Why does nothing get done in Springfield or Washington?

In a recent Crain’s column, Greg Hinz maintains that the presence of dealmakers will get government working again in Springfield and Washington. I respond:

For sure, Greg Hinz, there’s always a pressing need in Springfield and Washington for dealmakers. And dealmakers are with us (despite the recent retirement in Springfield of respected Republican dealmaker Christine Rodogno). But today their voices are drowned out by the media-driven flood of dollars and demonization that’s overrun every square inch of politics and government in America.

Let’s face it, the reason nothing gets done in Springfield or Washington or anywhere else these days is not so much an absence of dealmakers as the fact that America itself is under water, politically speaking, from coast to coast. At every level of government — local, state and national — our top-down, money-driven, polarizing political discourse system (or media) is silencing dealmakers and choking government itself.

This problem is systemic. It’s a media problem. And at its core, invariably, is the corrosive impact of big money: the attack ad-driven subversion by the so-called political donor class of the election-centered political discourse system that ought to be giving Americans the information they need to vote intelligently. And, in a digital age, that ought to be giving Americans an informed voice in the political and government decisions that affect their lives.

But nothing like this is happening today. Bottom line, the nation’s political media has become a giant megaphone in the hands of mega-rich donors and candidates who use it to spoonfeed, dumb down and polarize the American electorate. It breeds extremism. And oligarchy. In Illinois, it looks like this:

Those who control this media have no need for dealmakers. Case in point: millionaire Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s abrupt firing of his top staff and subsequent hiring of Illinois Policy Institute hardliners. All this after his veto of a Democratic budget was overridden by the Illinois House and Senate.

So much for dealmakers like Christine Rodogno. Even Americans unfamiliar with oligarchy despise this top-down, money-driven political media. Why? Because it leaves them either helplessly voiceless or exhaustingly combative in the political and government decisions that affect their lives.

To me, Mr. Hinz, it serves no purpose to argue that dealmakers could restore this broken, election-centered system to functionality. What we need to be thinking about are alternatives to it that will restore functionality to government in Springfield and Washington get things done. A tall order, no doubt, but necessary giver the role that digital-age communications technologies have played in disrupting traditional political discourse in our media driven society. To thrive or even survive in this age, communities of all sizes need to use these all-powerful technologies to bring out the best in their citizens and governments — not the worst.

The obvious alternative to our existing, polarizing, election-centered political media is non-partisan, issue-centered, citizen-participatory political discourse. Discourse that keeps citizens and governments connected year-round on the issues of the day. Discourse gives citizens an informed voice in the government decisions that affect their lives. Simple as that.

And Americans should have access to this discourse in all three communities — local, state and national — of which every citizen is a member.

So, Mr. Hinz, can we think outside the box? In fact, can we build new boxes? Don’t mess with trying to fix the existing, election-centered box. It’s kaput. But it will heal itself in time — regain its lost credibility and integrity — as citizens and public officials alike are drawn away from it to exciting, credible, issue-centered political discourse: discourse that makes all members of a community (public officials included) responsive and accountable to each other in shaping the community’s best future.

This dynamic, prime-time, year-round, citizen-participatory media programming can be profitable to host media that succeed in tapping and truly serving the Market of the Whole of all members of a community of any size: local, state and national.

Here arises the need for credibility and integrity. So how can this citizen-participatory political discourse earn and hold the trust and involvement of citizens and politicians alike? Here are three quick answers to this key question.

First, it must tap deep into the experience, patriotism and wisdom of the people and their political leaders. It must show respect. Second, it must be strictly rule-governed, transparent and open-ended in imaginative, creative ways that actually bring out the best (not the worst) in citizens and public officials. And third, it must be committed to getting positive results that earn the support of citizens and public officials alike. That’s crucial.

This constructive political discourse stands or falls on the basis of its ability to inform, inspire and motivate entire communities to improve or even reinvent themselves.

That’s saying a lot, I know. But just imagine a televised, five-month, 20-episode prime-time search for best solutions to violence in Chicago or fiscal crisis in Chicago and Illinois Or, at the national level, to the health care crisis (about which no public hearing as ever been held). Would all three communities — local, state and national — not be stronger and better informed after five months of such programming than without it?

Mr. Hinz, can you imagine politically-themed TV programming that’s as gripping to watch as the last two minutes of a pulse-stopping Bears game or an incredible performance on a voter-driven reality TV show like The Voice? Elsewhere I’ve written that pro sports and reality TV are two dynamic TV formats that are destined to contribute to the renewal of political discourse in America.

These are both game formats. So imagine a reality TV program that pits twelve skillful four-member teams of problem solvers, selected from a highly publicized, citywide search for problem solvers, in extended searches for best solutions to a problem like violence. Solutions advanced by teams would be subject to rigorous, even ruthless vetting by stakeholders, experts (including dealmakers and writers like you) and public officials. Winning solutions, selected by multiple viewer votes, would be strictly non-binding and advisory to governments.

And imagine all of these proceedings credibly and accurately regulated by the same precise rule-enforcement techniques — competent referees, instant replay, on-the-spot review and expert commentary—that give credibility to the pro sports contests that air on TV.

Anyone with the means and will to do so can create dynamic, citizen-participatory politically-themed TV programming: TV programming that overnight becomes the new focal point for political discourse in a given community by simply virtue of its ability to make citizens and politicians responsive and accountable to each other in the search for solutions to any and all of the problems that confront their community.

A low budget version could air on CAN-TV in Chicago. Any number of Chicago non-profits, universities or foundations could produce it. The Chicago Community Trust, whose annual On The Table venture is a step in the right direction, comes to mind. So does the Chicago Tribune, which could extend its New Plan of Chicago project to Chicago TV and share it with the Chicago Sun-Times.

High-production versions could air — simultaneously, on different topics — on Channels 2, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 12.

Heck, if Elon Musk can colonize Mars, America can have respected, credible, productive political discourse. Let Chicago and Illinois lead the way in creating it. At Chicago Civic Media, we’re doing just that. So how about it, Greg Hinz: What do you think?

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