State Representative Jim Watson
(R-Jacksonville 97th District)
In Iraq and Illinois Democracy Can Work
We are blessed by democracy but it takes an involved electorate
Illinois has arguably been at the center of both the best and the worst of the American political system. From the high of President Obama’s election to the low of federal charges filed against Governor Blagojevich, Illinois has held the nation’s attention.
My experiences as a member of the Illinois General Assembly and as a Marine who recently completed a tour of duty in Iraq have given me a unique vantage point from which to comment.
History will note the significance of Barack Obama’s election as our nation’s first African American president, yet little thought will ever be given to something fundamental to democratic governments - the peaceful transition of power.
It’s difficult for the average American to appreciate this peaceful transition. When we go to the polls there’s no threat of violence. We assume that we’ll be able to vote, the votes will be tallied and the victor peacefully sworn in.
From the resources the Iraqi government spent preserving ballot integrity, to those spent on voter security, it was my experience as Governance Chief and Liaison to the Anbar Provincial Council for the first Marine Expeditionary Force, that everything about the voting process was different in Iraq.
In fact, a very strong argument could be made that the biggest difference between our two countries is voter apathy. In Iraq, despite the threat of violence, voter turnout was more than 70 percent. In Illinois, the citizens elected Rod Blagojevich as Governor twice.
This is in no way meant to cast dispersions on our political system; rather it’s the opposite. As I witnessed the Iraqis struggle to build their version of democracy, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are.
Two Chairmen of the Fallujah City Council were assassinated in the span of 12 months. During my deployment, one Anbar Provincial Council member and his 11-year-old son were killed in a suicide bombing and another council member was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. The current Governor of Anbar survived several assassination attempts. And despite the violence, those Iraqis continued to move the ball forward. Such experiences put things in perspective. I only wish more of my colleagues had similar experiences, as I think our system would benefit from such an eye opener.
Here we have established local, county, state and national governing bodies with corresponding district representatives. The citizens of Iraq are not so fortunate. We have standard rules of order governing each elected body. The leaders of Iraq are not so fortunate.
In short, we take our democratic system for granted. Whether it’s the election of our nation’s president every four years, or the decisions made at a quarterly meeting of a democratically-elected cooperative board of directors, or even the hiring of a superintendent by a locally elected school board, we simply give little thought to how blessed we are.
I must admit that I, too, took those things for granted until I began my tour in Iraq. Try to imagine building such a system from scratch. Try to imagine explaining the need for detailed by-laws to a provincial council chairman who lacks the experience of a representative form of government -
someone who has never voted for a co-op director, school board member and certainly never a president.
As I climbed the stairs in the capitol to attend my first session in nearly eight months, I realized how fortunate we are. And as the scandal surrounding our current governor began to unfold, I realized that we are blessed to have a system that will take care of even this ugly situation. Yes, the public is justifiably shocked by the alleged corrupt practices, but in the end our system, based on the separation of powers and checks and balances, will work and the guilty will be punished.
In Iraq, we began every mission by asking ourselves one question: What does success look like? In the end, success will be an Iraqi government that can function without U.S. assistance and that can peacefully transfer power after elections.
Since my tour in Iraq, and in light of the charges levied against Governor Blagojevich, I have often asked myself what success looks like in Illinois? I am confident that the system will work and justice will prevail, but real success will be a renewed sense of vigilance by the voter.
Voters will demand clear and direct answers to the difficult challenges that face us - the kind that cannot be found in a 30 second commercial. Voters will demand a spirit of cooperation demonstrated by many of my Republican and Democrat colleagues who worked together to take care of my district during my deployment in Iraq.
In short, success in Illinois will be a level of voter resiliency, interest and participation similar to that demonstrated by the Iraqi people when they literally risked their lives to vote during the last round of national elections.
State Representative Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville 97th District) received the Illinois Electric Cooperatives’ Public Service Award in 2007. He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, and as a Marine Corps Reservist, 3rd Civil Affairs Group member, during 2007-2008.
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