Doubek: Our two-headed state of despotism

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Dear rank-and-file lawmakers of Illinois,

I’d like to share a few words with you on this last, full day of the 99th General Assembly. Perhaps you’ll read them as you travel north to witness the farewell of Illinois’ own favorite son, 44th President of the United States Barack Obama.

What heady times in which we live. Obama says goodbye to the public. Trump tweets hello. After two years of stalemated imprisonment of most action in Springfield, there is a flicker of movement and hope for a grand bargain in the Illinois Senate, where Obama used to sit, back before his hair grew peppered with gray. That could be for naught without either a turning toward trust between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan or no less than a revolution swelling up among you to demand action.

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As it so happens, I was reminded of another great revolution this week when I had the pure pleasure of watching “Hamilton,” performed at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre. (If you have the means to see it, please do.) Alexander Hamilton shares a few things with each of you. He was, until this send-up of his life, a nearly forgotten asterisk in history, despite being the author of the majority of the Federalist Papers. He was flawed. He burned with ambition and succumbed to personal and political feuds.

He was loyal to his leader, first President George Washington. He wrote much of the first farewell address — published in a newspaper, no less — in which Washington warned his fellow citizens against allowing politics or one political party to go unchecked:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

Are we not in a two-headed state of despotism? We are no less than slaves to the governor and the speaker. A sort of despotism grips us, though we know it is dangerous and immoral.

I’m certain President Obama will set his sights more to the nation’s current challenges Tuesday night and to those he believes he has steered us from, but he, too, has talked of the danger of intransigence and division many times.

In his visit back to the Capitol just about a year ago, did you listen as he reminisced about his time there, when he said, “Party lines held most of the time. But those relationships, that trust we’d built, meant that we came at each debate assuming the best in one another and not the worst.”

Or when he told you that “… citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life. It turns folks off. It discourages them, makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void. When that happens, progress stalls.

“And that’s how we end up with only a handful of lobbyists setting the agenda. That’s how we end up with policies that are detached from what working families face every day.”

I know none of you intends it to be this way. You get sucked into a system that seems larger than life. Like Hamilton, you burn with ambition. You want to keep working, so you become pawns to certain patrons and politicians you think are more powerful.

What about an internal revolution? If only enough of you would band together to demand compromise? I don’t need to tell you what’s at stake, but allow me to summarize. Nearly 40,000 people left Illinois last year. Blood spills on some city streets like nowhere else in the nation. Businesses don’t put down roots in the prairie state. The quality of our children’s schools depends on their zip codes. Our most vulnerable Illinoisans live in a state of malignant neglect. Young adult children at our colleges wonder whether they will finish first or whether their college communities will be finished.

This simply is not the time to put political party or patron above all else, as Washington, Hamilton and Obama all have attested. I trust each of you came to your thankless roles intending to do good. Have you done enough?

There’s a bittersweet moment at the play’s close, when the truly unsung patriot, Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, and the cast sing a song with a thought that strikes all our souls at one moment or another:

And when my time is up

Have I done enough?

Will they tell my story?

…Who lives, who dies,

who tells your story?

Will they tell your story?

Madeleine Doubek is publisher of Reboot Illinois.

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