The Limits of Teledemocracy

Criticism
of television's impact on democratic debate has given rise to a
growing
list of remedies: longer soundbites on the evening news, new
procedures for
making presidential debates more illuminating, more diverse
broadcast formats for
questioning candidates, even nationwide electronic town meetings.
Refurbishing
public discourse is a worthy cause, but will it cure the massive
ills of modern
democracy? Is the problem with our politics, at its root, a
failure to
communicate?

If these proposals were enacted and succeeded in expanding
citizen participation
in elections, they would be laudable. Still, they would do
nothing to ensure that
government is more responsible, responsive, and effective so that
people would
feel continuing reason to participate.

But, worse, carrying out these proposals would do little to
increase citizen
involvement. Even the most radical reform, the electronic town
meeting, is
unlikely to increase public participation in government. After
the novelty wore
off, such meetings probably would not attract a much larger
audience than
face-to-face town meetings, and the record of those is not
encouraging.

In seventeenth-century Dedham, Massachusetts, town meeting
attendance typically
exceeded 70 percent, according to Jane Mansbridge's study,
Beyond Adversary
Democracy
. But this impressive figure was attained only where
every
inhabitant lived within a mile of the meeting place, a town crier
visited the
house of each absentee half an hour into the meeting, fines were
levied for
absence or tardiness, and only some sixty men were eligible in
the first place.
In Sudbury, a town that imposed no fines, attendance averaged 46
percent during
the 1650s. Overall, Mansbridge estimates that 20 to 60 percent of
potential
voters attended meetings in eighteenth-century Massachusetts.

Results from experiments in electronically mediated democratic
forms are no more
encouraging. F. Christopher Arterton, whose book
Teledemocracy is the most
comprehensive review of these experiments, finds "little support
for the notion
that citizens have the interest necessary to sustain near
universal
participation." Arterton concludes, "Most citizens, probably
around two-thirds,
will not participate."

These unsentimental assessments something of a cold shower for
telede

mocracy should not keep us from taking seriously ideas for
improving the format
and technology of democratic discourse. The proposed reforms of
electioneering
are based on the correct premise that different media and
communicative settings
affect the messages that get through. A kind of soft McLuhanism
not that the
medium is the message, but that the medium shapes and constrains
the message is
as sensible as McLuhan's determinism was absurd. Some grievances,
some questions,
some original solutions or proposals are more likely to emerge in
particular
media systems than in others.

The potential impact of media forms suggests a need for
pluralism. What might we
learn about our candidates, and about ourselves, through
different media and
varied formats? We don't know until we try.


New Media, New Publics

New forms of communication create different kinds of public
discussion, and even
different publics. Talk radio, for example, offers a striking
contrast with
traditional settings for public debate. The anonymity of the
radio talk show
format provides an occasion for many who might not feel
comfortable speaking up
at a PTA meeting. And the pressure on callers as well as host to
be clever,
knowing, and perhaps cynical often draws out a kind of exchange
unheard at the
PTA. It would be horrifying if this were the only model or
dominant model of
political discourse, but it is fine, perhaps bracing, that it is
one among many
forms of political talk available.



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Some critics believe that no good can come of talk radio or an
electronic meeting
because they are not Greek agora or face-to-face town meetings in
classic New
England style. But face-to-face communication does not guarantee
authenticity,
nor do the electronic media preclude it. Sometimes, in fact,
impersonal media
improve communication. Many people have the experience of
expressing something
in a letter that they were unable to say face-to-face. One study
some years ago
found that middle-class people learned most about their
children's school from
face-to-face conversations with teachers, but working-class
people typically
learned more about the school from print and broadcast media. In
teaching a
lecture class of 400 students, I have found that when students
could ask
questions or engage in conversation with me by e-mail, I got much
more comment
(and, interestingly, on a first name basis!) than I ever had in
face-to-face
office hours.

So there are no grounds for automatic distrust of the newer and
more mediated
forms of communication. They open up new possibilities. As these
examples
suggest, they have a democratic effect, lowering the barriers
that class and
status set in the way of open communication.

I do not worry, as some have, that with Jerry Brown's 800 number,
Ross Perot on
Larry King, and Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall and MTV, our
presidential candidates
have been reduced to mere entertainers. From the 1790s on,
similar fears have
animated American conservatives each time a party or candidate
found a new way
to address the people, especially the less politically active,
more effectively
than before. The most recent attempts to reach out to the
disaffected and break
through the conventional forms have improved political
communication and helped
democratize the practice of presidential campaigning.


Democratic Delusions

As additions to the repertoire of political talk, the new media
forms should be
welcomed. But as a substitute for politics, the new forms of
direct teledemocracy
could become quite dangerous.

The dangers are of two kinds the substitution of ritual for
genuine politics and
the creation of a form of direct democracy that short-circuits
representative
government. On the one side, there is the possibility that new
forms of political
communication will become a mere palliative, if there is no real
chance
government will act to remedy the problems the talk is about. On
the other is the
potential for manipulated public decision.

Ross Perot's proposal for nationwide electronic town meetings
raises this second
problem. Unlike other suggested reforms, Perot's aims not to
enhance voting decisions or citizen communication with representatives but to
replace the Congress
with the direct plebiscitary decision-making.

