Electronic Democracy Was Born in 1996 Election

I wrote the following in 1996:

Clearly it isn’t just fear and anger about political extremists that draws me and so many others to express ourselves politically on the Internet. It is the feeling that at long last we have a means of political participation and dialogue. The process is now open to us and not just to the professionals and the hacks.

We aren’t waiting for orders from headquarters to politically organize. If we believe it’s the right thing to to d, we can just do it. And we can all be part of movements that are national and international in scope. Through the Internet, I’ve made friends in almost every state in the union, who share interests and goals.

On the Internet, you can interact with the unfiltered ideas of leaders. You can network with those who share your views, and join a community of shared interests. You can debate issues and sharpen your own thinking. You can gather important information that either solidifies or challenges your point of view. You can research and “vote” on party platforms or congressional legislation, and compare your positions to those of your real representatives. You can interact with legislators or their staffs (A limited but growing number are on the Internet). You can converse directly with party leaders. Right from your desktop, you can call up summaries and text of legislation, or speeches on the Senate floor, or Supreme Court decisions. You can review the schedules, talking points and issue stands of candidates. You can pose questions to candidates, lawmakers and journalists.

You can role-play as campaign managers, candidates, or members of Congress, try to win a campaign or balance the federal budget, or make a weighty decision and accept the consequences. You can endorse a candidate, ambush his opponent, volunteer to work in a campaign, participate in discussions on how to improve your community, give money to a cause or a candidate.

As technology improves, as these activities become more accessible and as more citizens participate in interactive politics through the Internet, I believe a major political movement toward electronic democracy will emerge.

“The Internet is the most important development in politics since the coming of television. Ultimately it could be even more important,” writes Doug Bailey, one of the creators of the Politics Now web site, a joint venture of National Journal, the American Political Network, the Washington Post and Newsweek.

“Television coverage fundamentally changed the way the political process works and how politics is perceived. But television provides little chance for candidates and office holders to speak directly to the public (except through paid commercials) — and no chance for the public to speak back. The Internet does both.”

Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, predicts that “rain or shine, few Americans will go to the polls on Election Day in November 2020. Most will vote by modem, telephone or mail–and overall citizen participation will be much greater than it is today. So will citizen interest, partly because four or five reasonably serious presidential candidates will be on the ballot, along with at least one official referendum and perhaps half a dozen national advisory referendums. Enthusiasm for the democratic process will have reached a point where even Washington should be more popular…

“Between the Renaissance and the 19th century Industrial Revolution, new communications technology, from the printing press to the telegraph, generally spurred mass political participation….Technology’s new challenge, ideally at least, is to re-empower voters and revitalize democracy through more direct representation.”

The emergence of electronic democracy does not not mean that Congress will be dismissed, to be replaced by direct democracy in which citizens vote yea or nea by computer on major legislation. As Benjamin Franklin said, America “is a republic, if we can keep it.” A republic depends on political representatives who have time to study and reflect on issues and to give their best judgment. Average citizens are too vulnerable to easy manipulation by media and special interests. A government operated by media-manipulated plebescite sounds too close to mob rule to make any thoughtful democrat comfortable.

Howard Rheingold, in his pioneering 1993 book, Virtual Community, observed that today politicians are commodities, citizens are consumers, and issues are decided by sound-bites and staged events. “The television camera is the only spectator that counts at a political demonstation or convention,” he wrote. This has led to a “radical deterioration of the public sphere….Discourse degenerated into publicity, and publicity used the increasing power of electronic media to alter perceptions and shape beliefs.” Rational discourse at the base of civil society has almost died, Rheingold says.

“‘Sound bites’ have lobotomized classical political discourse,” Alan Arnold of Rockville, MD wrote in an e-mail after visiting my web site. “The ideas of Socrates, Lincoln, Churchill, and Roosevelt could not survive in such a sterile, toxic wasteland.” He suggests that the Internet can revive intelligent political dialogue. On the Internet, for example, for the first time he read what he called thoughtful remarks by President Clinton on lessons learned from the 1994 election and on the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. “This is the first time I have appreciated the President’s superb grasp and phrasing,” he wrote. “FDR actually had an advantage because there was no TV with a zillion channels, and people had to give a single radio speaker their close attention for more extended and thoughtful remarks.”

A President today is competing with hundreds of others for the attention of the American people. But with the Internet, at least, those who want to fully understand the President or others can do so by easily accessing transcripts of speeches and events. Access to important political information is no longer denied or blocked by a mainstream media mentality that for economic reasons must appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Online Activism: Taking the First Step

Taking your first step into the online political arena is simple–express an opinion online. On television and in the traditional media, we are always being told what others think, what “the American people think,” according to the polls, what the politicians think, what the journalists think. But how many times have you been asked what you think, with time to reflect and give a thoughtful response?

Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about? You, me, “we the people”, average citizens studying the issues and engaging in dialogue about the issues of the day?

Right from your desktop computer, you or anybody in the world can track the President’s activities and call up the text of his every public utterance. You no longer depend on some reporter to summarize and characterize the news in a positive or negative light. You can call up documents on health care reform and decide for yourself what you believe. And then you can discuss your views with your fellow citizens from around the country.

You’ll find Democrats for Dole and Republicans for Clinton, federalists and states’ rights advocates, civil libertarians and people who want tougher prosecution of criminals, gun owners and gun control advocates, people who favor abortion and people who think it’s murder. You’ll probably find lots of Libertarians and lots of people who are angry and alienated from the political proceess.

Whatever your position on an issue, someone is sure to passionately disagree with you, and mince no words about it. I thought I had the most cogent arguments, of course. But invariably someone would come up behind me and post a note saying flat out that I was wrong. The Internet is a perverse medium, the political message boards especially so. If you offer a strong political opinion, people are far more likely to post an opposing view than to agree with you.

At first this practice irritated me. Gee, anybody can post anything, I thought. There’s no filter, no intermediary, no gatekeeper to decide which arguments are proper and which arguments are not. This is anarchy!

But in time, as I learned to ignore the adolescent insults of a few idiots, I engaged in some provocative debates that sharpened my own thinking and helped me to see others’ points of view. I found myself competing with others to offer the most well-reasoned arguments and to ask the most penetrating questions. I read the newspapers and magazines more alertly, hoping to find an issue I could discuss and debate on-line. You might call it intellectual calisthenics.

A few vitriolic posters seemed hellbent on not just disagreeing but attacking and destroying the opposition. They weren’t interested in reason or honest dialogue. Their strategy was attack, attack, attack, without any sense of personal responsibility because they didn’t use their real names, and rarely revealed what they believed because to do so would put them on the defensive, leave them vulnerable to attack and searching questions which they preferred not to consider. They made me so angry, I decided to try another on-line forum where surely the political culture would be more civil, I hoped.

But I was wrong. The online political culture on Compuserve and Prodigy and Internet usenet groups was no different from what I had experienced on AOL, perhaps less civil, dominated by radical libertarians and name-calling reactionaries.

At the time, 1993-94, on-line forums were a rather lonely place for people of moderate and progressive political views. I felt defensive and embattled, spending most of my time on-line fending off attacks on whatever position I might espouse.

Occasionally on AOL, I noticed another moderate or liberal voice who also seemed embattled like myself. Slowly, I collected a few e-mail addresses, and send out a message to about a dozen letting them know they were not simply “voices crying in the wilderness,” that I and others agreed with them. This simple step was my first attempt to create some sense of community on-line. The radicals and reactionaries were more vocal than we were, I wrote, but their numbers were not so large. Perhaps we could strategize in private e-mail on how best to use our time on the message boards, and at least draw strength from knowing we had compatriots on-line.

“My quick tally of regular contributors to the White House Forum on AOL indicates 20 Clinton supporters and 20 Clinton opponents,” I wrote the group. “But the opponents are clearly energized and we supporters may be in what columnist E.J. Dionne calls ‘the Democratic Doldrums.’ In today’s Washington Post, he observes that supporters of the President and the Democratic Party stand to lose big in the November elections unless they can drum up enthusiasm in the President’s natural constituencies and counter the constant assaults from the right. Clinton’s message isn’t getting out. Perhaps we can help build a network that helps get it out?

“Would you be interested in participating, or, at a mimimum, receiving further e-mail from a Pro-Clinton Network? If so, reply by email.

“Who am I? One citizen with no official affiliation with any political group. I simply recognize the enormous potential power of this medium for networking and political activism.”

The next day I turned on my computer and found nine e-mail messages:

#1: Belleview@aol.com

“Hi…your notion sounds interesting. I have been both horrified and amused by the conservative right’s voluble and energetic attacks on the president. It seems to me that most open-minded individuals (liberals? free thinkers? you decide) tend to be lazy and not particularly interested in telling other people what to do or think. Unfortunately, rigid uptight right-wingers LOVE to tell everyone what they should do and think. It is an affront to their belief systems when someone (anyone) subscribes to a different philosophy of any kind whatsoever. (E.g., their religion is the only religion, their notions about politics are the only right way, and thought control [so long as it is executed by themselves] is a GOOD THING.

