Do we have what it takes to fix our broken governments?

How do we get back to productive, constructive, respectful politics? How do we get to arguing over policy and practicalities without name-calling, threats or violence? We all have a part to play in finding the answers.

As we hurtle past midyear, toward our first June midterm elections in Illinois and toward another Independence Day, I find myself contemplating the state of our governments, the state of our disconnected democratic republic and the state of public service.

They’re beyond distressed, and I wonder whether we can muster the courage and independence to revive them?

Fifty years after Watergate, we’re witnessing a far-worse constitutional crisis. It’s more than alarming that the number of Republicans are so few who are willing to stand and speak facts about the Jan. 6 insurrection, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois among them.

The recent deaths of Republicans Rep. John E. Porter and Attorney General Jim Ryan, both of whom I covered as a political reporter for many years, have had me reflecting.

Both men had their opponents and enemies, to be sure. Both practiced politics enough to be repeatedly elected, but both also said and did what they thought was right at times when it was far from popular or politic.

Porter’s North Shore 10th Congressional District constituency was more independent, moderate and intellectual than many others in Illinois and nationwide. Still, he was a Republican who worked to boost spending on biomedical research and who supported abortion rights and gun control measures. I don’t remember if it was a previous flare-up in Ukraine or former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but as I read these days about the Jan. 6 testimony and hearings, I vividly remember Porter once forcefully talking about the rule of law and how lost we would be without it.

Ryan always seemed focused and intense in public, but I saw good-natured ribbing and unbridled affection on a few occasions when he and his wife, Marie, allowed me into their home and opened up about their own and their family’s health struggles.

Ryan was a social conservative and prosecutor by nature through and through. He had a quiet record of advocating for abused children in need. He started children’s advocacy centers before he lost his daughter, Annie, to a brain tumor, and his son, Patrick, to mental illness.

Ryan apologized for pursuing for years the wrongful prosecution of Rolando Cruz for the death of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in DuPage County. And after he lost a race for governor and returned to private life, 17 years ago, he founded The Center for Civic Leadership at his alma mater, Benedictine University, to train future public servants and bolster “civil open dialogue across political boundaries.”  

Ryan and Porter were public servants who did what they thought was right in a reasoned and reasonable fashion. They worked in bipartisan ways because they needed to, but also, I suspect, because they believed in it. So it was heartening to see past and current Democratic attorneys general Neil Hartigan, Lisa Madigan and Kwame Raoul at Ryan’s funeral service.

Now, how do we get back to that kind of productive, constructive, respectful politics? How do we get to arguing over policy and practicalities without name-calling, threats or violence? How do we find our inner courage and independence?

I believe we all have to play a part in finding the answers. We all have to find ways to vote for those championing reason and reasonableness, speak up and out for it, and keep ourselves engaged and active in our governments.

A recent Chicago Tribune letter writer, Dean Pritza, called for a “moderate uprising,” not a humble, midsize event, but a bold movement, a revolution of Democrats and Republicans and, I would add, independents and others who feel we’ve lost our way.

“It’s time for the adults in the room to take over the narrative,” he wrote. “It’s time to play nice and compromise.”

Hmmm. He just might be onto something.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government. This column was first published on June 27th, 2022 in Crain’s Chicago Business.