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updated: 4/9/2012 7:59 AM

Ending culture of political corruption begins in schools

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  • Jim Ryan

      Jim Ryan

 
By Jim Ryan
Benedictine University

Another former Illinois governor went to the federal penitentiary on corruption charges in March.

Fiscal mismanagement and system corruption continue to plague state government.

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A recent report released by scholars at the University of Illinois at Chicago noted there were 1,828 public corruption convictions by the federal courts in Illinois since 1976, making it the most corrupt state in the union after Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

Despite political and ethical reforms, not much has changed.

In 2006, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich successfully ran for re-election, notwithstanding the fact he was under criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney, a fact disclosed by newspapers across the state. How could well-meaning voters have allowed this to happen?

The answer is the influence of campaign cash and an avalanche of negative, distortive TV ads that often manipulate uninformed voters.

In their recent book, "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide," James D. Nowlan and his associates at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana document a likely reason Blagojevich defeated Judy Baar Topinka, who was then Illinois treasurer. The Blagojevich campaign spent more than $18 million on 22,109 TV ads, while Topinka's campaign, by comparison, spent $4.5 million dollars on 4,638 ads.

Capitalizing on convicted former Gov. George Ryan's unpopularity with voters and Illinois' enormous debt, one series of ads characterized Topinka as "George Ryan's treasurer." This, of course, was factually not true. Under the Illinois Constitution, the Illinois treasurer is an independently elected constitutional officer and not a member of anyone's cabinet. Topinka was not George Ryan's treasurer.

These ads, along with many other negative attacks, combined to unfairly present Topinka to Illinois voters.

The late Daniel Elazar, a respected scholar whose research focused on state political culture, identified three dominant cultures in the United States: traditionalistic, moralistic and individualistic.

Politics and government are viewed as dominated by elites in those states identified as traditionalistic. Those states with a moralistic culture view politics and government as the means to achieve the collective good.

Individualistic states like Illinois see politics and government as just another way to achieve individual goals. As Elazar wrote, politics in Illinois "centered on personal influence, patronage, distribution of federal and later state benefits, and the availability of economic gains of those who were politically committed to politics as their business."

To change Illinois' political culture will require a long-term strategy. Citizens must raise their standards and expectations for politics and politicians.

It is not enough that the roads are paved and the trains run on time, citizens must demand corruption-free government and fiscal responsibility. It is time to stop being fooled by campaign ads and empty promises. Illinois will never change the current political culture unless the people become informed and engaged.

To date, efforts at reforms have largely been directed at the actions of elected officials and the political process with little success. As a former prosecutor, I believe in the importance of strong laws to punish public corruption.

But Illinois' response to our problems has addressed only half of the political equation. In a representative democracy, citizens exercise power indirectly by choosing their leaders at the polls. Democracy cannot work without informed and engaged citizens who select the right leaders and hold them accountable. Outside of academia and civic groups, scant attention has been paid by state government to the transformative role of civic education.

Thomas Jefferson expressed the need for an educated citizenry when he said, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."

Many of the Founding Fathers believed in the civic mission of our nation's schools. Like many others in Illinois, I am firmly convinced that if we are to instill in our future citizens the importance of government and their indispensable role in preserving the quality of our democracy, we must begin in the classroom.

According to research by the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that disseminates education research nationally to policymakers, 44 states require at least a semester of coursework in civics or government as a high school graduation requirement. Illinois is one of six states with no such provision.

The McCormick Foundation's 2009 report, "Creating a Civic Blueprint for Illinois High Schools," shows many districts have developed innovative civics programs and activities for their students. By more clearly defining the length of time that should be spent on civics and by embracing a more creative approach to civics in the classroom, we can ensure that all Illinois students have access to high quality programs.

There is no simple answer to our state's serious problems. What Illinois needs is a sustained commitment to shaping a new generation of public leaders and active, informed citizens. One thing is clear -- this will not happen without a renewed civic mission in our schools.

• Jim Ryan is the former Illinois attorney general and director and distinguished fellow at The Center for Civic Leadership at Benedictine University.

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