THE BLOG
11/17/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rush Limbaugh Is Emblematic of Our Political Rot

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It is stunning that leading conservative thinkers are arguing that the Republican majority in Congress is a mandate for even more gridlock. Rush Limbaugh says Republicans weren't elected "to make Congress work. They weren't sent there to get along." Instead, Limbaugh argues, their mandate is "to stop Barack Obama. Republicans were not elected to govern."

The National Review, an influential conservative publication, says the GOP should focus on creating the best possible climate for electing a Republican president in 2016: "Not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism's main political goal over the next two years."

It is small wonder that a growing number of citizens aren't voting, reasoning that their ballot won't change anything. And why many exhort via bumper stickers: "Don't Vote! It Only Encourages Them!"

In this election, turnout was just 36 percent, the lowest turnout since 1942. It is particularly young voters that are not bothering to vote. They are beginning to look for other ways to bring about social change. A new youth radicalization has begun.

For many Americans, Congress is dysfunctional and deeply corrupt. For these voters, Abraham Lincoln's notion that Congress is "government of the people, by the people, for the people" has become laughable. The more the citizens don't feel their political institutions reflect their will, the more they question the legitimacy and applicability of the institutions' decisions.

The American political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that legitimacy is "the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society." The ongoing abuse of trust by office holders is the product of widespread rot. The result is a full-blown crisis in legitimacy.

The solution isn't to allow online voting or other methods of increasing the turnout. We need more than changes to politics. It's time to reinvent democracy itself.

The first era of democracy created representative institutions, but with weak mandates, passive citizens and politicians beholden to powerful funders and special interests. Call it "broadcast democracy." It was only a matter of time before such a model ran its course.

We need to replace this old model with a new era of "participatory democracy" built around five principles.

1. Integrity, which is basically about doing the right thing. To rebuild the public's trust in political institutions, elected officials need to embrace integrity - which is honesty and consideration. Honest politicians establish trusting relationships with voters, politicians need to be open and fairly disclose information. They must be truthful, accurate, and complete in communications. They must not mislead or be perceived to mislead.

Considerate officials don't cause traffic jams for those who disagree with them. They have regard for the interests, desires, or feelings of others especially the electorate. They don't spy on their citizens and undermine their basic right to privacy. They don't kill good political discussion with negative attack ads. Politicians everywhere know that negative advertising is toxic to democracy, poisons reasoned political debate and dumbs down the discussion. Nevertheless, they trash their opponents with attack ads alienating voters and adding to the legitimacy crisis.

2. Accountability to the electorate. We need to divorce politicians from relying on big money. US citizens thought they had a system that limited big donations, but the right-wing Supreme Court clearly became alarmed at the possibility of wealthy donors not being able to influence elections. In the notorious Citizens United case, the court effectively lifted the limits on political donations, and a casino magnate promptly pledged $100 million to fight Obama's re-election in 2012. Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig is right that we need to adopt the policies of other countries that place strict controls on campaign financing.

3. Interdependence. Elected officials need to recognize that the public, private sector and civil society all have a role to play in sustaining a healthy society. As Jeffrey Sachs has argued there is a price to civilization and we need strong, good government. When politicians say the best role of government is "to get out of the way," they are shirking their responsibilities. Strong regulations saved Canadian banks from being sucked into the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. The banks and Canada are healthier because of this. Similarly corporations and NGOPs are becoming pillars of society and we all need new ways of collaborating on shared interests.

4. Engagement with citizens. We need ongoing mechanisms for government to benefit from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer. Using the Net, citizens can become involved, learn from each other, take responsibility for their communities and country, learn from and influence elected officials and vice versa. It is now possible to have a three-day "digital brainstorm" with the entire electorate of a country. Challenges, participatory budgeting, electronic town halls, have all proven effective in turning voters into participants in democracy.

5. Transparency. Almost everything should be done in the full light of day. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the Internet is the perfect vehicle to achieve this. Transparency is critical to trust. The question "What are they hiding?" encapsulates the relationship between transparency and trust. It implies that if government leaders hold secrets, they do so for a nefarious reason and therefore are un-deserving of trust. Citizens know that the fewer secrets leaders keep, the more likely they will be trusted. Transparency, even radical transparency is becoming central to building trust between stakeholders and their institutions.

To restore legitimacy and trust we need a second era of democracy based on integrity and accountability, and with stronger, more open institutions, active citizen citizenship and a culture of public discourse and participation.

Don Tapscott is the author of 15 books and rated by Thinkers50 as one of the top five living business thinkers in the world.

His latest book, The Digital Economy Anniversary Edition: Rethinking Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, is out now. On Twitter @dtapscott

A version of this article appeared on LinkedIn.com.

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