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.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

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.

You may also like