This takes up an old dream, or nightmare, of what democracy might
be if we only
had the technical capacity to register popular moods, morals, or
preferences
instantaneously. A century ago, Lord Bryce envisioned a stage of
history when the
will of the majority might "become ascertainable at all times,
and without the
need of its passing through a body of representatives, possibly
even without the
need of voting machinery at all." Should this come to pass, then
"public opinion
would not only reign but govern." Today, with interactive cable
systems and 800
numbers, the Brycean dream could become a reality. But is it a
dream worth
pursuing?

No, and certainly not in the vague form in which Ross Perot
presented it. His
vision seems to be Bonapartist one leader, one people. "We go to
the American
people on television, explain it in great detail, and say, `Here
are the
alternatives that we face. Which of these alternatives, as owners
of the country,
do you feel is best for the country?' The American people react,
by congressional
district, and we know what the people want."

Who is the "we" in front of the public? It seems to be an
imperial, or at least
presidential, "we." Would different parties present different
alternatives?
Apparently not, not in the view of a man who scoffs at parties
and thinks
governing is just a matter of getting down to business.

Polling, whatever its many defects, has taught one clear lesson:
the answer
depends on the question. Even subtle differences in
question-wording can have
profound consequences for the answers people give. In short,
those who determine
the agenda set up the outcome. Electronic town meetings would not
"tell us what
the people want." They would tell us how a minority, the
attentive public,
answers questions framed by a president who, in Perot's system,
would be a
frighteningly strong leader. This is tell-a-democracy, or perhaps
sell-a-democracy, not teledemocracy.

For Perot, as for too many others, public opinion consists of
individual
preferences and values; the task is simply to find a technique
good enough to
ascertain them. For most democratic theorists, on the other hand,
public opinion
consists of opinions formed in public, as people collectively
face public issues;
it is not a set of inclinations, grunts, and nods of approval and
disapproval
privately evolved and privately expressed to a pollster or voting
machine.
Democratic theory typically (and rightly) envisions a system of
government
organized as much to foster deliberation as to guarantee
participation.

Perot's proposal for instantaneous mass decision making actually
seems to have
fewer safeguards than are available for important consumer
decisions. People may
have waiting periods (to buy a gun or to get a marriage license)
or have to sign
contracts in the presence of witnesses or may even have three
days after pledging
their fortunes to a door-to-door salesman to change their minds.
All this helps
ensure a level of serious consideration in private transactions.
It would seem
strange indeed to call for less rigorous protection for public
deliberation.


No Bypass

There is a delusion that sometimes accompanies talk of electronic
democracy that
somehow citizens' direct communications with candidates will
bypass the
professional and obstructive news media. But even the best
proposals, like James
Fishkin's deliberative poll (see accompanying article) depend
mightily on the
effective functioning of the professional news media. What
Fishkin's deliberative
opinion poll and Perot's electronic town meeting and talk radio
and other
proposals all lack is follow-up. When the town meeting is over,
the stage returns
to the candidates trailed by the press plane or press bus.

Recall Gerald Ford's presidential debate with Jimmy Carter and
Ford's gaffe about
the Soviet Union not dominating Poland (he was more right than he
knew!). This
remark was almost completely ignored by the general viewing
audience. Two hours
after the debate, viewers gave Ford a victory by 44 to 35
percent; but by noon
the next day Carter was the winner 44 to 31, and by that evening
Carter was
judged the winner 61 to 19. What happened in the interim? The
news professionals
got into the act.

Now, perhaps the news media blew Ford's remark out of proportion.
I am not
arguing that what professional journalists provide is the best
approximation to
the truth. But they do offer constant scrutiny in a presidential
campaign (this
is much less true, regrettably, in state and local elections).
With daily
publication, they have the opportunity to monitor candidates over
the long haul
(and to monitor officials in office). Only a small percentage of
the electorate
actually saw Ross Perot on Larry King, or Bush or Clinton on the
morning news
shows. Most of us know about them thanks to the mainstream news
media.

Regularly interacting with colleagues and politicians, the
political reporters
educate one another about politics in a way that sharpens their
focus. This is
not to say there are no dangers of media feeding frenzies and
parochialism those
dangers are serious. It is not to say that news professionals do
not have their
own biases they do. It is to claim that they represent a vital
community of
discourse the best we have.

Proposals for more debates or better debate formats or "nine
Sundays" of extended
programs on presidential issues or longer soundbites on the
evening news or wider
use of talk radio and talk television or experiments with new
formats and forums
for presidential campaigning all stand some chance of keeping the
news
professionals more honest, forcing them to listen to voices and
styles of
discourse they do not control. The new formats supplement and
enliven standard
news practices. They do not replace them. They can contribute in
modest ways to
the quality of public discussion in presidential campaigns. But
that discussion
still comes most fully into focus in the mainstream press.

And that discussion still fundamentally depends on the two
leading political
parties and their candidates. The excitement of the 1992 campaign
has much less
to do with the communication experiments than with the unlikely
prospect of a
unified Democratic Party at a moment of Republican vulnerability.
The possibility
of a Democratic presidential victory for the first time in
sixteen years, coupled
with the substantive differences between the parties on health
care, education,
industrial policy, and abortion and other social issues generates
the excitement.
As always, it is the substance of politics that makes reforms in
the framework
of public debate worth thinking about.



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