I left Cape Girardeau early and crossed the Mississippi with the dawn. The Illinois side is low lying land, swampy and lush. No more than two miles into the state I saw a large stenciled sign in front of a prominent house. Here we go again, I thought, more proclamations. But this sign was different from those in Missouri; a sign dense with data rather than protestations of Truth.
Alexander Country Voters
Stop Voter Fraud
Demand Voter List Purge
The sign listed tallies by town of the voter list, with a total of 13,635 registered voters in the county in 2008. Only problem, there were a mere 7.914 people in Alexandria Country per the 2009 population estimate. Oops!
My Illinois state map was littered with unidentified grey roads. I took a gamble on one from Reynoldville to Jonesboro that proved to be one of the most beautiful rides of my journey, around a lake, through a towering forest, rolling out into fields of thick corn, tight to the road, taller than me on either side. As I rode through miles of corn I thought about the voter sign. I could have been appalled at the facts and figures, but I knew that the Land of Lincoln is also the home of political boss Richard J. Daley, as well as Rob Blagojevich, George Ryan, Dan Walker and Otto Kerner; four governors of the past fifty years who were convicted of crimes committed in office. Illinois holds a proud place in the history of corruption, and though it is conceivable that the disproportion between living citizens and registered voters in Alexandria County can be accounted for logically, it is doubtful.
Instead of being appalled by the corruption implied by the sign, I was buoyed by its very presence; by the fact that a person in this country can obtain such information; advertise it along the road, and live to tell the tale. In fact, that sign may do more than just tell the tale, it may actually affect change.
There is no place for corruption in the government that Abraham Lincoln declared ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. But human nature and lofty ideals do not always align, and from Watergate to Whitewater, the tendency for the palms of power to crave grease is universal. Our freedom of expression, a core value guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, gave this Alexandria County resident the ability to express his or her outrage without retribution. That expression is our mightiest weapon against corruption. The only countries who can claim no corruption are pure dictatorships; they simply don’t allow the term. Among countries with democratic leanings, we fare middling. The United States ranks twenty-second on the Perceptions of Corruption Index compiled by Transparency International; higher than Mexico or Chile, but not as squeaky clean as Denmark. Not surprisingly, there is a positive correlation between countries with highly educated, informed and involved citizenry and lower corruption.
I was thinking about those nearly 5,000 unaccounted voters in Alexandria County as I rolled into Breakfast in Jonesboro, a lively little town with a square of restaurants, banks and shops around a ceremonial center. The third Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858 took place here, and judging from the intelligent discussion swirling around the café as I ate the world’s best ever pancakes, the spirit of debate still thrives in Jonesboro. The discussion was not about the blatant corruption indicated by the voter rolls of AlexandriaCounty. Rather it addressed a more basic issue of representative government – that our government has lost touch with its people. Over eggs and coffee and pancakes guys in plaid shirts and jeans discussed the merits of the Afghanistan intervention, the effect of the recent US bond downgrade on the stock market, and the current recession (which is still in full havoc as far as every American residing beyond DC or Wall Street is concerned). The discussion was more balanced and thoughtful than TV sound bites offer, and more civil than our elected officials can manage. Proof of the benefits derived from a good breakfast. What was most interesting about the discussion was not the particular points of view on major issues, which appeared full spectrum, so much as the consistent expression that DC is disconnected from Jonesboro. Why does none of the pinch felt in Middle America appear to puncture the Beltway? Why do government employees make more money, on average, than their private sector counterparts? Why are their benefits not being put on the negotiating table same as private sector employees? Why do we have to contribute to social security while they have a hodgepodge of elective options? The perception is that the Federal Government has donned a cloak of privilege, and there is enough beef to back it up to gnaw at the citizens of Jonesboro. These are not corruptive acts per se, they are all made legal by the beneficiaries of the government’s largesse, but they thumb their nose at the private citizen and create a schism between the governing and the governed. Everyone in Jonesboro knows that ‘they’ are the suits in DC; ‘we’ are the folks in Illinois. ‘Us’ is not a term uttered in the conversation.
One of the biggest challenges we face today is to renew the bond between the general populace and our government. To achieve our guiding principle of a government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ will require effort from both sides to get beyond thinking of the situation as two sided. We have to focus on clarity of information between the public/private sector, educate citizens about how our government is designed to work and identify mutual interests.
We are awash in myths about the endless perks claimed by lazy government workers and the paltry proceeds garnered in the private sector. Both views are littered with partial truths. In order to work towards clarity, we have to untangle the myths about government compensation and the salary swings of private sector workers. We need to compare them in relative equanimity to make sound comparisons. Once we have solid data about the economic differences / similarities between public and private sector workers, we must disseminate this information widely so that people in both camps are knowledgeable about the entire spectrum of the work force.
