Leadership that Southern Illinois Can Believe In
By Michael Kleen
November 21, 2011
What is wrong with Southern Illinois? Open a newspaper on any given day, and you are likely to ask yourself this question. As Disclosure has documented for the past several years, there is no shortage of political corruption, crime, substance abuse, and economic despair. Of the 34 counties south of I-70, 14 had unemployment rates of 9.5 percent or higher in September of this year, and just two years ago, Southern Illinois University tottered on the edge of bankruptcy. The situation is not hopeless, however. With the right leadership, things can be turned around.
You see, I live far up north in Winnebago County, and we have a lot in common with Southern Illinois. This area has the highest unemployment rate in the state (13.8 percent in September), and I believe that the same thing that is hurting us up here is hurting the people of southern Illinois: a lack of responsible and inspired leadership. A sense of entitlement and contentment with the status quo at the top, coupled with a “tax and spend” philosophy of government, is strangling the life out of our communities.
Locally, as well as statewide, voters are coming to perceive their elected officials as out of touch political insiders who are more interested in pandering to special interest groups and helping out their business partners than they are with representing their constituents. In a recent poll by Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois voters gave Governor Pat Quinn an approval rating of 35.5 percent. Only 14.9 percent said Illinois is headed in the right direction. According to another recent poll, 58 percent of Illinoisans believe political corruption is common among officials in Illinois, and 81 percent say they trust state government only “some of the time” or “almost never.”
These numbers do not come as a surprise, especially after state legislators passed a deeply unpopular income and sales tax hike at the beginning of this year. Revelations that retired employees of the IL Federation of Teachers are receiving a government pension of between $6.3 and $15.4 thousand a month have not helped matters either. But if legislators in Springfield have done nothing to inspire confidence, where can the voters of Southern Illinois turn?
Contrary to popular belief, I do not think that ethics reform, campaign finance reform, or more transparency will restore confidence, or solve the root of the problem. These reforms are a step in the right direction, perhaps, but in the end, it is the quality of elected officials that needs to change. Because politicians are elected from within the communities they are supposed to represent, we must look deeply at the political culture of those communities. Why do we continue to elect candidates who fail to meet their basic obligations to the public? Why do we continue to allow tight-knit groups of political insiders to make decisions that affect us all?
We need to face a harsh truth: in a way, these politicians we distrust so much do represent us. They represent a public that is too lazy to get involved in the process, who is content to just let “someone else do it,” and who is more concerned about who won America’s Next Top Model than in attending a county board or city council meeting. As a result, we cannot look to the political process for a solution.
Because it must come from all areas of society, the kind of leadership I am proposing is not necessarily political in nature. The leadership that will restore prosperity to Southern Illinois (and perhaps the rest of the state as well) will arise from men and women who are willing to stand up and devote their talents, time, and energy to serving their neighbors. These are parents, businessmen, pastors, teachers, administrators, and other people of authority who are willing to put their personal interests aside in order to build a stronger, more self-reliant community.
This leadership will be more effective because it will focus on empowering institutions at the local level, while at the same time having the courage to delegate greater responsibility to individuals and family units. In other words, leaders of this caliber must act as inspirational guides, providing support for local businesses, schools, and community organizations. They do not have to be perfect—they just need to shift the locus of power away from the uninspired, the short-sighted, and the self-centered. Only then will a group of worthwhile candidates for public office emerge.