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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 01:57 am

The “assault on reason” in Illinois

Behind the legislature’s breakdown is a failure of public discourse

Untitled Document What is wrong with the Illinois legislature? By now many are asking how democracy got broken here and how it can be repaired.
A General Assembly session that began with progressive ideas on health care and education — along with rare willingness by the governor and legislative leaders to raise taxes to pay for them — has devolved into the typical Illinois answer: Programs to help the disadvantaged are being scaled back, and politicians want to fund what remains with a tax on the poor, better known as gambling.
Legislative priorities in Illinois are usually decided at the last minute by a few leaders meeting with the governor in a back room. This has become so much the accepted way of doing business that few legislators bother to protest, but more rank-and-file legislators need to insist on being heard. One who won’t be ignored is Sen. James Meeks, D-Chicago, who objected to relying on gambling for increased revenues. “We may as well legalize brothels” as expand casinos, he protested. More often, elected representatives consider themselves victims of the legislative process. “People should understand that down here we often get bogged down with myopic, one-dimensional 8-by-10 fact sheets that don’t usually illustrate the whole picture,” said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, after being treated to a thoughtful forum on education. “Unbiased opinions that are clean from agendas are truly what we hunger for.”
The press plays into the broken system by accepting its rules. One day last week most statehouse reporters announced with a sigh of relief that legislative leaders were “finally” getting together to hammer out a deal. They become cheerleaders for adjournment. They complain when Gov. Rod Blagojevich or House Speaker Michael Madigan hides and won’t take their questions, overlooking the fact that these powerbrokers rarely shed much light on the truth when they do speak in public. The real story is behind the scenes, where staffers work with lobbyists to craft budget deals but few reporters have the sources to smoke them out. Too many journalists behave as though a government official has to make a statement before a fact becomes reportable. Bill Moyers reported this phenomenon in his speech to the National Conference for Media Reform: “These ‘rules of the game’ permit officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny,” Moyers said. “Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin, invariably failing to provide context, background, or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.”
Public apathy is another big reason little gets done in Illinois. There was so much noise in opposition to the governor’s plan to increase revenue, few people paid attention to what he was raising revenue for. Blagojevich’s plan for universal health care, “Illinois Covered,” got little discussion, even though it would provide coverage for 500,000 adults who now lack health insurance [see R.L. Nave, “A pound of cure,” March 15]. It could be that few take the governor seriously anymore, because without new revenue he can’t deliver on his grandiose ideas — yet other states, including Massachusetts, California, and Pennsylvania, are busily enacting programs similar to what was proposed here. The program is sound, and it makes sense for states to become laboratories for health-care reform — but nothing will happen without more clamor. Legislators, the press, the public — all stand to blame for the failures of Illinois politics and government. In his new book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore worries about similar trends on the national stage. “Why has America’s public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned?” he asks. “Faith in the power of reason — the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power — remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.”
Gore proposes some ways to revive the marketplace of ideas, including less TV, more reading, and creative use of the Internet. The problem, he says, is that although people receive information, few have any way to interact with or respond to what is going on: “We have created a wealthy society with tens of millions of talented, resourceful individuals who play virtually no role whatsoever as citizens.” The remedy, he says, is “the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way — a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response.”
It is hard to tell whether the breakdown in Springfield is merely a failure of politics or a full-scale “assault on reason,” as in Gore’s formulation. In either case, it is clear that the system isn’t working, and it’s time for thoughtful change in Illinois.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com
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