As the 2000 presidential campaign shift into high gear, the Internet is demonstrating its real potential as a vehicle for citizens to organize and express their views. Web portals such as USAdemocracy.com and Issues2000.org are providing interested citizens with up-to-the minute information about candidates while changing the way people learn about and get involved in important issues.
In his recent book, "The Control Revolution," Andrew Shapiro talks about the advent of "direct electronic democracy." According to Shapiro, "the crux of direct electronic democracy is that individuals can exercise a whole new kind of civic power. It is more than just the ability to cast a vote online or express our views more easily to elected representatives and career public servants. Rather, it is the opportunity to take more control of the decisions that have been made for us by these public officials."
Jefferson v. Madison
With this new electronically driven civic power, the ultimate political question rises to the surface: Are legislators and policy-makers necessary as representatives of the people to government if every individual can express governmental preferences directly? This question of direct democracy versus representative government is not a new one. In fact, the founding fathers of this country struggled with the very same question. The Federalist Papers contain James Madison's debate with Thomas Jefferson on this point.
Jefferson wished for a pure democracy whereby the citizens could assemble and administer the government in person. All people could then have a direct say in how they are governed and share in the power that is used to govern.
But Madison was not so optimistic. He believed that we are all prone to faction--"citizens...united and activated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or [adverse] to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" (Federalist Papers #10). "No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause," said Madison, "because his interest would certainly bias his judgement, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity."
Madison argued that the remedy to the risk of faction, the historical version of today's "special interests," was a representative government where a small but carefully determined number of citizens are elected by the rest to act on their behalf and in the interest of the public good. And as we all know, Madison won this argument, perhaps because he was correct in his assessment of the problems of direct democracy, or perhaps because it was simply not possible to enable every citizen to participate directly in the governing process.
With the Internet, it is theoretically possible for each citizen to personally participate in the process. Individuals make their voices directly and immediately heard by their members of Congress. Technology also can enable Internet users to know just as quickly whether their member voted as they "instructed," thereby increasing the chance that politicians who do not follow the will of the people will be voted out of office at the next opportunity. This could lead to what Shapiro calls "push-button politics"--a kind of quasi-direct democracy where citizens manipulate their representatives like puppets with many of the same dangers as direct democracy itself.
Embedded in the threat posed by push-button politics is perhaps an even greater threat to our concept of leadership. In a representative democracy, our representatives must balance their ability to follow the mandate of the people on the one hand and the exercise of independent judgement on the other. To maintain this balance translates into good leadership. To lose this balance threatens to leave us leaderless.
The larger question, of course, is how these new emerging technologies will converge with traditional ways. We need to blend and integrate our existing culture with the developing Internet culture. The former will not simply be replaced by the latter. Yet the process may not proceed smoothly if left to its own devices. Psychology is well positioned to help facilitate the many changes necessary for knitting together these two cultures.
New ways of sending, receiving and organizing information must be integrated with traditional ways. New ways of thinking about things and solving problems must be blended with existing strategies. New ways of relating and new notions of community must be combined with the old. We as psychologists will have missed an opportunity we will come to regret if we are not central to this necessary integration of behavior and culture.