Is Democracy in Deep Trouble?

Don Tapscott, LinkedIn, Nov 18, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

I generally disagree with Don Tapscott but In want to chime in with him on this one. He argues that our political institutions are failing and the future of democracy itself is in question. Voters are increasingly unable to sway the political agenda, and our political leaders are behaving increasingly badly. "The ongoing abuse of trust by office holders is the product of widespread rot," he writes. "The result is a full-blown crisis in legitimacy." Consequently, he writes, we need to replace the existing system with "participatory" built around five principles:

  1. Integrity - "elected officials need to embrace integrity – which is honesty and consideration."
  2. Accountability - "we need to divorce politicians from relying on big money"
  3. Interdependence - "the public, private sector and civil society all have a role to play in sustaining a healthy society."
  4. Engagement - "mechanisms for government to benefit from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer."
  5. Transparency - "almost everything should be done in the full light of day"

These are nice-sounding principles but I fear they are unworkable. Two of them - integrity and transparency - depend on the character of our elected officials, which we already agree is lacking. What stands for 'engagement' today is mostly a series of public relations exercises. 'Interdependence' usually means granting special access to business and industry to the decision-making process, access they have purchased and will not let go.

We need to recognize that governance is complex and cannot be managed. We will not obtain good government by telling people how they ought to behave because, even if the recommendations are very good, a certain number of people will not follow them, and will ruin it for everyone else. We must structure democracy in such a way as to prevent these people from becoming so powerful in the first place. There have to be limits to wealth, limits to power, and limits to influence. There's no easy way to do this. But without them, democracy will fail at a time in history when we need it most.


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