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How Will e-Democracy Evolve?

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This chapter is from the book
As the American public gains increasing amounts of access to the Internet and uses it more frequently to inform and conduct their civic responsibilities, the influence of information technology and its content will inevitably rise. It is why we must start thinking about the role of the Internet as a new and special influence on American democracy.

The issue boils down to two ways to exercise decision making in government: representative and direct democracy. With representative democracy voters elect representatives who make decisions on their behalf. The thinking is that such individuals would, as part of carrying out their responsibilities, become more intimately familiar with the issues surrounding a decision than the average citizen and supposedly would have more time to devote to becoming familiar with those questions. The argument goes, "who has time to read a proposed 1,000 page tax code, let alone understand its ramifications?" Certainly not the average voter. In practice, elected public officials are more familiar with the subtleties of an issue. A second advantage of representative government, often argued, is that lawmakers will not always immediately and directly be swayed by public opinion, by the "passions of the moment," but would, instead, take a calmer, more informed approach to the resolution of an issue. A third argument for such an approach is that people considered highly qualified (those knowledgeable and smart, who demonstrate good judgment and understand the aspirations of their constituencies) are normally the best to have sort through options and make decisions. This type of democracy is what the Founding Fathers chose for the United States. They were familiar with direct forms of government, had consciously thought about the pros and cons, and deliberately chose representative democracy.

The alternative approach is for some form of direct democracy, the type we seem to be slowly evolving toward today. In this scenario, key national decisions are decided directly by the voter, not by representatives, and the tool of choice is the referendum, which binds legislators and other public officials to implement wishes of the electorate. All those referendums that citizens in California vote on are examples of direct democracy. The advantages touted for this approach are equally as compelling as those for representative democracy. This form of government is said to be pure democracy, in which people directly express their wishes and command the government to execute them, unpolluted by such intermediaries as an electoral college or legislators who are subject to the influences of special interest groups and personal gain. It is argued that with this approach you cut out bribes or the financial influence of lobbyists, special interest groups, or wealthy contributors to reelection funds. Another argument goes that such a form of government forces citizens to play a more active role in the affairs of the nation than they might otherwise.

In the 17th century, when the number of colonists was small and lived mostly in tiny urban centers, residents in North America had a small taste of direct democracy, before a class of political elites and strong colonial administration emerged. All heads of households could fit into one room, such as in a meeting house, discuss an issue, and make a decision. Buy-in for results was high, and things got done. But by the mid-18th century, it had also become obvious that one could make decisions that were, to put it bluntly, stupid. To be more formal, decisions could be made and actions taken that at some future date would be seen to have been ill advised or simply uninformed. Sound judgment, it was feared, would give way to the passions of the moment. Salem witch trials, the experience of political and social upheavals in Europe, and other events in North America led those members of the political elite crafting the new American government to conclude that indirect decision making by the citizenry was a better approach.

Throughout the history of the United States, however, Americans have exercised both forms of democracy. State and federal legislators, governors, and presidents were elected to represent the interests of the electorate. On the other hand, communities have often opted for use of referendums to resolve questions of local concern, ranging from bond issues to fund construction of new schools to such policy decisions as caps on taxes, the role of English in schools, green spaces around towns, annexations, and so forth. On the whole, the mixture of the two has worked well.

Over the past half century, another form of direct participation emerged, use of polls by politicians. As the science of taking polls improved to the point where it was both cost-efficient and results collected scientifically believable, politicians came to rely on these to inform their opinions about what actions to take. Polls, because so many are published, make Americans aware of what others are thinking too, making it possible to hold an official accountable should that politician deviate from the "will of the people" and conversely to affect public opinion. Polls are not officially binding on a government official, but we have reached the point where taking an action contrary to what polls suggest is considered politically risky. At the national level, presidents have increasingly relied on this source of input. While we could debate whether one president or another relied too much or not enough on these, what is clear is that by the end of the century, they all were profoundly influenced by polls.

The general increase in the availability of information that we have seen in such other aspects of American life as work, leisure, and religious practices, is no less true in public affairs. Beginning in the 1920s with radio, politicians could talk directly to voters, and reporters could bring the results of political actions to the public in an immediate fashion. With the arrival of television, and particularly highly centralized TV coverage through the three national networks in the 1950s and 1960s, new influences came into play. These ranged from how the news was presented to real-time coverage of political conventions, elections, and debates among candidates and other knowledgeable parties, and call-in talk shows both on radio and TV.

In addition to these electronic sources of information and influence, there were traditional paper-based ones that never went away: newspapers, pamphlets, flyers, books, articles, and posters. As new information infrastructures were implemented, interest groups could leverage them in a coordinated manner to get their points of view in front of both the electorate and public officials. Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) are examples of this process at work. Both are very effective information handlers. Both have published articles, advertisements, and books defending their interests and perspectives. Both have simultaneously leveraged radio and television with publications and local meetings during periods when the nation discussed specific issues of concern to them, as, for example, gun control at the end of the 1990s after a series of shootings in schools. They can create events that the electronic media will cover. They can also take polls to demonstrate the public's approval of their perspectives, and they can lobby legislators and contribute vast sums of money to their reelection campaigns. Today they also have Web sites, which make it possible to deliver to the American public ever larger quantities of information quickly and cheaply.

But, the public can communicate too. E-mail to congress has sky-rocketed. In 2000, members of Congress received 880 million electronic messages. These came in waves every time a major issue was before the Congress. For example, during debates on the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general, Congress received hundreds of thousands of e-mails. In 1998, the House of Representatives received 20 million e-mails, 48 million in 2000.

The use of electronic technology has also created new circumstances in the 20th century, most notably the decline of geography. Put in economic terms such as I might have used in discussing the changing nature of work in Chapter 5, niche information markets were created. Instead of people identifying primarily with a particular state or locale, as was the case in the 19th century, one could begin to align with others who thought the same across the nation. Liberals, the religious right, pro-life and pro-choice, gays, conservatives, libertarians, senior citizens, boomers, and so forth, could form national constituencies that communicated effectively and frequently, and thus could quickly come together for effective political actions. The rapid formation of an American opposition group to the work of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999 illustrated the power of information and the ability of the information infrastructure to bring so many people together so quickly in Seattle, Washington. They essentially broke up the meeting of the WTO, despite the wishes of the American government.

Ironically, at the same time as information increased in quantity and Americans were using ever more of it, the national government was downsizing many of its programs, shifting responsibilities for many domestic initiatives back to state governments. Beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing to the present, across both Republican and Democratic administrations, the national government has been shrinking. Why and how are issues outside the scope of this book; it is more important just to recognize the fundamental pattern. Innovations in public policies toward such issues as welfare reform, public/private education, changes in the use of taxes for economic development, and so forth, emerged increasingly out of the states and some local governments during the 1990s. These governments became more informed on issues, and reached out to their citizens through the use of a variety of information infrastructures: local TV and radio talk shows with mayors, for example, creation of Web sites, and electronic processing of tax and license fees. Ironically, this process of localization is exactly what the Founding Fathers hoped for at the same time that they were constructing a national representative democracy. The swing back to localism was profoundly aided by both the availability of information (some would argue propaganda, but with many perspectives) and an information infrastructure to support its effective flow through society.

The Internet has demonstrated in a very short period of time that the trends just discussed are intensifying. As the American public gains increasing amounts of access to the Internet and uses it more frequently to inform and conduct their civic responsibilities, the influence of information technology and its content will inevitably rise. It is why we must start thinking about the role of the Internet as a new and special influence on American democracy. What we see is much that is familiar and historically consistent with the past, and yet, as with other aspects of American life, many things that are new.

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