Politics: 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.

C-SPAN, radio talk shows, e-mail, and broadcast faxes have provided massive amounts of information to anyone who wants it. They have also created a new generation of political activists. "Fifty percent of our contributors listen to talk radio at least two hours a week," says the ACU's David Keene. "Ten years ago, our [typical] member would send us $15 and say, 'Do a good job.' Now, he says, 'Tell me what I can do.'"

An early indication of the speed and power of cyberdemocracy occurred last February, during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A provision in the bill would have required every school district in the nation to certify all full-time teachers in the subjects they instruct. Home-schoolers–parents of the one million children who receive all their schooling at home–believed this requirement would force them to put their kids in more traditional schools. Communicating on the Internet, home-schoolers flooded Capitol Hill with hundreds of thousands of telephone calls and faxes. The onslaught of outrage forced the House to move the vote up by two weeks; by a vote of 424 to 1, it voted to strip the certification requirement from the bill.

Other cyber-battles were fought in the 103rd Congress. A barrage of letters, faxes, and telephone calls from the members of wise-use and property-rights groups prevented the National Biological Survey from being considered for a vote and the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act from being reauthorized by the 103rd Congress. (See "Bill Killers, August/September 1994.) And in September, when Congress threatened to force advocacy groups to disclose their donor lists to the Internal Revenue Service, hundreds of thousands of telephone calls and faxes from activists and trade-association members shut down the Capitol Hill switchboards and killed the lobbying bill.

Grassroots organizations have shown they can work the phone lines and fax machines to clog the Capitol Hill switchboard. But these activities represent a minuscule sample of the ways individuals and groups use infomedia. For instance:

? The National Taxpayers Union has placed its two congressional rating guides, BillTally and VoteTally, on the CompuServe electronic service. Anyone with an IBM-compatible computer can download the programs and get a detailed voting record of any member of Congress.

The BillTally guide estimates whether individual pieces of legislation will increase or decrease federal spending. VoteTally ranks members of Congress according to the net amount of spending increases or cuts they proposed during an entire session of Congress. When NTU first started tracking for BillTally in 1991, over the first nine months, members of the 102nd Congress introduced 57 bills that would reduce spending. By the end of the 103rd Congress, 638 bills that would reduce spending were pending.

Until this information went on-line, NTU promoted its ratings through direct contacts with news outlets in every congressional district. Now with CompuServe, individuals can download the entire programs or simply call up an individual legislator's rating at any time. "Incentives matter in the legislative process," says NTU Vice President Paul Hewitt. "This cold, hard data has changed the incentives for legislators and empowered the general public to [demand] spending cuts."

? Americans for Tax Reform is another active, creative user of infomedia to promote its anti-tax, anti-regulation message. It sponsors regular conference calls with members of Congress, governors, and other elected officials to explain items on the legislative agenda. ATR faxes an invitation to listen to the call to its supporters, along with leaders of other grassroots organizations and political reporters. Over the past few months, for instance, by calling an 800 number, you could hear Reps. Tim Penny (D-Minn.) and John Kasich (R-Ohio) explain the Penny-Kasich budget-cutting plan or listen to school-choice activists from Arizona and New Jersey discuss proposals in their states.

ATR President Grover Norquist appears on a weekly National Empowerment Television program, informing viewers how to contact members of Congress or talk-show hosts about different bills. The group regularly faxes notices about national and state issues to local activists, talk-show hosts, and journalists. Commercial broadcast-fax services can send a one-page document to thousands of locations, each for about the cost of a first-class stamp. As ATR's Jim Lucier points out, batch-faxing information is not only faster than relying on the Postal Service; you don't have to recruit people to stuff envelopes and lick stamps.

And ATR has begun targeting op-eds and fax notices to community newspapers that would be too small to justify traditional mail campaigns. "These are the places that print coupons for the local supermarket and write about high-school football games and the prom," Lucier says. "It's an important audience to reach."

? Activists inside the computer community have worked to make government documents available at low cost on-line. Jim Warren worked with legislative staffers to place California's public records on the Internet rather than on a separate computer system that would have cost millions of dollars to construct and maintain and would have been costly for individuals to dial up.

And individuals can now reach the Library of Congress's "Thomas" program on the Internet and download the legislative language of any bill before Congress within seconds of its being filed. New Speaker Newt Gingrich believes "Thomas" will weaken Washington lobbyists and make it tougher to pass bills that benefit narrow interests. At a January 10 conference sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Gingrich said disseminating information in "real time" will give everyone, not just well-paid lobbyists with research staffs, access to the same information. "There's no longer an advantage to being an insider," he said, "because everyone's an insider" who's willing to get the data. ATR's Lucier says "'Thomas' lets anyone play 'Find the Pork' with their home computers."

Before "Thomas" was up and running, unless you could walk over to Capitol Hill (or pay someone to do it), it would take days to get the text of bills pending in Congress by mail. And unless you had solid contacts on Capitol Hill, forget about quickly obtaining copies of committee reports, the staff-prepared briefs that outline the projected costs and regulatory impacts of pending bills.

Organizations across the political spectrum form "working groups" to respond to legislation affecting areas as disparate as immigration, criminal sentencing, and gun laws. A few hours after a meeting ends, thousands of activists can learn by fax or e-mail what's happening in Washington and what they can do to assist in legislative battles.

And they have an impact. By raising a ruckus on the Internet, for instance, civil-liberties groups have derailed proposals to make digital telephone communications easier for governments to wiretap. They have also caused an indefinite delay in the introduction of the Clipper Chip encryption device. Says Jim Warren, "The Net is a potent tool for enhancing citizen control over state and federal legislative activity."

But Rauch argues that technologies aren't the problem; lobbies are. He admits that the grassroots infomedia groups have been most effective in stopping intrusive legislation. But he wonders if new "veto" groups won't spring up that stop laws that roll back existing entitlements and regulations.

Such groups may emerge. Indeed, greens use electronic communications (the ECO-NET news service, for instance) extensively. But their main thrust has been extending regulation, which has recently become a legislative nonstarter. And as Paul Hewitt of the NTU points out, the latest technologies are in the hand of younger people who are more suspicious of government entitlements than their parents. Warren agrees. "On the Net," he says, "Generation X has an equal voice to the AARP."

The coalitions that fought the Clipper Chip, the 1993 tax hikes, ClintonCare, teacher certification, and the lobbying bill were part of what ATR's Lucier calls "the leave us alone coalition." These technologies provide fast and flexible responses to government attempts to micromanage people's lives. Working on many fronts, individuals and groups can chip away at the centers of power in Washington.

Richard Hartman thought his family's life would return to normal after the election. Now political consultants and grassroots activists across the country want to hear how they ran an effective political-action committee out of a couple of rooms. He's planning to sponsor a seminar in Spokane in late spring or early summer to explain how they did it. "We had no long-range agenda," he says. "Everything we did was focused on getting rid of Mr. Foley." Now that Foley has become a D.C. lobbyist, the Hartmans may be able to show other activists how to give their local legislators early retirements.