Trust, transparency, and tithing is not enough to sustain democracy

As a “Democracy Coach” who travels the globe, I often reflect upon what I have learned from emerging political leaders about their challenges in governance. Nearly everywhere I traveled, citizen activists reported that government corruption was the top challenge in their communities. I naively believed that the U.S. was immune to this issue.

Lacking an anti-corruption magic wand, I developed a “firewall” for democracy and civil society by creating a formula embracing the concepts of Trust, Transparency, and Tithing.

Trust. Your personal trust asset is your most important commodity. Are you a person of your word? There is a saying, “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

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I’ve worked in places where no one trusts anyone. Your neighbor would turn you in to the secret police if it meant a better job, heat in the winter, or a nicer home. Without trust, there is no civil society. There is no fundraising if people don’t trust you to use the money as promised.

In the U.S., we have campaign finance laws with legal consequences for corruption. Bad political actors faced fines and prison time — and it was enforced. In the past, for example, former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) spent 20 months in prison for political corruption. Among his transgressions? The purchase of a $43,000 Rolex watch with campaign funds.

But not now. President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE excused political corruption. Among those pardoned for their crimes were former elected officials, including disgraced former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who illegally used $200,000 in campaign money. Instead of reporting to a West Texas prison to serve his 11-month sentence, he is now free — a major black eye to trust in American politics that will take years to repair.

Transparency. Those entrusted with other people’s money must learn to love a spreadsheet and embrace accountability. In a functioning democracy, political leaders must open the shades, be good stewards and let the sunshine in.

Instead, “Dark Money”, for which the source of political money is not disclosed, has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling; more than $1 billion has been spent in the last decade, according to Citizens for Responsive Politics.

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That ruling is an abomination to the spirit of campaign finance laws and further erodes the public’s belief in free and fair elections. Hidden sources of money, sanctioned by the Supreme Court, has shattered transparency.

Tithing. A Biblical term for voluntary contributions of 10 percent to the church, I define it in broader terms as “giving back” to help others or adopting a “Golden Rule” in politics to treat others as you want to be treated.

American children learn early to give a bit of their allowances in the church collection plate. Kids sell Girl Scout cookies and wrapping paper and do many activities to raise money to help others.

Those lessons learned in childhood are powerful: if there is a disaster anywhere in the world, Americans step up to help. Not surprisingly, studies show that lower-income households donate a higher percentage of their income to charities than those in higher-income groups.

In January, our nation faced the biggest crisis in my lifetime after domestic terrorists attacked our beacon of hope and democracy, the U.S. Capitol, motivated by the lie that the November presidential election was “stolen.”

So, I’ve added a fourth concept: Truth.

Historically, we’ve seen evil men like Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators plant seeds of hate that spread like poison, destroying whole nations and murdering millions. The internet was supposed to make us smarter, instead, it’s a dark web of conspiracies of lies, hate and evil.

In 1933, the radio was the hottest invention during the early years of Nazi rule. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels recognized its potential to transmit Nazi messages directly into every German’s home. Under Goebbels’s direction, a cheap, affordable radio was developed for all Germans, a perfect vehicle for Adolf Hitler to spread conspiracy theories and spew hatred via radio waves. Message sent, message received: Germans quickly fell under the spell of the loquacious Hitler, who was a charismatic orator.

Today in 2021, we’re facing a similar disaster. Digital media has replaced radio to spread “fake” news, misinformation, hate and conspiracy theories. How do we, as emerging and current political leaders halt this cancerous propaganda? It’s something everyone, no matter where we live, must confront.

I now challenge my students to incorporate these “Four T’s” of Trust, Transparency, Tithing, and Truth into their daily lives. Because it is only with that firm foundation that we can restore belief in the stability of civil society and faith in democratic systems. Ignite your personal trust asset and commit to using that power for good. Because our democracy depends on it.

Nancy Bocskor is an adjunct professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, where she teaches “Fundraising and Budgeting” and “Women, Democracy and Global Politics.” She is the president of the Nancy Bocskor Company, a firm specializing in civic engagement.