222. "Teledemocracy," The Atlantic, Vol 270, No. 4, (October 1992), pp. 36-39. Also published: "Teledemocracy, The Electronic Town Meeting," Current, (February 1993), No. 350, pp. 26-29. The Mass Media: Opposing Viewpoints, S. Barbour (Ed.), Anthology (February 1994).
Ross Perot left the residue of a good idea behind him: the electronic town meeting.
THE IDEA OF technologically enhanced national "town meetings" has been around at least since Buckminster Fuller proposed it a generation ago. And it is not likely to go away just because Ross Perot dropped out of the presidential race. The idea deserves serious examination, because if the 1992 election campaign has taught us anything, it is that most Americans feel alienated from national politics as currently practiced, and there is a need to find ways to reinvolve them. Simply changing the cast of characters may not do the trick. Public-opinion polls show a deep sense of disaffection that reaches well beyond the candidates themselves.
There are long-established precedents for the idea of adding some elements of direct democracy to our representative government. Twenty-three states currently grant their citizens the right to pass directly on items of legislation and even to modify state constitutions by putting amendments on a ballot. (California leads the pack.) In addition, numerous measures, such as school bonds and public-works funding, are regularly decided on by referenda of the electorate. Indeed, the number of initiatives and referenda has been increasing. A preponderance of the four hundred or so such measures introduced since the Progressives, in the first decades of this century, made them a hallmark of government reform have been introduced in the past twenty years, according to the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky.
To be sure, there is a big difference between adding some direct democracy to our representative system and replacing Congress with TV shows and push buttons. Electronic town meetings, though hardly a cure for all the ills of our democracy, could be arranged in ways that would avoid several of the pitfalls against which critics correctly warn. Or so I will argue.
Twenty years ago I spent a third of a million dollars--a hefty sum in the early 1970s---of your (taxpayer) money, granted to me by the National Science Foundation, conducting experiments with electronic town meetings. Indeed, they are the subject of an article I published in Policy Science in 1972. I have good reason to believe that Ross Perot and his staff did not read my writings on the subject; their model lacked all of the features that I argued were needed to render electronic town meetings even approximately democratic.
To be frank, the NSF team started with the same simplistic notion that seemed to animate Perot: given new developments in cable and interactive television and in telepolling (which allowed incoming calls to be tallied automatically, without anybody's even answering the phone), we could engineer an electronic system that would enable large numbers of people to have the kind of active political participation that town meetings afforded the citizens of New England towns (and that, before them, the citizens of the Greek polis enjoyed). We sold a Columbia University professor of engineering, Stephen Unger, on the idea, and he joined the NSF team.
Having just outgrown the sixties and their notion of direct or participatory democracy, we were clear about one major principle: it would be undemocratic to replace elected representatives and legislatures with computerized voting or any other kind of electronic wizardry. One main reason, which became known by the NSF team as the Burke argument (after the political philosopher Edmund Burke), is that large groups need two or more layers of representation, rather than direct representation, in order to work out consensus-based public policies. History has proved that large groups are unable to agree on policies by means of the kind of dialogue possible in a town meeting, where fewer than two thousand people tend to be involved. In a layered system the voters grant their elected representatives "mandates," a kind of generalized guidance that reflects what the voters seek: Get us out of Vietnam. Focus on domestic issues. Do something about competitiveness. The voters neither feel compelled nor wish to be engaged in the specifics.
For the system to work at all, citizens must allow their representatives to engage in give-and-take, within the confines of their mandates, in order to find a shared public policy. If the various mandates have no overlap, no honest give-and-take is possible. Either a stalemate will occur until some parts of the electorate give in, or politicians will fudge, claiming that they are acting within the confines of their mandates while they are actually violating them. Each of these situations, in turn, will lead to policies that lack the support of the public and that contribute to its alienation. A case in point is the Maastrict Treaty, which provides for eventual political unification in Europe. The politicians signed the treaty without a mandate from their people. As a result, voters in Denmark rejected the treaty, and many others are grumbling.
Telepolling, like other forms of direct democracy en masse, provides only limited room for give-and-take. It can be made to work for a few isolated items that can be straightforwardly voted up or down (such as hospital bonds), but not for complex issues of the kind we typically face. Given such issues, direct democracy produces few if any opportunities to work out compromises that most people can feel comfortable ratifying.
