Why this Historian Decided to Run for Congress

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Junius P. Rodriguez is a Professor of History at Eureka College and the Democratic candidate for Congress from the 18th district in Illinois.

Every historian understands that the silences speak. Somehow nestled within a contested worldview shaped perhaps by Faulkner or maybe even by Proust, we have come to anticipate the subtle interplay that exists between presence and absence and we relish the memories that are thus fashioned. But we must feign confidence if we imagine that history will be kind to our moments of quietude that result from deliberate inaction on our part—whether by callous indifference or learned helplessness. I do believe that in a fundamental way we will each be called upon to account for the choices that we made in those moments where our purposeful silence further exacerbated a situation that we might otherwise have remedied. Such sins of omission are on our part wearing, and collectively they constituted an onerous burden that society must continue to bear.

As educators we strive to motivate our students not only at an intellectual level, but also on a necessary path of civic engagement. We frequently assume that well-educated students who are inculcated within a liberal arts and sciences environment will instinctively learn to accept the mantle of responsibility that citizenship entails. And while we may call ourselves mentors in this educational journey, to others we might sometimes seem to be missing in action on the contested landscapes of what some have termed the culture wars. We could live with the hypocrisy of a “do as I say and not as I do” mindset that attempts to absolve us from our silences, but somehow that nagging question will always persist: “What did you do when you could have made a difference?”

As a career educator with thirty-seven years of teaching experience, with twenty-four of those at the collegiate level, it would have been easy to ignore the nagging question and find comfort in the silence that comes with stasis. The security of tenure, the benefits of seniority, and one’s early formulation of retirement plans would all caution against doing something foolish—the sort of thing that wiser colleagues might describe as “just a phase that you are going through” at the moment. But sometimes these episodes of madness might ignite within us passion and purpose that has been ever-present within us yet muted by our affinity for the silences in a world that is filled with too much noise.

I recently accepted the nomination of the Illinois Democratic Party to be its standard bearer in the IL-18th congressional district contest. This is both an exciting opportunity and a humbling experience for me as I prepare for the rigors of the coming campaign. On a special note, the current IL-18th district includes a large portion of the counties that Abraham Lincoln once represented (1847-1849) in what was then the IL-7th district.

My motivation to seek elective office stems from two sources. It is one of those moments where praxis can well occur as theory and practice are merged in the give-and-take of a political contest. On an aspirational level, I hope to conduct a focused, smart, issues-based campaign that can challenge the sense of disillusionment that alienates so many from politics today. I also believe that the window may be quickly closing on any attempt to remedy the profound dysfunction and toxicity that has come to impair the U.S. Congress in recent years. It is tragic that the institution that the Founders fashioned to be the world’s most deliberative body has come to experience the paralysis of bitter partisanship. Somehow we have allowed compromise to be perceived as a dirty word in public discourse and the marginalization of moderates—in both parties—has only furthered the stifling polarization. With an approval rate hovering around 12 percent, the United States Congress shows little sign of wanting to address the systemic dysfunction that seems readily apparent to all who view the Congress in low esteem. Moreover, we the voters become enablers of bad behavior by constantly returning incumbents to office despite often fair-to-mediocre performance.

I see this campaign not as a quixotic pursuit or a “fool’s errand,” but rather as an opportunity to renew my faith in a system that I believe can still be redeemed. I view myself as a hard-nosed realist who has the pragmatism to see the world as it is, but I temper that with a genuine hope that the voting public can no longer remain satisfied with business as usual. Those who seek to parlay partisanship as the only rallying cry upon which they can defend failed policy positions and systemic ineptitude may soon rue the day when the conveyor belt of incumbency fails them. In short, I believe that we will soon witness the rise of the middle—those moderates of good will from both sides of the aisle must become the impetus for change.

Broken government is merely a symptom of the growing disassociation that citizens have taken with the political process in the United States. In its process of becoming fashionably jaded, the American voting public has witnessed the commodification of political life as the twin forces of big money and special interests have come to have controlling interest on our Democracy. The most troubling aspect of this is that we let it happen, but we can and must do better. I still believe in an America that Lincoln termed “the last best hope of earth,” and believe that it can be renewed if we summon the will to do so. The stakes are high in the IL-18th, but they are equally high in communities all across the country during this election season. For these reasons, our deliberate silence, our inaction, and our failure to do our part when the nation calls upon us to do so will not be lost to history, and yes, we shall be judged.

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