Daley used his power to build new patronage machines (especially the Hispanic Democratic Organization) and to dole out contracts to favorite firms (who Simpson calculates contribute about a third of his campaign funds). He simply welded a new machine oriented to the business elite to the remnants of the old one, and, as such, failed to reform the political culture. It’s no wonder that the Daley administration and the city council have been embroiled in one scandal after another.

For their part, Democratic reformers and progressive ideologues are often foiled or move out of local politics. Remember that former senator Paul Simon and president-elect Barack Obama moved to Washington. Recently, right-wing Republicans have pushed the party to become more ideological, but often at the expense of winning and rarely with a convincing reform agenda.

And now we have Blagojevich. He famously campaigned as a reformer, which was just another adaptation the machine had to make after George Ryan, burdened by widespread suspicion of corruption that later led to his conviction, did not run for re-election in 2002. Tutored by his father-in-law, machine Alderman Richard Mell, Blagojevich blatantly began seeking campaign contributions from prospective appointees as soon as he was elected. And the scandals simply multiplied, with his growing legal debts pushing him into the frenzied activity of recent months, even as taped conversations reveal he anticipated being indicted.

If Blagojevich resigns or is removed from office, his successor will be Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, a populist Democrat who would likely press for ethics and campaign reform. But with machine politics still dominant in Chicago and the state legislature, he will face an uphill battle. “The immediate and current reality” says Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, “is that Illinois is essentially a completely unregulated environment with no limits on the contributions you can give.” Only this fall, with a boost from then presidential candidate Barack Obama at the close of a three-year battle, did the legislature pass a modest bill prohibiting contributions from major contractors to state officials with responsibility for those contracts. That bill also created a new sense of urgency for Blagojevich to cash in while he could.

“On campaign finance disclosure we are literally in the Stone Age compared to everyone else,” Canary says. Small reforms are poorly enforced: When the legislature passed an ethics training law in 2003, the company that got the contract was a Blagojevich contributor.

“We have the laws you’d expect Illinois to have,” Redfield says. “They didn’t shape the political culture; they reflected the political culture. In the long-term, we simply have to change the way people look at politics.”

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times.

By David Moberg