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posted: 5/4/2014 5:01 AM

Editorial: The erosion of public faith in democracy

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  • Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.Associated Press photo

    Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.Associated Press photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The strength of any system of governance is fundamentally dependent on the public's confidence in the institution.

For democracy to thrive, the people have to believe in it.

That doesn't mean we all have to believe in all the personalities. We can disagree about how good a president Barack Obama is, how effective Sen. Mark Kirk is, how responsive the local mayor is.

But ultimately, we the people have to believe in the institution, have to believe it is stronger than some of its players.

It is that belief, after all, that encourages the public to participate in civic debate, vote in elections, support the greater good, obey the law, pay taxes, contribute to society, work to get ahead, accept personal responsibility and most importantly, care -- yes, those things and all the other benefits that come from feeling empowered.

This is what is at stake in the public faith.

Because of that, you could make a good argument that one of any public servant's greatest obligations is to promote confidence in our democratic ideals.

Individual policy matters. Solving problems matters. Affecting lives in positive ways matters.

But promoting the public confidence is overarching.

A politician who spreads cynicism spreads ill.

Today, in Springfield and in Washington, we regrettably have too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

So many leaders mislead these days when it's expedient to do so. In the end, the collection of these mistruths harms not just the reputations of the politicians who mouth them but eventually our trust in all politicians and then finally our faith in the institutions they steward. "They all do it, so there's nothing we can do about it."

Last week, a close ally of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan filed suit to challenge citizens initiatives to impose term limits on state legislators and to change the way legislative districts are drawn every 10 years.

We're big fans of the remap referendum. We've editorialized on its behalf for months as a solution to the politicized way districts are drawn. We are not as enamored with the term limit referendum. We see some pros but also many cons.

But the important thing isn't whether we like either initiative. The important thing is that the public has made clear its interest in putting these questions on the ballot.

It's important also that the politically motivated suit against it was predictable. For a long time, the cynics have said -- no way will Madigan and the politicians let these referendums happen.

The challenge only confirms that cynicism -- and in doing so, spreads it further.

Madigan, we are sure, views himself as a public servant, as all politicians do.

If he truly is, he should stop to recognize the damage this challenge does to public confidence in democracy in Illinois. He should recognize that and let the people, not the Democratic courts, decide the outcome of these ballot questions.

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