“I am not certain that contributing to this ongoing debate between Clintonites & anti-Clintonites will accomplish anything much. But I am all for the effort. I personally am getting tired of arguing with the likes of “SeaSoldier” et al. They don’t hear anything. They don’t appreciate anyone’s point of view but their own.

“Sometimes I think Clinton himself could do a much better job at getting his message across…all he’d have to do is address the nation now and again and explain his positions. Though he gives press conferences, he rarely goes live on TV and talks to us. I think this is a mistake….It seems to me other presidents communicated more frequently with the American people. I could be wrong, of course. I mean I know he goes on radio once a week, but how many people actually hear his address? I know that I never get a chance to hear what he has to say.

“Those are just a few of my many redundant and pushy thoughts on the subject. Let me know what you think. Thanks for including me in the conflict. Just think, with 20 arguers on either side, we could settle the whole thing with a big tug of war!” BelleView@aol.com.

#2: JaneH42@aol.com

“Jim–your e-mail message was forwarded to me. I find this very intriguing — am interested in hearing your ideas….Who am I? A person who is interested in bettering this country for my children and believe the President has our best interests at heart.” JaneH42@aol.com.

#3: NDCAJUN@aol.com

“Jimbuie, I enjoy your contributions too. I’d like to do what I can, but can’t compromise my position as a journalist. What I write has to be balanced and fair. But I’d be happy to work to BRING some balance and responsibility to the public discussion. As it is (as you say), the antis are making all the noise and getting all the attention. Clinton’s many accomplishments are ignored. And his true flaws (which are many and should be debated) are ignored in favor of all these absurd things that have nothing to do with what he was elected for). Count me in.” NDCajun@aol.com

#4: Avalon9@aol.com

“Jim, yeah….I’d like to participate. Sounds challenging and very cutting edge. Inasmuch as I’m currently job searching, I’ll have more time “upfront” than I likely will later on. But, I am very interested. You should know at the outset that I believe that our beloved republic needs both legitimate conservative as well as liberal views expressed and advocated. Please note the word “legitimate”….like the rest of you, these bumper-sticker conservatives and Christian Coalition types scare hell out of me. Thanks for the invite…….keep sending!!” Jim Spalding/Avalon9@aol.com

#5: JackB29@aol.com

“Yes, I would be interested. But, I wouldnt worry about the polls right now; they will be all over the map, the important poll is the elections themselves. Clinton has a great ability to come back from the grave. We do need to work in the 1994 elections though, and I am worried about the acid drip drip drip of 15+ hours of Rush Limbaugh and all the other conservative detractors of the President. Please keep me informed, and thanks for your idea and asking me to participate. ” JackB29@aol.com

#6: Maudies5@aol.com

“Good, Idea, Jim. Count me in. I am a sort-of activist in Southern California, but it looks like there is a lot of action on these boards. The religious right is getting scarier and scarier and I am all for a good counter-punch– I mean, you know, that the right wing minion are well organized.” Regards, Maudie (Maudies5@aol.com)

#7: IDoubt@aol.com

“Thanks for the invitation. I would be very interested in participating. I’m very troubled by all of the unfounded mudslinging by many posters on AOL against Mr Clinton. Constructive criticism is fine but the out and out vile, blind hatred that I have been reading is quite nauseating.” IDOUBT@aol.com

#8: Speakout@aol.com

“I am happy to help. Clinton has earned it! This virulent right wing is a danger to us all and needs to be countered by active support from Clinton backers.” Speakout@aol.com

#9: Edherlihy@aol.com

“I have been thinking about starting such a group for weeks, but we had an important re-nomination fight here in Virginia….With the help of the President and the Vice President, Senator Robb was endorsed by the Democratic Party, in a primary, with 58% of the vote. Some 220,000 registered voters participated.

“One of the first things we can do is be clear and open about our current affiliations etc etc. I am a member of the State Central Committee of VA for the Democrats and I would NOT be considered an unbiased “average voter” for sure. I will not be able to actively discuss or work for any Republicans or endorse strong positions that go against the platorm of the DNC. But I will respect any intelligent and logical viewpoints and be glad to debate the merits of issues. I will be glad to point out where I have disagreed with the President, but I am not going to drone on about it….I AM READY!!! COUNT ME IN.” EdHERLIHY@aol.com

The discussion group quickly grew to about 50 names, the maximum number allowed at that time by AOL’s group list software. With a brief and simple e-mail message, I had become a political organizer. I marveled at how easy it was. And I instantly realized that I had stumbled upon a powerful new technology that once it caught on with other citizens would change the face of American politics forever. In time, my simple little e-mail list, created by one citizen working on a home computer out of a basement, would grow to thousands.

