First a disclaimer: I’ve often expressed my conviction that pastors or heads of Christian organizations should not make partisan endorsements. (And besides, I’m out of politics, having done my time, both figuratively and literally.) So my reflections here should not be interpreted as passing judgment on a candidate—even if he is only a former candidate. But I must comment on one issue that Ross Perot’s short-lived but remarkable campaign has brought to the fore. The application of electronic technology to politics raises profound questions about the very character of American government.

To understand, we must go back a few years. The computer age triggered an unprecedented information explosion—and in turn, a paradigm shift in how business is done. We now have the ability to provide instant information and analysis from, say, the production line to the manager’s office. Computers are replacing the intermediaries who laboriously used to process, evaluate, and report data to their superiors. Because of such computerized efficiency, GM, IBM, and businesses across the country are laying off thousands of midlevel executives. Today’s unemployment lines are filled with white-collar workers.

This streamlining is good for business—good for everyone, in fact, except those who are losing their jobs.

It is this techno-efficiency that Perot and others are proposing to carry over into the political system.

Couch-Potato Democracy

We should not be surprised that Perot would promote such an idea; after all, the company he founded, EDS, was one of the pioneers in the communications revolution. Perot argues that we can streamline our national management just like business has done: by bypassing the middle layers and going straight to the people. He says, “With interactive television, every other week we could take one major issue to the American people [at a time] … have them respond, and show by congressional district what the people want.”

Clearly this idea has hit a nerve. The American people have had it with politics as usual. They are fed up with Washington’s gridlock—all those self-serving congressmen and bloated bureaucracies. When someone says, let’s clear out the middle man, the public loves it.

It sounds straightforward enough. Say the issue of the day is health care. The President presents the alternatives on national television: Option one is curtailing Medicare and Medicaid; option two is a tax increase and universal coverage; option three includes private plans, and so forth. Management experts explain the intricacies of the issue within 30 minutes. (That’s the sitcom generation’s attention span.)

Then comes the vote. All across America, there is a huge, simultaneous click as millions of couch potatoes press their remote-control devices.

Computers tot up the numbers. Presto! National policy is made. Never mind all those meddlesome and frustrating intermediaries. We’ll get action fast, straight from the people.

It sounds like the old New England town halls, nineties style. So efficient. So democratic.

But that is precisely the problem.

Shocking though it might sound to some, pure democracy is what some of our Founders feared most. To them, the tyranny of the masses was no less a danger than the tyranny of the monarch. They knew that people are swayed by fads and fashion, or by demagogues playing on the passions of the moment.

That is why John Adams wrote that unbridled democracy would lead to “everlasting fluctuations, revolts and horrors,” finally requiring police action to impose order.

Adams and his fellow Founders explicitly created a republic. Only one part of government was intended to be directly representative: the House of Representatives, kept responsive to the people by its two-year terms.

The Senate, with its six-year terms, was meant to be more protected from the fluctuating moods of the masses so that senators could vote on the basis of principle, not popularity. (Senators, remember, were at first appointed by the states and thus all the more insulated.) And the Supreme Court, with its life terms, was intended to be immune to public opinion.

Taming Public Passions

Not incidentally, the republican form of government best reflects the Judeo-Christian world view. It recognizes human sinfulness and the need for checks and balances to power. It is based on the belief that law is objectively rooted and thus binding on the present, that tradition is to be respected, that citizenship demands civic responsibility and, often, delayed gratification. And most important, a republic is consistent with the belief that government is God’s ordained instrument, not simply a mouthpiece for the masses.

A republic is not the most efficient system. All of those cumbersome checks and balances and covenants with the past slow things down. But that’s precisely what they are supposed to do.

An electronic democracy would bypass this careful system. Laws would be made the same way television ratings are determined. The nation would be run like one vast talk show, with the President as host.

Article continues below

What is ironic about all this is that while it sounds like it would fix the system, in reality, it would only make it worse. Our problem today is not too little democracy. It is that our leaders cannot stand against the public passions that demand more spending and more programs. And so the black hole of the deficit grows bigger and bigger. Tele-democracy would simply increase these pressures.

There is no way to know what the political landscape will look like when you read this, but then, that’s not really the point. My concern is about the public’s enthusiastic response to techno-politics. No matter who is elected, emerging technology will intensify the pressure for instant democracy.

But we need to remember we are a republic, not a democracy. And a republic is a fragile thing. We used to worry about it being destroyed by a Soviet finger on the nuclear trigger. But now the greater threat could well come from within—from millions of fingers poised on remote-control buttons in living rooms across our nation.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.