Civic Engagement

Reclaiming Democracy: A Plea for Political Entrepreneurship

We face daunting challenges, but political institutions cannot cope; it's time to shake up the system.

The recent shutdown of the American government uncovers not only the width of the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans, but also a much more fundamental problem facing electoral democracies around the globe.

We are witnessing a crisis of political representation and accountability throughout the advanced industrial world and emerging markets. Citizens are deserting the political arena. Governments are in a stalemate. Trends of low electoral turnout, increasing electoral volatility, and shrinking political party and voluntary movement membership are just some of the symptoms.

Many factors contribute to this crisis, but five different-yet-interrelated phenomena are central to it: myopia, unaccountability, complexity, the decline of political parties, and a talent deficit.

Political Myopia

Political myopia, or short-sightedness, manifests itself among voters and politicians. Although accusations of short-sighted politicians are often cast aside as mere ideological banter, evidence suggests that many political parties are increasingly catch-all in outlook and favor winning elections to acquire power over sticking to policy ideals (see, for example, “Why Do Parties Change Position?” and “Causes and Electoral Consequences of Party Policy Shifts in Multiparty Elections”). Rather than presenting visions for society and policy, parties are engaged in a sort of GPS-politics aiming to identify blocs of voters that will aid them with victory. Partly as a response to voters—who are increasingly fickle in their partisan loyalties—many parties, especially those of the mainstream left and right, have shaken off their ideological feathers, comprised on long-term policy ideals, and favored short-term electoral gains over long-term growth. Voters alike seem to have taken on the role of political shareholders characterized by impatience, unrealistic expectations, and a focus on the short-term.

Unaccountable Governing Bodies and Societal Complexity

The recent global financial and economic crisis exacerbates the overall lack of long-range perspective in thinking or planning. Real policy solutions are scarce. What is more, policy authority is rapidly transferring from the hands of elected officials to technocrats working in banks, rating agencies, and unelected and unaccountable governing bodies such as the European Commission or International Monetary Fund. This hampers political representation and accountability through elections even further. While democratic institutions have many self-stabilizing capacities, we cannot be sanguine about a positive outcome to the current crisis. One reason for this is that political institutions are managing representation and accountability in a time of dramatic social and economic transformation, resulting in hugely increasing, multidimensional diversity. The ”old politics” of left and right are eroding, and globalized economics has had a fracturing impact on politics. With this, citizens are much less rooted in traditional civil society—unions and business, church and local community—while the challenges of understanding politics have increased dramatically beyond citizens’ capacity to process it.

The Decline of the Party

Historically, political parties have been the most successful forms of citizen-democracy linkage. Yet it is well known that political parties are in decline—in their membership, levels of public identification, and links to civil society. Once regarded as an essential safeguard for democracy, political parties seem like outmoded organizations that may stand in the way of democratic renewal rather than promoting it. The increase in technocratic governance and the demise of mainstream political parties provides a fertile breeding ground for extremist politics. Right-wing populist parties in East-Central and Western Europe, as well as the Tea Party in the United States, are gaining strong political footholds. Nuanced political answers to the world’s complex political problems aren’t gaining much traction in public discourse.

Talent Deficit

Ask any businessperson about the key to their company’s success, and the good ones will answer: the talent. Part of the problem we face is that the broken political system scares away much-needed political talent. How many people do you know who are chomping at the bit to run for office or get involved with government? The personal stakes involved in running, and either winning or losing, are too high, and the hopes of actually accomplishing anything if elected are overshadowed by the prospects of gridlock and corruption.

A Call for a Political Entrepreneurship Movement

Although the magnitude and complexity of problems that most societies face today may turn many away from political action, they could also present a motor for change. What can we do to mend broken linkages between political and public officials and voters? What role can technology and the anthropological changes sweeping in because of it positively play? These dire political times call for a new and long-term rethinking of the political entrepreneurship movement.

Can a group of political entrepreneurs fighting for sustainability in nature, schools, streets, workplaces, or the marketplace reclaim the political arena and ignite enthusiasm for politics? If we truly care about the state of our world, democracy, and economy, the answer must be yes. If so, the question becomes how? How can political entrepreneurs develop new modes of citizen-politics linkage, and develop policies that work and solve the problems we face? Who are these entrepreneurs? Where are they, and what can we do to excite, support, and engage them in change?

Beyond that, the system itself must change. Here are some suggestions for how we can make this happen:

Politics Through People: More Talent, Fewer Tribes

We need to better connect people with politics. Instead of political parties functioning as tribes, which are closed and divisive in nature, we can organize people within an inclusive community that is designated as a pool for talent and new ideas. In other words, is it time to kill the political party or so radically change it that it becomes unrecognizable? Technology can be a great facilitator to this but alone is not the answer.

Evidence-Based Public Policy: More Evidence, Less Ideology

Rather than crafting policy around partisan warfare over a healthcare bill or a school voucher, we should take lessons from social organizations that experiment with solutions to a problem on a small scale before they implement a large-scale program—think Esther Dulfo’s work on the success of aid provided by international organizations or NGOs. And, specifically, what role does behaviorial science play in informing these evidence-base solutions?