Building an Online Community

This new medium’s ability to encourage participation, collaboration and to build community began to dawn on me in 1994, when in various online forums, I “met” a number of people who were as excited as I was by a renewed sense of participating in democracy.

I had not been a serious political activist in years, but I was hooked on this new form of expression. Every time I turned on the computer, I found a new message that challenged or stimulated me or stirred my political passions.

Many Americans are ambivilant about participating in the political party system. The images of party workers projected by the mainstream media have not helped:
* rigid ideologues and missionaries eager to impose their views and standards on others;
* Monied elites eager to buy influence and who care only about a candidate’s stands on their particular special interest;
* fratty baggers and hacks with little curiosity about issues, whose main concern is obtaining or perpetuating political power.
* naive personality cultists who function as sycophants and dutiful followers to office-holders no matter how they perform;
* the peripheral majority of “activists”, who might give $25 to $2,000 and be invited to attend a rubber-chicken dinner to hear candidates give long-winded, self-congratulatory speeches.

But I’ve known many citizen-legislators and activists (Democrats and Republicans), I ‘ve attended enough party functions to realize that these stereotypes are frequently wrong. Many party workers are independent thinkers and motivated by the ideal of public service, not simply personal profit or to impose their ideology on others. For all their faults, political parties are indispensible when it comes to organizing political activity, selecting candidates for office, mobilizing voters, and getting legislation passed.

If the Internet can help the political parties function better and reconnect with “the people,” then perhaps the system will work better, I thought. And one of the most freeing aspects of communication on the Internet is that activists don’t have to get their opinions approved by a committee, or a bureaucracy, or get permission to speak out. They are entirely entrepreneurs. They can just do it.

Digitals: Computerizing the Democratic Party from the Ground Up

One who decided to just “do it” was Charlie Gallie, a software developer in San Francisco. In late 1994, he was way ahead of anyone I knew in reflecting on the possibilities of Internet organizing for political purposes. He posted an e-mail message announcing the formation of a group called “Digital Democrats–Democratic Party On-line Activists.” The mission of Digitals, he wrote, was to computerize the Democratic Party “from the ground up” and generate thousands of new volunteers. Over the Net, he distributed a lengthy game plan on how it could be done. Charlie then offered a free, moderated e-mail discussion for Democratic Party activists on “nuts and bolts” organizing.

Several hundred people joined the Digitals discussion list. The daily e-mail messages from people around the country sharing their political organizing experiences were stimulating and insightful. By early 1995, Charlie was leading the way in using what to most of us was still a curious new invention called the World Wide Web. He created a web site for Democratic Party activists, one of the first if not the first home pages for progressives.

Internet Discussions Generate Face-to-Face Meetings

About the same time, Dorothy Dean, a Democratic Party chairwoman in Wisconsin and member of Digitals, announced that she was coming to Washington for a National League of Cities meeting and would like to meet with Digitals’ members in the Washington area.

About 10 people showed up at the Washington Hilton, including Dick Bell, technology director of the Democratic National Committee; Eileen LaFleur, a volunteer at the White House, Ed Herlihy, an activist in Virginia, and Bill Woodcock, an activist in Maryland.

Eileen and Bill came up with a list of objectives for Internet activism in 1996. Dick asked for our ideas about the upcoming DNC site on the World Wide Web. Ed Herlihy discussed his desire to create a web site for the Virginia Democratic Party. I hatched the idea of an e-mail newsletter to communicate regularly with activists around the country. “If Rush Limbaugh can get 20,000 subscribers to his e-mail newsletter,” I said, “the Democrats ought to be able to do at least as well.”

Internet Democrat: Connecting With Activists

Charlie in San Francisco and I in Washington, DC had never met but we collaborated to create the “Internet Democrat” e-mail newsletter. I supplied the content, he supplied the technical expertise by creating a one-way “list-serv” or automated mailing list.

Early on, the newsletter exceeded our expectations. With no advertising budget, no institutional funding, and no public announcement, the Internet Democrat in the first three weeks acquired 2,500 e-mail subscribers. Our goal, we wrote, was “to bypass the cynical mainstream media filter, to empower citizens at the grassroots and present an alternative to the rabid right wing.” We imagined “a revitalized Democratic Party, with thousands of new volunteers eager to help, well-informed and mobilized at a moment’s notice, ready to win legislative victories and get out the vote in crucial districts across the country.”