For this reason, telepolling should be used to supplement the existing representative government. At the same time, if it was properly conducted, it could serve between elections as a continuous source of information to the legislature about the preferences of the populace.
The National Science Foundation team experimented in New Jersey with a system both layered and containing mandates. Systems like it could be employed nationwide to bring teledemocracy a step closer to real democracy. Our experiment was conducted with the help of the League of Women Voters, which was attempting to decide, as it does once a year, which issues to give priority. We organized the league's members into groups of ten, and they conducted their "town meetings" by means of conference calls. Each group chose its own priorities and selected a representative to take that agenda to the next level for discussion. We then held conference calls with groups of ten representatives, who decided among themselves which views and preferences to carry to the third and final level, at which statewide policy decisions were made. A survey established that the members were highly satisfied with the results. Every member was able to participate in the decision-making process, and yet the elected representatives were free, within an area indicated by those who elected them, to work out a league-wide consensus.
Such a model could be applied to a nationwide audience, drawing on the magical power of exponential curves: if representatives were layered in the suggested manner, millions of participants could very quickly be included. Indeed, suppose that various experts addressed the country on Sunday from 10:00 to 11:00 A.M. about whether the United States should cut back the military by 50 percent over five years. The conference buzz would start with groups of fourteen citizens, each having an hour to discuss and vote. Each group would elect one representative to participate in conference-call discussions with thirteen representatives of other groups. Each group of representatives would in turn elect an individual to speak for them, and so on in a rising pyramid. If this process occurred seven times, by six o'clock in the evening 105 million adults could be reached, which is more than the 91 million who voted in the 1988 presidential election.
The technical problems we encountered in our experiments were minor. We discovered that it takes some practice to get used to a conference by telephone. For example, you have to find ways to let it be known that you wish to speak (raising your hand obviously will do little good). And it is not always easy to tell who is the chair, the person who facilitates the dialogue and must control those who hog time. We dealt with the first problem by making use of the fact that the receiver button can be briefly clicked without disconnecting the line. The resulting signal can be recorded on a panel attached to the chair's phone, showing that you are in the queue to speak. Costlier possibilities come to mind, but they might require that U.S. phone companies do what the government of France has already done: equip each citizen's phone with a small computer attachment. The second problem resolved itself, for during a short dry run most chairs quickly learned to assert themselves.
Sesame Street teaches children about democratic elections in the following manner: You have three dollars to spend. Some people want crayons, others juice. You vote on what to buy. If the majority wants crayons, you get crayons. Such a simplistic explanation may do for young children, but adults who think of democracy as a voting machine miss an important feature of town meetings: such meetings expose people to conflicting arguments and make them think about their preferences before they vote.
The last thing a democracy needs is for people to vote their raw feelings, their first impulses, before they have had a chance to reflect on them and discuss them with others. Hence it is highly undesirable to expose people to a new idea, policy, or speech and ask them to vote on it immediately--which is precisely what most media polling currently does. A much more democratic model would result if at least a day's delay were required before the vote was taken, to enable people to discuss the matter with their families, neighbors, and co-workers.
We conducted such an experiment in three high-rise buildings in Queens, New York. These buildings, which contained about eleven hundred families, shared a cable system, and a studio in the basement of one of them enabled a person to address all the TV sets in the buildings. We provided the residents with questionnaires on which they marked their views on selected local issues. We then broadcast a panel discussion on TV. Next we created an opportunity for dialogue: residents were invited to walk over to the studio and address the community about the issues on the table. This was followed by a second brief questionnaire. Unfortunately, owing to various technical difficulties, I cannot state unequivocally that the results were beneficial. The data suggest, however, that people moved from more extreme positions toward the middle, and that they moved either toward a consensus or, on one issue, toward two positions from a much wider, confused spread.
