Cyberdemocracy

Tip O'Neill, meet Alvin Toffler.

Richard Hartman's business card is informative and symbolic. It informs you that Hartman is co- founder of Reform Congress 94, described as "America's First CyberSpace PAC." It provides the political action committee's telephone number and fax number, along with Internet and CompuServe addresses. It also tells you that Hartman is one of the principals of the De- Foley- ate Project, which had one purpose: to help defeat Rep. Tom Foley (D- Wash.), who until the November election was speaker of the House of Representatives.

The card is symbolic because it doesn't list a physical address. Reform Congress 94 was a "virtual PAC" that used faxes and a computer bulletin- board service to get out its message rather than relying upon legions of volunteers to operate telephone banks and stuff envelopes. Hartman, a software engineer from Spokane, did rent an office, but he says that was "a waste of time and money. We went there twice." Along with one other person, Hartman and his wife Mary ran a political action committee from their home.

The Hartmans officially launched their effort in late August, a few weeks before the Washington primary. They hoped to raise $500,000, but fell a bit short: They received only about $26,000. But they faxed press releases to local radio talk shows, reminding the hosts that Foley had sued his own constituents in an attempt to overturn Washington's term-limit referendum and that he had voted to ban "assault weapons" in the crime bill. They set up an electronic BBS, to which Richard says hundreds of thousands of respondents dialed in.

And when participants in a September gun show in Florida wanted to distribute anti-Foley literature, Richard placed the literature online, including the software that would let the folks in Florida produce camera- ready posters. "We could have sent the information by Federal Express overnight," he says. Electronic media, however, "let us tailor the message to this precise audience instantly."

The Hartmans' circumstances were certainly unusual: They weren't political pros trying to run a national operation but rather ordinary citizens determined to defeat their local congressman. Because the local congressman was speaker of the House and a political lightning rod, it was certainly more likely that they would get attention (and contributions) from across the country. And they did know how to use the latest technologies, or as Richard says, "We had the right tools in our tool kit" to run a shoestring operation. But their unusual story demonstrates the unintended ways in which new technologies have let normal people gain access to the political process.

A new form of activism is shaking the political establishment, and it may crumble congressional and regulatory fiefdoms more thoroughly than last November's election. By using broadcast faxes, satellite television programs, radio talk shows, and electronic forums like those on CompuServe and the Internet, grassroots activists like the Hartmans can bypass traditional media outlets. The rather anarchic nature of computer culture suggests that the infomedia revolution will tend to erode the statist foundations of the political establishment. While this outbreak of cyberpolitics is not universally appreciated, there's little the Beltway powerbrokers can do to stop it.

The explosion of cyberdemocracy doesn't please everybody. "Some of the information technologies that so pervade Washington life have not only failed to cure our ills but actually seem to have made them worse," writes Robert Wright in the January 23 Time. "Intensely felt public opinion leads to the impulsive passage of dubious laws," though the only one Wright comes up with is the "three strikes, you're out" component of last year's crime bill.

In part, Wright's criticism resembles the gripes made by political bosses when sunshine laws opened government meetings to the public and made documents more accessible to average citizens. The explosion of information technologies has revoked the near monopoly on access to policy makers that high- priced lobbyists and prestige journalists once held. Quips American Conservative Union chairman David Keene, politicians "don't like to be lobbied by people who don't take them to play golf."

More substantively, Wright argues that floods of e- mail messages, faxes, and calls from talk- show listeners drown out the deliberation that is necessary for sound policy making. "Politics is pandering in a hyperdemocracy," he writes.

Three lengthy, high- profile policy battles of the Clinton presidency belie Wright's assertion. Two major trade bills, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, each passed Congress though leaders of the president's party opposed them and populists left (Ralph Nader), right (Pat Buchanan), and center (Ross Perot) ginned up their infomedia networks to denounce them. In both cases, advocates of the trade deals had to defend them publicly, and on principle--a process that might not have taken place had the deals been negotiated entirely behind closed doors. And the Clinton administration made its most public case for NAFTA by circumventing traditional broadcast networks and having Vice President Al Gore debate Perot on a talk show--CNN's Larry King Live.

The failure of the president's Health Security Act again shows how information- age technologies can enhance deliberative debate. ClintonCare was formulated in a series of secret meetings by 500 experts hand- picked by the White House. In the first weeks after the Clinton plan was introduced, Republicans were on the defensive, seriously considering accommodation with the White House. Then-Senate minority leader Bob Dole and the Heritage Foundation were each pushing variations of universal health- care entitlements. Yet as details of the Clinton plan became available, they were dissected on talk shows and electronic bulletin boards, as well as on op-ed pages, in opinion magazines, and in the famous "Harry and Louise" series of television commercials. The Health Security Act, conceived in secrecy, could not survive when exposed to the light of public scrutiny.

Some Washington pundits have also expressed concerns about cyberdemocracy. Washington Post columnist David Broder worries that the "mobilization [of public opinion] has fallen into the hands of private interests, pursuing very specific and narrow agendas....In such struggles against private groups," Broder continues, "money will be important, not just in spreading the message but in hiring the people who know how to engineer quick responses." In the world of infomedia, Demosclerosis author Jonathan Rauch says, "narrowly focused groups are favored more than those [supporting] broad- reaching reforms. Ordinary people don't organize," he says. "Pros use this stuff."

But the Hartmans aren't political pros. And the backbone of the property- rights movement is the thousands of small landowners who attend zoning meetings, write their legislators, and communicate by fax. Communications technologies turn individuals into a supportive, quick-response network. An advocacy group may still have an advantage if it has a D.C. representative who can take a member of Congress to lunch; but that same legislator can't ignore hundreds of faxes and telephone messages from his or her own constituents.

"There are two prerequisites for a free society," says Jim Warren, one of the organizers of the first Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference. "Citizens must have timely access to adequate information on which to base informed decisions. And they must have timely and economical access to the body politic. The [Internet] provides both of these. No longer do you have to buy newsprint by the ton or own a television license or a radio license in order to be able to conduct effective community outreach that is pervasive." With the Internet, he says, "You can instantly penetrate the full fabric of the community."

Without question, modern technologies make it easy for a few individuals to inexpensively form a single- interest organization. Unlike the large, successful lobbies of the past, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which often sought to protect federal perks, many of the successful newcomers have had a different, more- sweeping agenda: Rein in government power one program at a time.

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