What makes this proposal odd is that Mitchell and Brown are not fighting to secede from the rest of Illinois; they are the rest of Illinois. They want to evict Cook County from the state. I’m trying to remember if there are precedents for this. It’s not really secession if the “secessionists” live in the part with the capital in it, is it? Plus, there is no indication whatsoever that Cook County wants to secede from Illinois.
On the contrary, Chicagoans have responded angrily. One commentator proposes that Decatur itself be ejected from the Land of Lincoln, “due to its offensive odor. ... There’d be no way to prevent the stench of roasting corn and soybeans from wafting across our new state lines. But at least we could keep its nonsensical geopolitical schemes out of the General Assembly.” Another suggests other areas, out of step culturally and politically with the rest of their respective states, who are just as ripe for secession: Austin, Orlando, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Colonial Williamsburg, Las Vegas, and the suburban-Chicago parts of Indiana known as “the Region” (and which are already in Illinois’s time zone, not Indiana’s).
In many ways, the rest-of-Illinois separatists are an example of what I call “prosperity secessionism”—the more prosperous and less politically chaotic parts of a nation or state hankering to split off. And let me take this opportunity now to just admit that Chicago’s Democratic-dominated politics are corrupt and dysfunctional to an almost Third World degree. Remember, this is the town where Rep. Dan Rostenkowski ran a re-election campaign while under indictment on federal corruption charges—and almost won.
Other examples of prosperity secessionism have: included the Czech Republic’s eagerness to be done with the less prosperous and more corrupt Slovak Republic, contributing to Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Divorce” of 1993; Italy’s Northern League, which would like to split off from the poorer, crime-ridden south, where Rome is; and English separatists, who are tired of supporting the poor of Wales and Northern Ireland with their taxes. This is to say nothing of northerners and westerners in the U.S. who respond to the idea of reviving the Southern Confederacy by saying, essentially, “Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.”
But there is really mainly partisan politics behind the Chicago-statehood proposal. Like the new “South California” secession movement, which aims to form a separate state out of the Golden State’s most Republican counties, this is a cry for help from a G.O.P. that has millions of followers but, because of Chicago, will always be a disenfranchised minority in Illinois. Here, below, are maps showing county and district breakdowns in recent Illinois elections, where red is Republican and blue is Democratic. Keeping in mind that Cook County has nearly half the state’s population, you can see why many Illinois Republicans feel that it’s barely worth voting.
There is also a heavy racial subtext which no one in Illinois can fail to grasp, however much Republicans might try to deny it: Mitchell and Brown’s proposal would quite handily expel nearly all of Illinois’s African-Americans—including the present First Lady’s extended family, as well as “troublemakers” like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. Oh, and most of Illinois’s queers and foreigners, too. What Mitchell and Brown want is, essentially, Vanillinois. Here is a map of Illinois counties, with the counties shaded based on proportion of the population that is African-American:
The proposal will fail, of course. Mitchell and Brown’s plan is to hold a referendum asking all Illinoians to vote on whether to remove Cook County from the state. There is no legal precedent for such a referendum, which their backers fantasize would be binding even if all of Cook County opposed it. In fact, this all sounds highly unconstitutional—as well as downright tacky.
Now, if Cook County did secede, it would have a name problem. The “State of Cook” sounds awful. They would probably (let’s imagine for a moment that this could even happen) go with “the State of Chicago,” a one-county state, which would itself be unprecedented. The postal abbreviation CH is available (as opposed to a State of Cook’s problem with CO already being taken by Colorado), so there’s no problem there.
A State of Chicago coterminous with the current Cook County would be the second smallest state, only slightly larger than Rhode Island (which has a whopping five counties, incidentally), and it would be by quite a long shot the smallest state west of the Appalachians. But it would rank 22nd in population, just behind Minnesota. African-Americans would have a larger share of the population (24.8%, as opposed to 15% in Illinois currently) than in any other state outside the Deep South—though that would change if the District of Columbia ever achieved statehood.
Plus, the State of Chicago would have an automatic and obvious state song: “Sweet Home Chicago,” the uptempo blues composed by Robert Johnson, the itinerant Mississippian guitarist and singer who never visited the city but dreamed of doing so. It is already the Windy City’s unofficial anthem.
Chicago also has its own flag already, which many major American cities still do not. Illinois’s flag is one of the many state flags which merely feature the state seal lazily placed on a white or blue background, resulting in a design that is headache-inducingly busy while not being at all memorable:
Chicago’s flag, on the other hand, is a dandy. Vexillologically speaking, they would come out far better in this deal.
It will never happen. But it does remind us that we are in need of a word for the converse of separatism—the agenda of ejecting a state or other political entity from a union. I welcome readers’ suggestions.
And, once we come up with the word, someone in Brussels had better figure out how to translate it into Greek, Italian, and Portuguese.
(Galician and Sicilian too.)
(Postscript: see the blog of Michael J. Trinklein, author of Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It (2010), for a discussion of the Chicago-statehood movement of the 1920s, in which Chicagoans themselves wanted to secede, griping that they had a disproportionately low influence on Illinois’s legislature. Trinklein’s book points out that “the tension between upstate and downstate Illinois was intended by the folks who drew the original boundaries. If the inhabitants of the southern half had been part of some other state (such as Kentucky or Missouri), they likely would have sided with the South in the Civil War. So the boundaries were drawn (by northerners) to attach southern Illinois to a northern port” (p. 29). (Anyone who enjoys my blog, should also check out Trinklein’s, as well as his informative book.))