The Joy of Electronic Democracy

CLARENCE PAGE

February 22, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON. — :TC Washington. -- "If video, computer and virtual- reality technology keep advancing, we may well end up with a president who doesn't exist at all.''

So muses Jamie Malanowski, Spy magazine national editor, in an analysis of the '92 campaign for December's Washington Journalism Review.

It may be hard to imagine, but not all that hard. The relationship between modern politicians and modern media has changed rapidly in a few short years, especially in the short year that has passed since Ross Perot announced last February on CNN's ''Larry King Live'' that he would run for president if supporters put his name on the ballot in 50 states. Before the show was over the switchboard was lit, a campaign was launched, and campaigning would never be the same again.

Soon we would see Bill Clinton playing saxophone on ''The Arsenio Hall Show,'' Dan Quayle attacking ''Murphy Brown,'' President Bush yapping on Rush Limbaugh's radio show and Mr. Perot's half-hour ''infomercials'' rivaling the ratings of the baseball playoffs.

Mr. Perot received so many more votes than the experts predicted he would (without the benefits of a traditional party, primary or convention process) that it is no longer all that hard to imagine a candidate with Mr. Perot's money and without his odd ball quirkiness buying television time and selling himself all the way to the White House.

Sinclair Lewis imagined such a possibility once. He called his story ''It Can't Happen Here.''

It can't? Are you kidding? Of course, it can.

Even a President Max Headroom could happen. Remember that computer-generated star of his own network science-fiction adventure show a few years ago? Think of it. A computer-generated virtual-reality candidate would not be limited by conventional positions or special-interest groups. He or she would not even be limited by a physical body or an individual personality. He or she could be all pols to all people, instantly reacting to public will as measured by the latest up-to-the-minute polling techniques.

Maybe George Orwell had it wrong. Instead of a future in which we are starved for information, we could have a future in which we are overloaded with information. I think I have seen the future. I think it is in Bill Clinton's interactive presidency.

Hampered by a stumbling image in his first two weeks, Mr. Clinton seemed to regain his footing only after staging media events like his installation of a ''hot line'' number for public comments at the White House and a televised ''town hall meeting'' to show the voters he still cares.

The telecast predictably received better notices from the public than it did from reporters who were miffed that Mr. Clinton would bypass them to deliver his message straight to the public. Who, after all, does he think he is? Ronald Reagan?

Well, yes, if not in ideology, then definitely in folksy media appeal.

And both men owe an obvious debt to the radio ''fireside chats'' of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As technology has improved, so has the necessity for politicians to take advantage of it. Just ask George Bush, who failed to take enough advantage of it.

But can we have too much of this electronic democracy? It is refreshing for voters, after years of growing estrangement from ''the process,'' to see their views getting results in cases like the downfall of Zoe Baird's nomination or in stalling the lifting of the ban against gays in the military. But too much interactivity could cause government to take on the worst characteristics of talk radio: narrowly focused, sensationalist, simplistic, ready to do anything to keep the switchboard lit.

If officeholders put too much power into the dialing fingers of groups that are the best organized, not necessarily the most representative, we risk a government that is no less volatile than radio talk-show ratings.

Talk radio loves the simplistic and loathes the complicated, regardless of how important the issue might be to the lives of real people.

The talk-show public went ballistic over the House bank scandal, for example, even though it involved no public money, yet snoozed through the savings-and-loan scandal, even though it involved billions of the public's dollars. The savings-and-loan story was too complicated for most Americans to comprehend easily while everyone understands the need to balance a checkbook.

Talk radio also tends to reflect the opinions of the most grouchy, not necessarily the most sensible. If the logic that rules radio chatter ruled real life we might never have had civil-rights bills, Social Security, women's suffrage, minimum-wage laws or the abolition of slavery.

Sometimes, when all else fails, politicians are forced to act on principle. That, too, is refreshing. Yet acting on principle becomes increasingly difficult amid a cacophony of interests, all of whom feel they are special, yelling at each other across a great cultural divide.

At some point, politicians must show some leadership. Otherwise, we might as well replace them with a large computer and turn government into a political version of Home Shopping Network. I can see the ads now:

Don't like the way things are going? Just dial our 800 number. Our operators are standing by.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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