Open and Accountable Politics: More Transparency, Less Strategy

How can we restore faith in public officials? Whistle-blowing has been and will likely always be an important accountability tool. Scandals such as Wikileaks have intensified the crisis of representation and accountability. The new political entrepreneurs must take ownership and develop transparency mechanisms such as annual reports, full financial disclosure, and vote-tracking websites. There are great examples of this at the Sunlight Foundation.

Popping the Cynicism Bubble and Crowdsourcing Solutions

The topics of politics and reform are often disheartening. In the United States, The Daily Show is both a source of comic relief, and important political analysis; it also helps fuel to the cynicism flame. This cynicism guarantees continued business as usual—or worse. Every day we don’t act, the problem compounds, and we are hopeful that a new generation—defined by point-of-view and not age—will emerge to chart a new path.

An International Call

It is time to call together an international, collaborative community of political entrepreneurs. We’ve seen the great contributions of the social entrepreneurship movement. Let’s build on that, as well as the sparks of existing political entrepreneurs, to enhance democracy. Academia, philanthropy, social investors, and those who care about democracy need to facilitate and fund it.

The above are just some of the questions and ideas we need to explore on the topic of political entrepreneurship. Please tweet your ideas, question and examples of political entrepreneurs to #polient.

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  • BY Jeff Wiguna

    ON October 31, 2013 01:43 PM

    One of my favorite articles on an arena in need of great attention.

  • Sharon Zivkovic's avatar

    BY Sharon Zivkovic

    ON October 31, 2013 02:44 PM

    A community of practice would be wonderful as political entrepreneurs face a number of unique challenges.  My own innovations include an active citizenship program based on education for sustainability principles that embeds in government infrastructure and a framework for systemic innovation and change that focuses on the interface between government and community systems.

  • BY Alejandro Poiré

    ON October 31, 2013 06:33 PM

    What can a policy school offer this group? What do we need to learn and teach? What should we focus our research projects, continuous education and degree programs on? I have no doubt that public entrepreneurship, even beyond strictly political entrepreneurship is both needed and growing. Yet it is very unclear how best to address it from academia. Any examples to look upon?

  • BY Ralph Rosenberg

    ON November 1, 2013 04:06 AM

    In Iowa, a non-partisan group of elected and appointed leaders, from all 3 branches of government, created the Institute for Public Leadership. During its brief five year tenure, it drew praise for bringing emerging leaders together in multiple day trainings to simultaneously be exposed to topics on diversity, ethics, alternative dispute resolution, communications, etc. This was not an institute whose goal was to achieve consensus on the future of agriculture in Iowa, or on various social issues. The goal was training potential future leaders. 

    The authors and commentators have raised the questions how do we address these concerns.  I suggest our Institute was one remedy. I also suggest that such training begin during pre-professional life, as well, as during our more formal academic training.

  • Jack Heath's avatar

    BY Jack Heath, SANE Australia

    ON November 2, 2013 07:22 PM

    Thanks for a compelling piece!  It reminds me that Australia is relatively well off compared to other countries by virtue of the fact that in Australia it is compulsory to vote and most everyone does.  What this means is that political parties must battle over the middle ground rather than extremes so parties are less likely to pursue polarising politics in an effort to get people out to vote.  I wonder whether there would be value in “parties of elders” forming with a cross section of talented individuals - the commitment is to behave in an ethical way, without any spin and take a long term view so that proposed legislation is analysed through the lens of what it would look like say 10 or 20 years from now.  It is about reclaiming the notion of a House of Review.

  • Frances Smith's avatar

    BY Frances Smith

    ON November 3, 2013 02:51 PM

    I love it! Policy is an important and essential piece to any change that will happen gradually throughout within the US as well as throughout the World.  WOW, this is an awesome concept and I am looking forward to understanding the integral parts of this new paradigm. I truly understand the need for this new dimension in politics because this can give a voice to those who are shut out of the political process a voice as well as the ability to raise funds.  Wow, is all that I can say right now because I feel that this is what has been missing for sometime and I am so glad that you wrote about this point of view.

  • BY Conor Cusack

    ON November 9, 2013 08:23 AM

    Great Article. Timely and on the mark. We can start by amending State and Federal Assets Forfeiture Statutes.  Instead of allocating 80% of funds seized via law enforcement, and divert at least some of those monies to restoring public education cuts, improving infrastructure, and restoring struggling neighborhoods. 

    I invite you to review:

    1. Recycling: Now with Seized Money and Property:!

    2. Consider if $ from illegal assets forfeiture, matched by $ donated via local businesses for kids!!

  • Shoshon's avatar

    BY Shoshon

    ON May 22, 2014 12:58 PM

    Who will fund this ‘political entrepreneurship’?

    Politics costs money, and innovation is especially expensive.  Innovation is threatening to the status quo, and those who benefit from it; any meaningful innovation is likely to face strong opposition.

    Until the donor class funds political innovation, good ideas will not have the sustained funding necessary to attempt, fail, learn, and evolve.

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