In my 35 years of deep involvement with politics, I have never seen a more tumultuous, chaotic, polarized time period in both Washington, DC and Springfield, Illinois. RealClearPolitics, which averages all national polls, reveals that 60 percent of Americans currently think the direction of our country is on the wrong track, and Congressional job approval sits at a dismal 15 percent.
An analysis by Pew Research Center states that 84 percent of Americans believe our country is more divided than in the past, while the Paul Simon Institute’s recent review on the Roots of Gridlock in Illinois shows that 84 percent of Illinoisans think our state is heading in the wrong direction.
All of these polls can easily get one depressed about the future. What can be done to turn the tide toward better government at the national and state levels? I believe a combination of political reforms and a higher percentage of citizens taking their civic responsibilities more seriously can lead to brighter days.
Political Reforms Can Lessen Gridlock
In 2010, a bipartisan coalition led by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brought two political reform initiatives to the ballot, which the voters of California passed by large margins. One reform ended the practice of partisan gerrymandering, where elected officials drew their own district lines, and replaced it with an independent commission. The second reform was to end the primary system in which only partisan voters participated, and create a “top two” primary system which allowed all voters—Democrats, Republicans and independents—to vote in one primary, with the top two candidates moving onto the general election.
Research by professors from the University of California found that these reforms significantly reduced the polarization between the two parties as demonstrated by legislative votes, created more competitive elections, and has resulted in a more moderate state legislature. Correspondingly, the political gridlock in California has lessened, with the state passing balanced budgets and addressing many of the critical public policy issues that had lingered for decades.
Illinois currently suffers from uncompetitive elections that significantly favor incumbents. It has kicked the can down the road on a myriad of critical public policy issues, and ranks last among all states in financial health. As in California, Illinois citizens favor redistricting reform and open primaries by overwhelming margins (70-plus percent). Illinois desperately needs meaningful reforms that will bring back fair elections, create opportunities for bipartisan compromise and lessen the polarization.
Engaging More Citizens in Our Democracy
According to Pew Research Center, 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. This turnout places America in 28th place out of the top 35 most developed democracies in the world. Sad but true. Consider these startling statistics: only nine percent of Americans chose Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as presidential nominees in the primaries, and more than 90 million eligible voters did not vote in the 2016 presidential election at all. That’s an alarming number of citizens just sitting on the sidelines.
Our American democracy is founded on the principle that the government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. To ensure it represents the will of the people, citizens must demonstrate their will through the process of becoming informed and voting.
To put action behind these words, Bradley University will be hosting a symposium on November 10th entitled “Restoring America’s Democracy – Inspiring a New Generation of Civic Engagement” with national, state and regional speakers. Importantly, we will launch an effort at registering 2,000 Bradley students on campus to be ready to become informed and vote in the 2018 general election. Our great democracy deserves a much higher level of civic participation. iBi