Masthead CMC Magazine November 1, 1995 / Page 9


Examining Claims for Electronic Democracy

by Brennon Martin (

Book Review: The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age
by Lawrence K. Grossman
Viking Penguin, 1995
ISBN: 0-670-86129-4
290 pages
$24.95 (US) $32.99 (Canada)

In recent years, there has been a movement to limit the powers of government and our elected representatives in the United States. An increase in the use of public referendums and other initiatives on the ballot are indicative of the desire to put power back in the hands of the people. Attempts at instituting term limits for members of Congress are part of the same trend. At the same time, political participation, measured in terms of how many people vote in an election, has been on the decline for years with the one exception being the latest presidential election in 1992.

In The Electronic Republic Lawrence K. Grossman examines the phenomenon that is transforming the representative system created by our Founding Fathers to a direct democracy in which laws are enacted by the people themselves. Grossman points out that direct democracy was not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. They envisioned a system where public opinion would not be transformed from a raw state into public policy.

Grossman writes, "Nevertheless, however carefully the new government was to withhold power, insulate the country against the people's 'temporary delusion,' and provide the 'opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection,' American representative democracy was firmly rooted in the principle that human beings in general 'possessed the inherent capacity to govern themselves.'"

The recent explosion in computer and information technology has led some people to hail these innovations as the path to a more participative system through electronic town meetings, computerized ballots, and online question and answer sessions with can didates and representatives. It is now possible to take a virtual tour of the White House, email your representative in Congress, or look up the exact wording of a bill, all from the comfort of your den.

The Electronic Republic offers suggestions for what policy might be implemented to allow us to improve the representative system that the Founders intended without suffering from the dangers of "mobacracy," the sort of push-button, whim-driven, public-opinion government that the Constitution was to prevent. The question that Grossman takes on is how might new communications technologies be implemented to increase the sort of grassroots participation that most Americans say they want without throwing out the process of deliberation and debate that has worked so far.

Where Grossman's book differs from other publications in this field is that it neither embraces new technologies as the ultimate solution nor discounts them as useless toys that are only good for wasting time. Where others have often taken the extreme views, Grossman has moderated his obvious enthusiasm with the proper skepticism. The most impressive aspect of the book is that it considers the problem of discovering all that it will take to improve our system. There is no one answer, no one solution. Improving our system will only come about through a combination of factors. If you want a list of possibilities to consider, read The Electronic Republic. [CMC TOC]

Brennon Martin is a graduate student in the School of Communications at the University of Washington, where he spends too much time trying to figure out what information poverty is. He also goes outside sometimes.

Copyright © 1995 by Brennon Martin. All Rights Reserved.

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