Calming the winds

The antidote to Chicago corruption is putting activism over apathy

By Muhammad Akhtar

[img id=”77140″ align=”alignleft”] Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the latest addition to the Chicago hall of shame, Governor Rod Blagojevich! Through his latest debacle, Blagojevich revealed to the nation what every Chicagoan had already known: that Chicago is as windy today as the day it received its unfortunate nickname.

For years, this understanding has repulsed many young Chicagoans from the political process: These new revelations will undoubtedly do the same for many more. After all, who would want to join a system nearly universally acknowledged as irreparable? Thus, the repercussions of Blagojevich’s wrongdoings do not end with just a possible impeachment and another line in history books; they deteriorate the little faith young people had in government to begin with. This comes at a particularly bad time—a time when, after years of unprecedented lows, voter turnout among the 18- to-25-year-old demographic had finally begun to rise. What was once the dawn of a new age of political enlightenment could now be a fleeting image, a shadow of something that could have been.

It is for this reason that we, as citizens of Chicago, need to believe in—and to create a reason to believe in—Chicago politics. The need for action lies at the core of corruption. Politicians are not entirely to blame for dirty politics; an apathetic voter base is quite often also at fault.

This appears nonsensical at first. How can we be liable for the wrongdoings of greedy politicians? After all, motives for corruption—greed, disregard for the duties of public office, basic malevolence—are so apparently intrinsic as to seem beyond the reach of comprehension of anyone but the politicians themselves. However, like any decision, the decision to be dishonest is based on an analysis of costs and benefits. In regimes untainted by corruption, the costs of dishonesty exceed the benefits. That is, the risks of being caught are higher due to an active voter base that does not tolerate moral philandering. The rewards of being honest are greater for the same reason. Thus, by failing to take a stronger role in state and local government, we indirectly allowed cases like Governor Blagojevich’s to occur. On this principle alone, we should strive to be active and engaged Chicagoans both by voting and subsequently involving ourselves in the political process.

Unfortunately, principle alone is scarcely enough to stir action. This realization has led to the development of political organizations and youth voter advocacy groups in and around college campuses. These, along with the Motor Voter legislation that greatly simplified the process of voter registration, helped inspire an 11-percent increase in turnout among college students in the 2008 presidential election compared to the previous race, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The continuation of these programs, and the development of others like them, is crucial to ensuring that such rates survive these years of political turmoil and resulting disenchantment. Additionally, incentive-based programs that reward young people for voting (such as the reflection of said action on college or graduate school applications) would also prove helpful in sustaining such trends. The scandal is a reminder of the importance of these policies and why others like them should be established.

Given the already dismal level of voter turnout among non-college youths (only 13 percent voted in the 2002 midterm elections, compared to 26 percent of youths in college), there is a particularly strong need to fight political inefficacy beyond college campuses. Most of the aforementioned programs target college students exclusively (or fail to produce substantial effect beyond that demographic), and thus do little to sway turnout among non-college youth. Because rewards-based programs may be too costly to implement, an initiative based on disincentives may prove more useful. Unlike the near-authoritarian compulsory voting programs of Australia, such a program would disallow nonvoters access to certain government programs, such as unemployment insurance and food stamp programs. Such a program would bypass the constitutional ban on providing monetary compensation for voting, since it does not directly provide funds to, or restrict funds from, nonvoting citizens.

The jarring reminder of the Illinois status quo that came with the Blagojevich scandal cannot be allowed to shock us into a state of political stagnancy, perpetuating the negative feedback loop that has for years dominated Chicago politics. The scandal should be interpreted instead as a call to action, a plea to end the era of dirty politics. Let us punish corrupt politicians through activism, not idleness.

Muhammad Akhtar is a first-year in the College.