The issue of understanding how our government works runs deeper. Over the past few decades there has been a steady decline in the formal education in the purpose and functioning of government. My two children went through 13 years of public education without a single course in Civics; their knowledge of the Constitution, the branches of government and how to create legislation is based only on what their parents taught them. Those of us of a certain age can recall deadly dull lessons in how to pass legislation. Civics classes don’t need to be dull, but they do need to occur. Although our elected officials would never admit it, an uninformed citizenry is exactly what full time politicians, parties in power, and entrenched government workers want. Uninformed citizens are easier to manipulate; all the better if the mechanisms of government are deemed so complicated that ‘the government’ will handle it. The more the government feels removed from the everyday lives of its citizens, the easier to foment misinformation and apathy; the breeding grounds of corruption. Clean government requires accurate information and well-informed citizens.
Another avenue to cleaner government, and one which Americans are loathe to do, is to learn from other countries who do it better and emulate their success. We are good at responding to corruption with legal recourse, but we are terrible at anticipating what might go wrong and preventing it from happening in the first place. This creates a vicious circle for corrupt action. An unethical situation emerges, we identify and address it, it morphs into an unanticipated variant, we fix that, it morphs again, over and over. The cycle will never stop so long as humans are ingenuous, which is why we add so many more laws than we ever delete. Still, it would do us good to learn from countries that do it better; we might actually catch some corruption before it occurs.
Cleaner, more transparent government starts by simplifying government processes and making them applicable across the board. If the government requires we pay social security, or Medicaid tax, or income tax, or any other premium for the privilege of being an American – then everyone needs to be in. No exceptions. A trickle of exemptions soon becomes a flood gate. If something is important enough to fix into law, it is good enough to apply to everyone.
Finally, a way to create a true bond between the private sector workers and their public sector counterparts would be to have the public sector’s economic health tied to that of the private sector. If a recession hits and private workers have to get by on less, lose some of their retirement, or suffer other setbacks, isn’t it possible that the same could occur to their public counterparts? Correspondingly, all economic boats should rise in a swelling economic time. It would be difficult to determine a fair equation for how this might occur, but right now there is no equation and we are experiencing a widening gap between the economic vitality of each sector that is not only unfair, it is poisoning the respect of each sector for the other. It may sound outlandish, but if the economic wellbeing of the public sector were tied to the success of the private sector, the two major workforces of our economy would have complementary motivations. That could only be an improvement over the mistrust that persists today. There are many ways we can create success targets of the citizenry’s connection to their government. The easiest start would be to measure levels of participation. If we can mount campaigns to discourage smoking and drug abuse, why can’t we have campaigns to increase voter registration and voter turnout? The ‘political’ answer is that such drives might work to the advantage of one party over the other, even though the overall health of our Republic would be improved. Any individual will prefer a government where she has more influence than somebody else, but no one wants the government where he has less influence. We have to realize that our collective health is dependent on equal opportunities of participation. That means an equally informed and motivated electorate. Where is the model Civics curriculum required of all students, and how is it incorporated into the tests many states require as students’ progress through their education?
Incumbents have no incentives to support any of these initiatives – the people who already vote put them in office, why risk adding others to the mix; and the more ignorant the population, the more easily they can be lead. Regardless what challengers claim during campaigns, as soon as they arrive in DC they become incumbents and their interests instantly shift. When it comes to an active, informed electorate, the needs of the individual politician will never align with the needs of our country as a whole. Yet that is precisely the direction we need to move. Any steps we can take to encourage alignment and understanding between the government and the governed are steps towards healing the breach between us.
My time in Illinoiswas all too short, just over twenty-four hours, yet I was fortunate enough to have breakfast at another great café the next morning, this time in Carmi, near the Indiana border. The conversation swirling around the tables was remarkably similar to the previous days’ discourse in Jonesboro; not complaints, or calls for less government, but a plea for government that is accountable and responsible.
I sat there, a Massachusetts guy in cycling shorts (who the media would label as ‘liberal’) surrounded by oversize guys with flat accents in jeans (who would be stereotyped as ‘conservative’) yet our shared concerns overshadowed our differences on every issue. It is too easy to say that our country has become too big and too diverse, to have a government that reflects the individual citizens. The differences among the population of our original thirteen states, farmer, merchant, slaveholder, loyalist, and separatist, were easily as great as our differences today, yet we came together, identified our common good and moved forward. We can still do that, but not until the commonalities of our public / private sectors come to the fore over the myths and inequities. Then the blue jean guys and the spandex guys in the Illinois cafes, and the millions of others like us all across the country, can think of it as ‘our’ government once again.