If you were to ask some of the suburbs' most politically engaged young people to describe the state of Illinois in a single word, what do you suppose it would be? I attended a program Wednesday at Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich at which individual groups from about 30 such high school students from around Lake County gave these answers: Corruption, failing, broke, mismanaged, change.
Sort of depressing to consider that those are the words that come to mind when our kids think of the state we are getting ready to turn over to them, right? But -- ah, kids! -- one group had a more positive outlook. Its word: hopeful.
True, as the group's spokesperson explained, the students meant the term in the context of having hope for improving the conditions that have led to the state's sordid reputation. But I found it nonetheless encouraging to note that in the midst of so much negativity, the students were focused not on complaints and defeatism but on actions and solutions.
The Youth Advisory Council was hosted by state Sen. Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican, and aimed to give students with an interest in government a comprehensive overview of what it means to be an engaged citizen. In addition to McConchie, the young people heard from their congressman (Wheaton Republican Peter Roskam from the 6th District), a state's attorney (Lake County's Mike Nerheim), a business owner (Bonnie Conte, co-owner of Avalon Salon and Day Spa in Deer Park Town Center), and a journalist (me). With representatives from civic enterprise, media and local, state and federal government, the program effectively showed in microcosm the broad scope of interests involved if one is to be an effective citizen in the American democracy.
And, more important, the speakers did not talk about politics or political issues; they talked about government and civic life. In the white-hot finale of a nasty political season, I was struck by the importance of that distinction. For all the ugly and angry politics that are aggravating this campaign season, the fact is that come Nov. 9, regardless of who is elected to any position, from the nation's president to your local county auditor, we will be a nation governed through a system of checks and balances that, along with a diverse and aggressive free press, will help ensure that we remain, as Roskam pointed out to the students, one of the most stable societies of this or any era.
You may not like the options confronting you for president. Maybe you don't like those you see for your state representative or county board. But our system certainly affords you opportunities to play a role in encouraging or preventing the actions any of those officials may take, and it is brilliantly designed to help contain any group or individual's efforts to consolidate all the power.
It's thanks to that structure that in spite of everything, in spite of the corruption, in spite of the bankruptcy, in spite of the failure and the mismanagement and the ugly politics, our kids can still have reason to be, in a word, hopeful. And of course it's thanks to students who are willing to spend a day poking around in the none-too-exciting mechanics of government -- not to mention millions of adults who, like these kids, are willing to get involved with those tedious mechanics to advocate for the ideas and issues they care about -- that the rest of us can be hopeful, too.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.