Direct Democracy in a Wired World

GWYNNE DYER

June 24, 1992|By GWYNNE DYER

LONDON. — London -- It is Ross Perot's promotion of the electronic plebiscite as a tool of government that really rings alarm bells for the establishment pundits. They may have forgotten more than they ever knew, but mother's warnings about strange men peddling referendums still echo in their minds. Listen, for example, to Anthony Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times:

''The 'electronic town hall' is Mr. Perot's idea. Every so often he would put on a television program about an issue: how to deal with the budget deficit, say. His people, congressmen and others would argue different views. Then the public would vote -- by push-button telephone or postcard. . . .''

''Direct democracy. But who will make sure the people understand the issue? The opportunities for manipulation are overwhelming. Few of the issues that confront governments are so simple that they can be decided by pushing a telephone button or checking a postcard. In fact, that kind of direct democracy is usually a device to transfer real power to a maximum leader.''

Mr. Lewis and all the pundits who agree with him may well be right about Mr. Perot himself: Never trust anybody who begins every reply with ''It's really very simple.'' But their reflex terror of direct democracy as such is simply evidence of how ossified thinking has become at Dinosaur Central.

Why is it, do you suppose, that all the democratic experiments of ancient civilization were direct democracies (Athens, pre-imperial Rome). Why did democracy then virtually disappear for over a thousand years, and why have all the democratic experiments of the past few centuries been ''representative'' rather than direct democracies?

Direct democracy worked in the ancient city-states because the numbers were so few that people could talk to each other directly and reach some sort of consensus. And the underlying ** reason that democracy vanished in the empires that succeeded them was because the numbers got too big to handle.

There were other reasons, too, of course, but it was literally impossible to have any kind of democratic process in mass societies millions strong that had no mass media. How could any consensus form among the millions of people who had no way of knowing what was on one another's minds?

The invention of printing and the rise of mass literacy in the early modern era began to change the equation by creating the phenomenon of 'public opinion.' Mass communications finally made it possible for mass societies to experiment with democracy.

But the new mass democracies that began to emerge at the end of the 18th century, first in America, then in France, and spreading in only a couple of generations all across the European-ruled world, all had to contend with huge problems of space and time.

Mass communications existed, in the form of books, pamphlets, newspapers and the like, but news traveled no faster than a couple of hundred miles a day. People traveling overland moved even more slowly, and once they had reached their destination there was no way of consulting rapidly with the folks back home: no telephones. Modern mass democracy overcame these problems by taking the form of representative democracy.

It is the history of transportation and long-range communications, not divine law or irresistible logic, that decrees that democracies throughout the world today elect local representatives, and then send them off to the national capital with absolute power to take decisions in the name of their constituents for two- or four- or even six-year terms.

Representative democracy triumphed because no other style of democracy would work in the late 1700s. Since then, inertia, tradition and vested interest took over and transformed this pragmatic solution to a specific technological problem into a general philosophical principle: Mass democracy must be representative, not direct. But, as Ross Perot has noticed, the technological environment has changed.

There is absolutely no technological reason why 250 million Americans could not live in a democracy as direct and immediate as that of ancient Athens: debate of the day's issues on television and decision by electronic show of hands that evening.

There are many reasons offered why a system that direct might not be a good thing, and some of them are valid: Political choices these days tend to be more complex by far than those of ancient Athens. But if you live in a democracy, you have already chosen to let the citizens decide the questions, however complex they are.

Most defenses of representative democracy boil down to a plea to muffle the voice of the electorate because ordinary citizens are so stupid, greedy, short-sighted and emotional. Even more so, in fact, than the professional politicians they elect. But while that may well be true, it is also true that representative democracy positively encourages voters to be stupid.

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