Democracy On-Line

Article excerpt

Tomorrow's Electronic Electorate

"Electronic town meetings" on television are only the beginning of an Information Age democracy

Over the last 200 years, new information technologies have significantly transformed the possibilities and practice of democracy. For example, the early-nineteenth-century invention of the penny press for printing newspapers made the acquisition of political information by the masses both convenient and affordable. This, in turn, greatly facilitated the extension of suffrage during that period. Later, the advent of television weakened the traditional political-party system and led to the growing influence of the media in elections.

Over the next 20 years, many experts believe that information technology may change more than it has over the last 200 years. If they are right, we can expect major changes in the democratic system of government.

Problems with Democracy

Today, it is hard to imagine that such a large democracy as the United States, with its 250 million citizens, could survive if information technologies such as books, magazines, newspapers, radio, and television suddenly vanished. Indeed, until the last few hundred years the most-respected political thinkers uniformly agreed that only small-scale democracy was possible, in part because of communication limitations. Aristotle argued in the fourth century B.C. that democracy could not work in a country larger than a small city-state such as Athens. One reason was that in a democracy all citizens should be able to assemble at one place to hear a speaker. Thus, the range of the human voice limited a democracy's size. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, political thinkers of the stature of Montesquieu and Rousseau continued to echo this conventional wisdom and argue against the possibility of large-scale democracy.

After the birth of the United States--a huge democracy by historical standards--such arguments were discredited. But as evidence mounts that America's democratic system is moving farther away from the democratic ideal, it is easy to wonder if the pre-modern thinkers weren't on to something. According to a widely quoted study by the Kettering Foundation entitled Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America, "Americans are both frustrated and downright angry about the state of the current political system. [They] do not believe they are living in a democracy now. They don't believe that 'We the people' actually rule. What is more, people do not believe this system is able to solve the pressing problems they face."

Perhaps the early political thinkers simply got the maximum democratic size wrong. Instead of it being 5,000, or 20,000, or even 100,000, maybe it is 250 million. Convinced that large-scale democracy was impossible, the early political thinkers surely would have had little trouble identifying at least part of America's main governmental problem--its growing size and complexity.

Over the last 200 years, America's population has grown from 3 million to 250 million. At the same time, the size and complexity of government has grown exponentially. In 1831, there were only 11,491 federal employees; today there are millions. As government grows larger and more complex, it is harder to keep it accountable. And as the proportion of citizens to representatives increases (thus decreasing the odds of any individual citizen making a difference), citizens have even less incentive to try and keep it accountable.

The development of mass media such as newspapers and television has helped to alleviate these problems. The maximum range of a politician's message is no longer the hundreds or thousands within the physical range of the voice, but the tens of millions who can watch television. Similarly, the mass media usually offer better and more convenient political news than could word of mouth.

Unfortunately, the technology and institutions of democracy are no longer keeping up with its growth. …