Democracy.gov? Thomas Jefferson, the Internet, and the Future of American Democracy

 

C. Frederick Risinger

When the earth moves, it’s time to redraw the map.

—Dick Morris

 

As social studies teachers, we use the word “democracy” frequently. In world history, we teach about Athenian democracy, and tell students that it was the first such government in the world, although there is evidence of democratic city-state republics in India that may have preceded the Greek example. Still, most history and government teachers trace the growth of democracy from Athens to the Roman Republic, to the British Magna Carta, to the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

However, although we use the term “democracy” often, we’re not always certain about its definition. Most of our textbooks define it as “rule of or by the people,” from the Greek demos (people) and kratia (meaning to rule or govern). But demos is also sometimes interpreted as “mob,” and the concept of “mob rule” has been used throughout history to criticize democracy, particularly in its direct form. John Markoff, in a paper delivered at a UCLA conference on democracy, quoted Antoine Furetiere’s Dictionaire Universal (1690) as stating that “the worst of all outbursts is a democratic one” and that “seditions and turmoil often happen in Democracies.”1

In more recent times, definitions and practices of democracy vary widely. Certainly, the political structure of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) during the Cold War was radically diferent from that of its neighbor, The Federal Republic of Germany. Samuel Huntington, in The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991), argued that there were 59 democracies worldwide, down from 62 in 1974.2 Francis Fukuyama, in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), counted 61 democratic nations.3 And Freedom House, which defines democracy in terms of the existence of universal adult suffrage, contends in an end-of-century study that there are 119 “democratic” nations.

A new challenge to the meaning of “democracy” is now being posed by the Internet and other forms of modern communication. In his widely praised but controversial book, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century, political consultant Dick Morris argues that the foundation of U.S. democracy—that is, Madisonian representative government—is rapidly shifting to a Jeffersonian model where “direct citizen involvement and interest is almost constant.” He continues, “We are about to enter an era of pure Jeffersonian democracy, where Internet town meetings will convey daily or weekly advice to elected officials and structure most of the major decisions on important issues.”4

This Jeffersonian-Madisonian dichotomy is and has been a near-obligatory topic in high school and college political science classes. Especially in recent years, Madison has been elevated from the little man who took the minutes in Philadelphia to the primary actor in proposing and achieving the compromises necessary to win ratification of the Constitution. Madison pointed out the dangers of pure democracy in Federalist Paper 10, and called for “the delegation of the government ... to a small number of citizens elected by the rest ...” On the other hand, although Jefferson wanted a much smaller and more limited government than did Madison, it is inaccurate to say that he proposed direct democracy. Jefferson expressed concern that a lower house chosen directly by the people would “be very illy qualified to legislate for the Union.” Still, his name is invoked by those who support various forms of direct democracy that bypass elected officials.

Many of the current arguments for changing the governmental decision-making process are presented as attempts to reform government. The call for term limits for elected officials, and the increasing number of initiatives and referenda offered particularly in the western states, cannot help but remind us of the Populist/Progressive reforms of the 1890s and early 1900s. Interestingly, the first two statewide initiatives—one allowing for local prohibition and the other establishing a direct primary—were on the ballot in Oregon in 1904. Nearly a century later, Oregon is again a leader in promoting direct voting through mail-in ballots.

The prediction that we are about to enter an era of “pure Jeffersonian democracy” is supported by the results of this year’s Democratic presidential primary in Arizona, which made use of both computer voting and mail-in ballots. The state Democratic Party, aware of concerns that “the digital divide” would increase class disparities in voting, set up special computer voting sites on Native American reservations, in poor black and Hispanic areas, and in far-flung rural areas of the state. On hand at each site was a computer expert to assist those who lacked experience with the new technology. The result: the computer vote tripled the primary turnout. Moreover, computer voting in combination with mail-in ballots produced a staggering 600% increase in voting in the Democratic primary—an amazing statistic in this era of rampant voter apathy.

The new “teledemocracy” (or “cyberdemocracy”) is not just an American phenomenon. In the Netherlands, more than 60 towns are using computer-mediated communications between government and citizens. In Amsterdam, an initiative called the “Digital City” emerged as a direct result of a 1990 election in which less than half of the citizens voted. (By contrast, a 50% turnout is considered pretty good in the United States.) Digital City, set up as a 10-week experiment in 1994, proved wildly successful. Computer terminals in libraries and other public buildings helped make computer access available to all citizens. More than 100,000 “hits” were recorded on the website, and the original 20 modems were overloaded to the point of shutdown.

Experiments in teledemocracy are occurring throughout the world. The city of Bologna, Italy, has passed a statute that “recognizes that information is the essential condition to ensure the participation of citizens in the social and political life of the city.” In Greece, cradle of direct democracy, Network Pericles allows citizens to submit resolutions for debate and voting to local legislative assemblies. If a sufficient number of citizens “second” the proposal online, legislators pay close attention to the arguments and votes on different sides of an issue. And there is experimentation at the supranational level. Supporters of a stronger European Union view new communications technologies as a way of bypassing skeptical national media and providing EU-related information directly to citizens of the EU nations.

