02/27/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Illinois Millennials Must Help Restore State's Civic Health

It's time for Illinois Millennials to reclaim our democracy. With today's primaries and general local elections pending in April, our youngest citizens are presented with another opportunity to restore the balance between elected officials and the governed.

There is no better moment than now for Illinois Millennials to turn the page and blaze a path towards a brighter future, be it residents of the downtrodden 2nd Congressional District on Chicago's south side and adjacent suburbs who long for honest service in the public interest, or the citizens of Cicero, who seek to sweep away the vestiges of government for the few.

Civic engagement is integral to a healthy democracy, and the record of Illinois Millennials is mixed at best on these measures. According to the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index, Illinois Millennials are more likely than their national peers to discuss politics on a weekly basis, but rank near the bottom of the 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to voting regularly in local elections. While they speak regularly with friends and family, Illinois Millennials are less likely to be good neighbors. They fall to the bottom tier when it comes to talking to and exchanging favors with neighbors.

The reasons for relatively low civic engagement among Illinois Millennials are many. It begins with weak civic education requirements in our schools. Illinois is not among the 40 states that mandate a civics or government course for graduation, the 21 who test social studies, or the eight who specifically assess students' civic proficiencies.

In the current era of high-stakes testing, subjects excluded from standardized assessments are marginalized, and in our state, civics falls in this category. Given that Millennials who were exposed to high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities are more likely to vote and engage in their communities, young adults in Illinois enter civic life at a distinct disadvantage.

Our politics aren't very competitive nowadays either, as government at the state and in many cases local levels is dominated by a single party, the Democrats in Springfield and Chicago, and the Republicans in the collar counties and downstate. Contested, competitive elections inspire high voter turnout. One-sided affairs only inspire those dependent upon government jobs or contracts and political junkies like me.

Decades of endemic political corruption at every level of Illinois politics has bred distrust, cynicism and a tendency to withdraw from what has too often become an unseemly charade, be it elections or the actual business of governance. This vicious cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as some elected officials capitalize on this vacuum, take care of themselves and their families and friends and leave the rest of us at the table stuck with a bill we can't afford to pay.

As the scale of problems in our state has grown, its civil society has shrunk, weakening our collective capacity to address them. How will we maintain our commitments to state retirees whose pension system is the most underfunded on a per capita basis in the country? Who will rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, including dilapidated urban schools? When will we grapple with the rising costs of entitlement programs that are squeezing federal and state budgets alike?

The answers to these questions demand more than rhetoric, as the burdens of these problems and others will fall disproportionately on our youngest citizens. While our political class continues its verbal sparring, our civic fabric wears ever thin. The time has come for a new generation to embrace the current challenges of democratic governance, to demand more of elected officials during campaigns and their tenure, and to take leadership roles in public life themselves. Democracy in Illinois must be rebuilt from the ground up, and Millennials from Waukegan to Cairo must lead the way.