Madison's ideals were obviously rooted in the less-than-democratic world of the 18th century. But they rested on a profound understanding of popular politics that still merits attention. For the nasty secret of popular politics, Madison observed in 1788, was that there were clearly "subjects to which the capacities of the bulk of mankind are unequal and on which they must and will be governed by those with whom they happen to have acquaintance and confidence."
The idea of electronic democracy rests on a false premise that ease and speed of communication should facilitate the spread of the knowledge that citizens need. But all the evidence suggests the opposite is more likely. Half the public cannot name the candidates in the most recent congressional election; less than 10 percent can identify the position their representative had taken on any given bill. Every election suggests that decisive mood swings in the electorate often flow from vague and superficial impressions about candidates and half-formed understandings of issues. Only a fraction of the voters who gave the GOP its new majority in Congress could have described the "Contract With America," much less realized they were endorsing it as a platform for change.