A minor but not trivial problem is that when citizens speak up in a live town meeting, they get immediate feedback on how their views are received. As a result, they continually adjust what they are saying, moderating their views (or expounding upon them) when faced with a negative reception and speaking more firmly (or more conciliatorily) if faced with a sea of heads nodding in approval. This feedback is largely lacking in conference calls and other communication by electronic means. So the NSF team provided levers that participants in a lab could move on a continuum from "agree" to "disagree," thus affecting a small amber light that would shine brightly when a majority pulled their levers toward "agree," and would dim if many pulled in the opposite direction. This device provided speakers with some instant feedback. To provide a similar feature on a nationwide or community-wide basis, we would probably, again, have to move toward phone-system technology similar to that in France.
Once we put our minds to it, other shortcomings of the electronic town meeting could be fixed. Take, for example, ballot-box stuffing. Even when much less than national policy is at stake, call-in polls have been grossly manipulated. Richard Morin, the polling director for The Washington Past, reports two such incidents. In one, USA Today asked its readers in June of 1990 if Donald Trump symbolized what was right or wrong with the United States. Eighty-one percent of the 6,406 people who called in said that he was great, 19 percent a skunk. It turned out that 72 percent of the calls came from two phone numbers. In another 1990 poll 21 percent of the callers on the issue of abortion voted at least twice.
This problem can be fixed. People could be required to punch in a Social Security number and two other identifying details, perhaps birth date and mother's maiden name. Computers could flag instances in which either the identifying information did not match the Social Security number or the same Social Security number was used more than once. And penalties like those now in place for election fraud could be extended to the electronic ballot box. The system would not be foolproof, but neither is the other system--as historians of the city of Chicago and biographers of Lyndon B. Johnson will tell you.
Those who complain that teledemocracy allows people to make only simple yes and no choices should note that the system can be as complicated as citizens wish. There are no technical obstacles to providing callers with three phone numbers instead of two (for "maybe" as well as "yes" and "no"), or with decision trees, in which, for example, they reach the "yes" line and are then offered a menu of choices, such as "only if the cost is less than $ 10 billion," or "less than $ 20 billion," and so on. Such a system would be at least as subtle as a vote that takes place on the electronic board of the House of Representatives or on a paper ballot loaded with local initiatives.
Several of the sharpest critics of teledemocracy focus on the fact that it is highly unrepresentative. James Fishkin, a political philosopher at the University of Texas, discussed this issue in the journal The Responsive Community, in an article about "America on the Line," a CBS program that aired after the 1992 State of the Union address. The network invited viewers to call in their reactions; seven million people tried to call, and three hundred thousand got through. When their reactions were compared with those of a scientific sample of public opinion taken at the same time, Fishkin reports, significant differences were noted. For instance, whereas 53 percent of the callers believed that America was worse off than it had been a year earlier, only 32 percent of the representative sample felt that way. Others have pointed out that those who are most likely to participate in a teledemocratic exchange are those who are educated, are politically active, or feel passionately about an issue.
All this would be a problem if one expected electronic town meetings to replace public-opinion polls and the ballot box. It is much less problematic, however, if teledemocracy is added to other means of public expression, each of which has its own defects--defects that can to some extent be compensated for by combining the various means. Take public-opinion polls, which play a major role in selecting candidates for office and affect policy between elections. Although the sampling methods used are accurate, and result in a cross section of the public that is superior to anything to be hoped for in telepolling, the results can be deeply skewed by the phrasing of the questions. Even small changes in wording often lead to major changes in the public's response. Moreover, polltakers allow no time for deliberation or dialogue, and provide no information to those they query about the issues the pollsters are raising. Finally, those who show up at traditional ballot boxes do not themselves constitute a scientifically accurate cross-section of the public. They are more educated, more politically active, more affluent, and often more passionate about the issues than those who do not vote.
A key point is that actual voting allows citizens to have a say only once every two years at most. Present-day government, which directly affects numerous issues, from abortion to unemployment, from school busing to security of savings, requires ways to read the public mind between elections.
Electronic town meetings might reduce but would not expunge the deep sense of citizen disaffection, because they would address only part of the problem. The American political system suffers not only from a lack of opportunities to participate but also from the strong influence that special-interest groups wield upon national and state legislatures. Congress often knows quite well what the public prefers, but special-interest groups are a major source of the vast funds that members of Congress need for their election campaigns. Until this unholy alliance is severed, teledemocracy's primary contribution might well be to make it even clearer to the public that legislators often do not respond to the public will.