Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the Emerging Crisis of Legitimacy

Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto and his crack-smoking, binge-drinking habits are generating headlines around the world and embarrassment for Toronto's citizens. But Ford and his drug-dealing pals reflect a deeper problem than just substance abuse. It's another example of the growing crisis of legitimacy of our democratic institutions.

It's now common for politicians to depict government as the enemy and not a critical tool of collective will for the 21st century. They assert that taxpayer's 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 Mayor Ford attack every democratic institution going -- the police, the media, and 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 interest groups, and many members of Congress go on to become lobbyists. The insurance industry prevented the country from joining the rest of the developed world with single payer health care system. Fully 92 percent 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.

The same problems loom across the Atlantic. 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. And there is now open discussion among leading thinkers that global institutions like the UN or the World Bank are no longer "fit for function." Many wonder if global problems are just too hard to solve, or if our model is outdated and inadequate.

In frustration, many citizens don't vote, reasoning that their ballot won't change anything. 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 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. 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.

2. We need to divorce politicians from relying on big money. Federally in Canada we are good at this, but Ontario sorely needs to update its laws. In the U.S., citizens thought they had a system that limited big donations, but their 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.

3. Interdependence, which has elected officials and the public recognizing that the public and private sector 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. sub-prime 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 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.

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 we could all see his daily schedule. Municipal corruption in Quebec would have been thwarted if citizens had known the cost of construction contracts and could compare the numbers with 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.

A version of this post previously appeared in The Toronto Star.

Don Tapscott is an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto and Executive Director of the Global Solutions Networks program. @dtapscott on twitter