Convinced of the inevitability of computer-mediated communication dominating the political landscape of the future, Charlie Gallie moved in the fall of 1995 from San Francisco to Washington to speed the process along. And he began to invest a considerable amount of his own money to hire staff and purchase equipment to keep the Digitals’ web site on the cutting edge.

By summer 1996, more than 10,000 people were regularly visiting the Digitals and Internet Democrat web sites or subscribing to the e-mail newsletter. By traditional mass market “broadcasting” standards, 10,000 is not an impressive number. But this is retail politics, retail marketing and community- building. These 10,000 people are not direct-mail “targets” but allies, partners, potential producers and consumers, volunteers–in essence citizens of the Internet (netizens).

On the Digitals site, visitors can join discussions with other Democratic activists on the national level, link up with a state discussion group, find web pages for every state party, every state candidate, every Democratic congressional candidates, web pages for a number of local candidates, and even purchase campaign items from a online store. The Internet Democrat site focuses on the substance of issues and political ideas–excerpts from Presidential speeches and those of other Democratic leaders; discussions among subscribers on such topics as “Why are you a Democrat?”; “Why do you support the President?”; the Friends of Hillary; how to respond to Republican charges, etc. The idea is to stimulate thought and discussion among activists.

By summer 1996, Digitals’ online store was bringing in enough revenue to begin to offset some of the costs of starting the organization. Digitals had, in fact, become one of the largest and most visited political sites on the web, according to the Lycos search engine.

Internet Requires New Thinking, New Paradigm of Interaction

This new technology requires a new way of thinking about politics, business and citizenship, which is actually an old, pre-television way of thinking about these things.

The new media does not follow the television paradigm–“mass market” and one-to-many communication. It actually encourages old-fashioned, one-to-one, retail politics, retail business and “many-to-many” communication and niche marketing.

The essential power of the Internet is two-way or multiple conversation, not broadcast. The ‘net allows average citizens and civic leaders to reach out and communicate, without the massive expenses of TV, direct mail, or print advertising, or the inefficiency of the telephone. As term limits sweep the country, qualified citizens, not just rich ones, will want to run for office without spending a bundle on television advertisements. The Internet provides a way for them to do that.

Just think how Internet e-mail is reducing distance between people. Geographically disparate family members and friends are re-connecting and re-establishing close relationships. Average citizens now have instant access to vast world-wide library research at the fingertips. Civic activists are networking and creating a “ripple-effect” both on and off the Internet. Teachers, students and their parents are communicating in ways they did not before. Neighborhoods are now creating the electronic equivilant of instant and simultaneous fencepost conversation. Candidates for local offices and city officials are building efficient online relationships with hundreds of citizens they previously had no relationship with. Small businesses are advertising cheaply and establishing ongoing interactive relationships with customers around the world about services or products, and to sell some of those services and products online. Non-profit organizations and professional associations are economically building virtual communties, finding and networking with new supporters and volunteers around the world. Government agencies are beginning to serve the public online and receive instant, automated feedback on their performance.

In time, as these experiences multiply and reverberate throughout society, personal computers, and the Internet, like the previous great innovations of the 20th century–the car, electricity, telephones, and television–will transform every societal institution, from the family to the largest bureaucracies.

A Return to Citizen Participation

People are alienated from politics today partly because they are not invited to participate in it. As President Clinton has noted, many people are political couch potatoes, passive observers of a distant politics. They have little personal experience of the psychic rewards of public service or of the old-fashioned value of citizenship. Television campaigns are directed by highly paid consultants who treat candidates as actors, as “the talent”, and who specialize in image-creation and sloganeering rather than honest dialogue.

In the long run, over the next decades, according to political commentator Kevin Phillips, the established political order that has caused so much anger and cynicism among the people will be replaced by computer-mediated communication.

New technology is beginning to return politics to where it belongs–to the people: average citizens are beginning to discuss the issues of the day online, to exchange ideas, to actually PARTICIPATE in the political process. The first step in political participation, after all, is to simply express an opinion. If people online respond to you, if they say your opinion is smart and clever or stupid and obnoxious, you will probably want to engage them in further discussion. Pretty soon you could be hooked on this new avenue of communication.

The lure of involvement and participation is compelling. Why should you listen to Sam Donaldson for the upteenth occasion giving you an unenlightened opinion and heartburn when you could spend that time interacting online and let strangers hear YOUR “real” insights into the current political situation?


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