Rob Ford and the emerging crisis of legitimacy
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – The Rob Ford spectacle in Toronto reflects a deeper problem: trust in our democratic institutions is collapsing.
Nov 09 2013. By: Don Tapscott
Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto and his crack-smoking, binge-drinking habits are generating headlines around the world and deep embarrassment for Toronto’s citizens. But the Ford media circus reflects a deeper problem than just substance abuse. It’s another example of a growing crisis of legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
Trust is collapsing at all levels of government. Witness the current Canadian Senate farce or Ontario’s two cancelled gas-fired power plants. Legislatures increasingly use massive omnibus bills to thwart effective public scrutiny. It’s common for politicians to depict government as the enemy and not a critical tool of collective will for the 21st century. They assert that taxpayers’ rights take precedence over citizen rights. Public service used to be a great calling and now it’s rare for a great leader to heed the call. Politicians such as Ford attack every democratic institution going — the police, the media, anyone who gets in his way.
In the U.S., cities are going bankrupt. Congress is dysfunctional and deeply corrupt. U.S. politicians are beholden to wealthy contributors, and many members of Congress go on to become lobbyists. The insurance industry prevented the U.S. from joining the rest of the developed world with a single-payer health care system. Fully 92 per cent of Americans want background checks of people buying guns, but the rich and powerful NRA thwarts any legislation. The notion that Congress is “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is risible.
Internationally the same problem looms. The British were outraged by their MPs’ secretive and outlandish expense claims. Italians are appalled by the immoral and illegal actions of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In frustration, many citizens don’t vote, reasoning that it won’t change anything anyway. In particular, young people are looking for ways other than voting to bring about social change and a new youth radicalization is fully underway.
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.”
How can it be that people are beginning to question the legitimacy of our democratic systems?
The current 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 a new era of “participatory democracy” built around five principles.
1. Integrity, which is basically about doing the right thing. Politicians everywhere know that negative advertising is toxic to democracy, poisons real political debate and dumbs down the discussion. Nevertheless, they caricature their opponents with 30-second attack ads. Or like Rob Ford, who started a robocalls campaign in a councillor’s ward after he voted against Ford’s precious subways.
2. We need to stop politicians from relying on big money. Canada federally has good laws, but Ontario’s sorely need improvement. In the U.S., citizens thought they had a system that limited big donations, but their right-wing Supreme Court clearly became alarmed that wealthy donors couldn’t influence elections. In the notorious Citizens United case, the court lifted the limits on political donations, and a casino magnate promptly pledged $100 million to fight Obama’s re-election.
3. Interdependence. Elected officials and citizens need to recognize that both the public and private sectors have a role to play in sustaining a healthy society. 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 U.S. subprime mortgage crisis. The banks and Canada are healthier because of this.
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 Internet, citizens can become involved, learn from each other, take responsibility for their communities and country, learn from and influence elected officials and vice versa.
5. Transparency. Everything is done in the full light of day. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the Internet is the perfect vehicle to achieve this. Post online all government activities and financial transactions. Perhaps Rob Ford’s life would have unfolded differently if all of us could have seen his daily schedule. Municipal corruption in Quebec would have been thwarted if citizens could have compared their construction contracts with the cost of similar work in Toronto or Vancouver.
To restore legitimacy and trust we need a second era of democracy with stronger, more open institutions, active citizen citizenship and a culture of public discourse and participation.
Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Business and Executive Director of the Global Solutions Networks program. @dtapscott on twitter
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