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Who Cares?: Perhaps Illinoisans Can't Muster Passion Because They Can't See How It Would Matter

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
WUIS/Illinois Issues

An uncaring Rhett Butler boldly telling Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” carried so much weight in Gone With the Wind that it was voted the most memorable movie line of all time. 

Now we are surprised when someone actually gives a hoot in Illinois. Shoulders once immortalized as Big now seem content to shrug. The motto on our state seal reads “State Sovereignty — National Union,” but it just as easily could be “Yeah — Whatever.” 

The White Sox flirted with a pennant race, but fans didn’t show. Many Cubs fans, now 102 years removed from their last championship celebration, bought season tickets but stayed home instead of enjoying an afternoon at Wrigley Field. Even lotteries don’t seem to interest the populace until the jackpots crack the $100 million mark.

Perhaps we can’t muster any passion because we can’t see where it would matter.

“I think there is a sense in this state of a certain powerlessness to change things,” says Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

That feeling probably stems from the sad situation of our last two governors — one serving time for corruption, the other impeached, convicted of a felony for lying to the FBI and awaiting a re-trial on other corruption charges. The old Republican governor was a crook, so we went with the young Democrat who got bounced out of office by a disturbingly familiar corruption scandal.

We tried reform and it didn’t work, so the state yawns. 

“In many states, if you had that level of corruption, people would come out, be angry and throw the bums out,” observes David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “But corruption is so ingrained in Illinois, people come to expect it. I think that’s different than in other states. It is a different view than people have in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas. It’s too bad, too.” 

It’s as if Illinoisans reached a passion threshold long ago.

“One of the things that is different here is it feels like a decade of scandal, maybe a lifetime of scandal,” Canary says. “They (other states) have scandals, too, but there is a much sharper outrage that they need to change something. In Illinois, it’s: ‘Oh well. That’s just the way it is.’”

That doesn’t mean we should no longer care.

“The response to bad government isn’t apathy, it’s action. You’ve got to do something,” says former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, who, since he lost his gubernatorial race to Rod Blagojevich in 2002, has been trying to increase community involvement through the Jim Ryan Center for Civic Leadership and Public Service at Benedictine University in Lisle. 

If discontent sparks the flames of revolution, a state with literally hundreds of indicted public officials from crooked governors to greedy aldermen should be a bonfire of public action. 

“And the response to that is a 23 percent turnout?” Ryan says in reference to the state’s record low voter turnout in the February primary election, in which he also ran for governor. “I think a lot of people are so demoralized in this state, they stay home. That’s a mistake.” 

The Land of Lincoln should cotton to Honest Abe’s plea for preservation of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But we don’t. 

“How many people feel they are in control in this state?” Ryan asks. “We have a very weak, at-risk representative democracy in this state.” 

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” That quip fits nicely on a T-shirt, but does it inspire anyone today to find out what it means? 

Ignorance is apathy’s BFF. 

Noting that two out of three Americans can name a judge on “American Idol” but only one in seven know John Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor started an iCivics.org website to help students and teachers learn about government and civics.

Awareness can be the antidote to apathy.

“We find apathy is kind of a myth, a misnomer,” says Brian Brady, longtime executive director of the Mikva Challenge, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that inspires young people to become involved in public service and politics. Founded in 1997 as a tribute to former judge, White House counsel and Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife, Zoe, a lifelong education activist, the agency encourages “action civics.”

“I don’t think people are apathetic. I think people are uninvited and untrained,” Brady notes. “They don’t know how to be powerful in our government structure, and they don’t have the skills.”

People don’t just stay home on Election Day because they don’t care or there is something really good on TV.

“There’s a difference between a lethargic voter and one that has just checked out, who is just cynical and despondent,” Yepsen says. 

The economy is partly to blame. Unemployment, foreclosures, debt and uncertainly can set the stage for apathy to rise among the people. These times can crush young people who do everything they are told and still come out of college with massive debts and no jobs. 

“They are feeling kind of down, and I don’t blame them,” Yepsen says. “I think that is a thing that can lead to apathy. People are in survival mode. There’s a cocooning that is going on. You turn inward.” 

Are we just too busy paying bills and worrying about our personal futures to care about anything else? In the Great Depression, people dealt with the same issues, and they seemed to come together for the good of everyone. Even their songs rejected apathy with lyrics such as, “Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money. Maybe we’re ragged and funny. But we’ll travel along, singing a song, side by side.” 

“I think there is some difference,” Yepsen says. “Unlike the Great Depression, we’re not all in this together. I think there is a growing split between the haves and the have-nots, and it spawns apathy in some and in others, anger.”

While Brady says he appreciates and is “inspired” by some of the outbursts from the Tea Party on the right and Lady Gaga on the left, the solution is not simply assigning blame and voting against something.

“We put the cart before the horse by saying: ‘People need to vote! People need to vote,’” Brady says. “Ask people how would they like to see their community improve, and voting becomes a byproduct of that.”

But sometimes in this age of instant gratification, voting quickly leads to apathy.

“People are disappointed in the failed efforts to reform the system,” notes Ron Michaelson, former executive director of the State Board of Elections who is a visiting professor with the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. “Maybe they had unrealistic expectations, but they think more should have happened by now.”

Candidates contribute to that disappointment by promising more than they can deliver.

Brady says many Illinois politicians are examples of Mario Cuomo’s quip that “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

“I think we need more political leadership,” says Michelson, who observes that politicians often make decisions based on what might be best for their election hopes instead of what is best for society.

That’s even more of a problem in a political system where “too many people are in it as a vocation instead of as an avocation,” Michelson says.

Attracting better candidates starts at the community, grassroots level. The power of the Internet and social media gives us “a real opportunity to attack apathy,” Brady says.

Almost everyone agrees that bringing more people to the political process results in better leadership. That starts with showing kids that they can have an impact.

“We need to teach our students to be citizens and not just test-takers,” Brady says.

Half of the states, including Illinois, cut back or eliminated civics classes to make room for more teaching of math and science that might help good students get jobs someday. But teaching everyone to be good citizens should result in a better society, these Illinois activists agree.

“There’s no short-term fix to this,” Brady warns.

The key is making the connection between local involvement and the big political picture, Canary says. People might think their vote doesn’t matter in a statewide or national race and that they can’t change anything.

“I get a different sense when I look at my neighborhood,” Canary says. People organize food drives to help the poor or unemployed. They host fundraisers for sick people. They work to save a library or put up a stop sign.

“Once they see their voice matters,” people can apply that same principle to bigger issues, she notes.

“When I go out and speak, it seems everybody always wants this magic way to influence legislators,” Canary says. “I tell them to call and write. They look at me like I’m crazy, but it works. Don’t be afraid of being bullied by public servants.”

Apathy may have found a home in Illinois, but that atmosphere can change.

“We have to raise people’s expectations,” Ryan says, suggesting that people start the turnaround by turning the next election into a real-life civics lesson. “Don’t just wait to get your information from attack ads and 30-second sound bites. The only way you change the culture is through civic education.” 

To drive a stake through the heart of apathy, we must be involved, engaged and informed. 

“Until that culture changes,” Yepsen says, “I think the state is in for several years of hard times.” 

Burt Constable is a columnist for the suburban?Chicago Daily Herald.

Illinois Issues, November 2010

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