In the United States, teledemocracy linked with the initiative and referendum techniques could alter profoundly how we vote and govern ourselves. That savvy politico, Dick Morris, predicts that Internet town meetings will send powerful messages to elected representatives at all levels—as they have already to California state legislators. In that state, he contends, most important issues are now being decided directly by voters, not by the legislators. In what may seem a far-fetched prediction, he concludes that even “nationally, the website town meeting will dominate our politics in the future.”5

If Morris is correct, then politics and government will be very different, and how social studies teachers treat these topics will have to change dramatically. Political parties, labor unions, and other interest groups may bypass the traditional media outlets and appeal directly to citizens. Small, moderately funded, but well-organized groups may be able to generate public support for causes that might have remained unknown a decade ago. Our elected representatives could become nothing more than surrogates who vote the way their constituents demand through online meetings.

As I did the thinking and research for this article, Adam Smith’s famous quote, “All the ills of democracy can be cured with more democracy,” kept running though my head. One of my favorite quotes, I used it for years as a teacher and had it posted in my classroom. Now, as I think about the new world of teledemocracy, I find myself becoming more Madisonian than Jeffersonian. Here are some issues that concern me as an elected official (albeit a minor one), a teacher, and a citizen.

Can the digital divide be overcome in such a way that all Americans who wish to do so can take part in online town meetings?

What about Internet security? Can we ensure that votes are accurately recorded, tabulated, and reported?

What about civility and the First Amendment? Contemporary political debate is often quite uncivil, even nasty. Internet chat rooms are filled with “flamers” who, in the relative anonymity of the Web, use profanity and ridicule to demean those with whom they disagree. A neo-Nazi hate group can set up a website just as sophisticated as that of a major political party or mainline interest group.

Finally, what about that “rule by the mob” definition of democracy? What happens when 80 or 90% of those participating in an electronic town meeting “vote” to take action against a group or an individual? What actions might have been recommended against Arab Americans or an Arab nation the day after the Oklahoma City bombing?

It is the last set of questions that concerns me the most. One of the websites I reviewed in writing this article is Vote.com. It’s a commercial site, so you have to sort your way through advertisements for stockbrokers, booksellers, and bargain airline tickets. The questions range from important public policy issues to ones that ask what a celebrity should do about marital difficulties. Those who vote at this site appear to me to be eager to punish or seek revenge. And, while I admit to being just a bit to the left on the U.S. political spectrum, I can’t believe that the results at Vote.com represent the American populace at large. Here are some examples:

Finally, one of interest to all of us:

Maybe I’m wrong, but these results are a bit frightening. Perhaps I’m reaching, but I perceive a great deal of anger and vituperation in some of the responses. On the other hand, the site provides a “pro” and “con” set of arguments on each question, and sponsors a chat room where you can debate the issue with fellow “cybercitizens.” It also covers issues in each state, and could be quite useful to a teacher dealing with controversial issues.

However, as I read the voting results, I am reminded, gratefully, of how Representative Barber B. Conable viewed Congress: “I don’t think it’s the function of Congress to function well. It should drag its heels on the way to decision.”8

Teledemocracy Websites

There are several websites that could be useful to teachers who want to discuss teledemocracy in the classroom.

 

TAN+N-Teledemocracy Action News + Network

www.auburn.edu/tann

“Dedicated to the creative use of modern technologies ... that will empower citizens to have authentic input into political decisions...” This is an excellent site with thoughtful essays and information from around the world.

 

 

The Teledemocracy Page

web.utk.edu/~jjh6161/IS490/teledem.html

This site is part of an information science course at the University of Tennessee. It’s a great place to begin to learn about teledemocracy.

 

The Direct Democracy Initiative

www.vote.org

Note that this site is not “Vote.com,” but “Vote.org.” It’s a nonprofit group headed up by former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. It provides a historical perspective on the success of the initiative and referendum tactics, and also considers issues related to teledemocracy.

 

Direct Democracy Online Project

www.crosswinds.net/omaha/~citizen

This excellent site has a great deal of information about the safety of voting on the Internet, and links to other teledemocracy sites throughout the world.

 

Notes

1. John Markoff, “When and How Was Democracy Invented?,” paper delivered at UCLA, Spring 1999, and available on the “World History of Democracy” website: www.unipissing.ca/department/history/ histdem/index.htm

2. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), paperback edition.

3. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

4. Dick Morris, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999).

5. Ibid.

 

About the Author

C. Frederick Risinger is the coordinator of social studies education at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a former NCSS president. He is also an elected precinct committeeman and the president of the Monroe County, Indiana, Telecommunications Council.