Virtual Washington

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.

Too hopeful? Perhaps. But it’s no pipe dream. Technology, whose image has suffered under a century’s worth of dictators, Orwellian novels and a long cold war, is becoming a key to the revitalization of U.S. politics. The 1990s are witnessing technology’s re-emergence in the healthier role foreseen by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as an enabler and propagator of democracy.

The stakes are enormous. The science needed to effect this revolutionary transition is at hand; it’s the nation’s psychology that lags. Americans are still exorcising political ghosts and brooding about run-amuck populism through electronic plebiscites dominated by Rush Limbaugh and The Simpsons. But a gradual, successful infusion of new technology into 21st century politics should serve to build confidence among skeptics. The mood of the nation is ripe. Last year survey takers reported that U.S. computer owners listed politics online as one of their highest priorities. And the newest political parties and movements often show a high-tech underpinning. Ross Perot’s 1992 organizers, for example, drew their highest ratios of petition signers in high-tech strongholds — from Massachusetts’ Route 128 across the nation to Silicon Valley and Silicon Prairie. Upbeat theorists are prognosticating a “virtual Washington” in which members of Congress can debate and vote from back home, and several Representatives have asked to be allowed to vote from their districts. Newt Gingrich, the first self-proclaimed futurist to become the Speaker of the House, is in the process of putting Capitol Hill online, allowing computer users to gain access to pending legislation through a new information system named “Thomas” after — who else? — Thomas Jefferson.

History and political science suggest that voters are more discerning than the critics of “hyperdemocracy” (themselves often elites fearful of displacement) have been warning. “On most major issues we’ve dealt with in the past 50 years,” pollster George Gallup Sr. noted in 1984, “the public was more likely to be right — based on the judgment of history — than the legislatures or Congress.”

We should recall that between the Renaissance and the 19th century Industrial Revolution, new communications technology, from the printing press to the telegraph, generally spurred mass political participation. True, today’s Pollyannas could end up looking as foolish as the doomsayers of that era once did — like Alfred Lord Tennyson, who gushed that the telegraph would result in “war banners furled” and a “parliament of the world.” Yet it is really our own century that has turned from enthusiasm for the benefits of science to a kind of techno-pessimism: instead of advancing participatory democracy, early radio and then television actually buoyed the strength of central governments, authoritarian leaders and mass-merchandise hucksters.

From Hitler’s mesmerizing Nuremberg rallies circa 1935 to direct mail in the 1970s to the trivializing eight-second sound bites that have marked recent campaigns, the techniques of this era have too often favored power seekers or clever interest-group mobilizers while discouraging ordinary voters and making them cynical. This distorted top-to-bottom information cascade must give way to a next stage of technology — one that will reverse the flow, thereby ending a half-century’s buildup of lawyer-lobbyists who represented interest groups (including the media) more than they did voters.

Technology’s new challenge, ideally at least, is to re-empower voters and revitalize democracy through more direct popular representation. Pitfalls do abound. The same technology able to identify and link citizens and political institutions will also necessarily facilitate nationwide identification systems and increased governmental surveillance. This will undoubtedly prompt a second neo-Orwellian howl to accompany an elitist shudder over entrusting the people — the booboisie as a 21st century cybermob. But overall, the favorable balance that should result is compelling.

Here are five critical circumstances and developments that we should all monitor carefully in the future:

PUTTING POLITICS ONLINE North America has 19 million computer users online vs. 6,400,000 in all of Europe, 920,000 in Asia and 107,000 in Central and South America. At some point four to six years hence, the U.S. will become a testing ground: the first nation where most organizations and large portions of the upper and middle classes have individual online capacity. Poorer citizens still won’t, though, which is why Gingrich and others have raised legitimate questions about public access and even subsidies for acquiring personal computers. We can expect a partial redefinition of constitutional questions of civil rights, protected political speech, copyrights and the right of citizens to petition their government.

CREATING VIRTUAL WASHINGTON Perot has already urged national town meetings, a group in Pennsylvania is talking about voters advising Washington via an electronic Congress, and nostalgia is growing for a high-tech update of Athenian democracy or of Norman Rockwellian townspeople gathered around a cast-iron stove in rural Vermont. Virtual Washington would be a wired, cyberspatial capital in which U.S. Representatives and Senators could participate from their states or districts, while citizens, too, would have any information, debate or proceeding at their fingertips. G.O.P. presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, who talks about sending members of Congress home for six months of the year to be part-time citizen-legislators, assumes they can easily be hooked up to debate and vote in Washington. Experiments — for example, having one-third or even two-thirds of the full House, or even just a congressional committee, taking part from Boise, Idaho, or Wauwatosa, Wisconsin — are plausible. A prediction: by the year 2000, Congress will have conducted several such trials.

EXPANDING INDIVIDUAL VOTING Present-day experiments in voting by telephone or by touching a video screen (recently tested in Burton, Michigan) are only an early threshold. By the end of the century, the pressures of illegal immigration, urban breakdown, and fiscal and job crises afflicting America will converge with the capabilities of advanced technology to create a nationwide identification system (and possibly a national identity card). Presumably, any person of majority age with an official identification, which would include proof of citizenship, would be able to vote — with the use of voice identification, face scan, finger image or some other emerging technology. Turnout in presidential elections could balloon from today’s 50-55% to 65-75%. A rule that voters who failed to exercise their franchise at least once every two years would lose their eligibility for various programs might even boost turnout to 75% to 85%. Because the political impact would be enormous, this could be a pivotal early-21st century national debate.

CREATING NATIONAL REFERENDUMS In a TIME poll last September, Americans favored establishing a national referendum by an overwhelming 76% to 19%. Similar sentiments are visible in other English-speaking nations that also share our history of representative rather than direct democracy. In 1992 Canadians voted on the status of Quebec, New Zealand recently balloted to switch legislative districts from winner-take-all to proportional representation, and Prime Minister John Major is discussing letting Britain have a nationwide vote on European monetary unification. Technology makes it all so easy that again by the year 2000, Americans will probably have a chance to vote on a similar, carefully limited group of major national issues. By 2020, success may well have enlarged the scope of citizen decision making.

INCREASING CHOICE OF PARTIES As technology gives Americans greater options in entertainment, media and shopping, pressures are rising for more say in politics. The choice between Republicans and Democrats, the two megaparties created 140 to 170 years ago in the Industrial Revolution, is increasingly unsatisfactory. Some 53% to 58% of Americans want a new third party and, as with participatory democracy, this additional consequence of dissatisfaction with the party system is also widespread in other English-speaking countries. The question for the next century is less whether the Republican-Democratic party system will weaken than how: more direct democracy, more parties or both? Interestingly, even if Americans must choose from among four or five presidential candidates on the 2020 ballot, technology will make it safe and easy. Voters can pick a first choice and then a second: if nobody gets a majority, the loser is dropped, and second-place votes are allocated. The fears abroad in 1968 and 1992 about nobody getting a majority in the Electoral College would be irrelevant. Tests last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed that the computers could handle this in a wink.

Because this interaction with technology could change our politics so much, the cynic can fairly ask: Is it only 20 or 25 years away? The answer is: Maybe less.