Electronics has made democracy more direct

February 09, 1997|By GLENN MCNATT

IN THE 1960s, MEDIA guru Marshall McLuhan was all the rage among the smart set for his trenchant analyses of television and for coining such memorable epigrams as "the medium is the message."

McLuhan was an astute observer of the effects of the electronic revolution on contemporary culture. But some of his most penetrating insights were reserved for politics and with the way TV and radio had dramatically altered the relationship between Americans and their government.

"As the speed of information increases," McLuhan wrote in one particularly prophetic passage, "the tendency for politics is to move away from representation and delegation of constituents and toward immediate involvement of the entire community in the central acts of decision."

Today McLuhan's prediction has become reality. The electronic revolution has spawned a transformation of political life in ways unimaginable to the country's founders.

The result is what Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of the Public Broadcasting System and of NBC News, has called the "electronic republic" -- a brave new world of instant communication that is changing America's traditional representative form of government into something more like direct democracy.

"Daily polling, e-mail, 800 numbers, faxes, the Internet and call-in shows have exponentially increased the daily contact that representatives have with their constituents," Grossman writes.

"The Orwellian nightmare of a tyrannical government holding all citizens under constant electronic surveillance -- 'Big Brother is watching you' -- has been stood on its head. Instead of Big Brother watching every citizen, in the telecommunications era every citizen now can keep the nation's political leaders under constant electronic surveillance."

In the electronic republic, the people make their voices heard not through their elected representatives but directly through the electronic media.

"The convergence of satellite, computer, television, telephone, radio, print and the Internet is making mass [political] participation possible in extraordinary new ways," Grossman writes.

"Gutenberg made everybody a reader. Xerox made everybody a publisher. Interactive telecommunications is making everybody a lobbyist."

There is both promise and peril in this development. For example, it makes possible an exponential expansion of the democratic process and in political participation by ordinary people.

The electronic republic holds the potential to give the public a seat at the table where major decisions are made and enlarge the spectrum of views brought to bear on issues that directly affect people's lives and future.

But there are pitfalls as well. Today's instant communications threaten to blur the traditional separation of political power and erode the constitutional system of checks and balances.

The electronic republic also holds the potential to invoke an excess of democracy in which a prejudiced, passionate, ill-informed and unchecked majority can trample on the rights of unpopular minorities.

In the 19th century, Whig congressman Daniel Bernard warned of the dangers of what Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset would later call the "revolt of the masses":

"Perhaps the severest trial to which the virtue of any people can be subjected is when every man has a share in the government," Bernard said. "For when everyone governs, few indeed are willing to submit to be governed; when everyone commands, nobody likes to obey."

The electronic republic is redefining the very concept of community. "The popular prediction that electronic communication would create a global village is wrong," says Brown University president Vartan Gregorian.

"What is being created is less like a village than an entity that reproduces the worst aspects of urban life -- the ability to retreat to small communities of the like-minded, where we are safe not only from unnecessary interactions with those whose ideas and attitudes are not like our own, but also from having to relate our interests and results to other communities."

This country's founders, Grossman writes, had good reason to be skeptical of direct democracy, which was invented in ancient Athens more than 2,500 years ago, but which has hardly been seen since in modern nation-states. Direct democracy governed Athens only for about 200 years before it was usurped by demagogues, tyrants and debilitating wars.

Yet we can see direct democracy's return today in the dramatic increase in state and local ballot initiatives and referendums, the sharp increase in use of public-opinion polls and surveys and in ++ the public's demand for term limits to reduce the power of those they elect and increase the clout of the electorate itself.

We see it in the expanding use of direct primaries and the declIne of political conventions, in the declining influence of political parties and labor unions, and in the growing influence of talk radio and TV.

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