I want you
to look at the l996 California voter's information guide, the
reductio ad absurdum of the ideal of the informed citizen
in a mass democracy. In the next half hour, I want to think
seriously about this artifact of contemporary democracy. I want
to make it clear that it is a material realization of one particular
notion of democracy, a notion the Founding Fathers would have
found entirely foreign and that most European democracies would
find equally bizarre today. And I want to try to indicate why
the ideal of the informed citizen in a mass democracy is insufficient.
of this argument to the question of democracy in the digital
age is something I will know more about in a day and a half
than I do right now. But, at least from reading popular accounts
of how the digital media can enhance democracy, I believe they
are based on inadequate notions of democracy. I do suspect that
digital media may make democracy easier to practice, but they
may also make it more difficult to conceive because they seem
to suggest so naturally that the concept of the informed citizen
can finally be achieved. I think that is mistaken.
If the new
digital media are to be integrated into a new political democracy,
they must be linked to a serious understanding of citizenship,
and this cannot happen if we simply recycle the old notion of
the informed citizen. There are three other versions of democratic
citizenship that have been influential in American political
life, and I think a mature sense of democracy must incorporate
all four. We have had, in successive historical periods, a democracy
of trust (though just barely a democracy), a democracy of partisanship,
a democracy of information, and a democracy of rights.
political practice, Americans draw on these four distinct concepts
of citizenship and I believe any vision of how digital media
might enhance democracy must take serious account of all four.
Whether the digital media will give rise to a fifth vision of
the citizen or scramble the existing four visions, I do not
know and I am eager to hear from others at this conference to
Citizen" of the Founding Fathers
yourself a voter in the world of colonial Virginia where George
Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson learned their
politics. As a matter of law, you must be a white male owning
at least a modest amount of property. Your journey to vote may
take several hours since there is probably only one polling
place in the county. As you approach the courthouse, you see
the sheriff, supervising the election. Beside him stand two
candidates for office, both of them members of prominent local
families. You watch the most prominent members of the community,
the leading landowner and clergyman, approach the sheriff and
announce their votes in loud, clear voices. When your turn comes,
you do the same. Then you step over to the candidate for whom
you have voted, and he treats you to a glass of rum punch. Your
vote has been an act of assent, restating and reaffirming the
social hierarchy of a community where no one but a local notable
would think of standing for office, where voting is conducted
entirely in public view, and where voters are ritually rewarded
by the gentlemen they favor.
a world, what information did a voter require? Colonial education
aimed to instill religious virtue, not to encourage competent
citizenship. Schooling and reading were understood to be instruments
of inducting citizens more firmly into the established order.
When people praised public enlightenment, this is what they
usually had in mind.
most broad-minded of the founders conceived plans for public
education limited in objective (and, in any event, rarely enacted).
Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of
Knowledge" in Virginia aimed to provide for the liberal
education of the state's leadership. The liberality of Jefferson's
proposal consisted in its provision that elementary education
be made generally available so that the net could be cast as
widely as possible for leaders of "genius and virtue."
But Jefferson did not doubt for a moment that governing should
be undertaken by this "natural aristocracy" rather
than ordinary citizens.
As for the
latter, the whole of their civic obligation was to recognize
virtue well enough to be able to know and defeat its counterfeit.
Citizens were to be democratic clinicians who could spot a rash
of ambition before it became a full-grown tyranny. They would
turn back the ambitious and self-seeking at the polls. But they
were not to evaluate public issues themselves. That was what
representatives were for. Not parties, not interest groups,
not newspapers, not citizens in the streets but Congress and
Congress alone would deliberate and decide.
Washington looked at the "Democratic-Republican clubs,"
political discussion societies that sprang up in l793 and l794,
he saw a genuine threat to civil order. The clubs were, to him,
"self-created societies" that presumed, irresponsibly
and dangerously, to make claims upon the government, to offer
suggestions to the government about what it should decide --
when they had not been elected by the people nor sat in the
chambers of the Congress to hear the viewpoints of all. Washington
spent much of his famous Farewell Address warning his countrymen
against "all combinations and associations...with the real
design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation
and action of the constituted authorities." What de Tocqueville
would one day praise, Washington excoriated.
faith in an informed citizenry was slight. They did not support
broad publicity for governmental proceedings, they did not provide
for general public education, and they discouraged informal
public participation in governmental affairs. They viewed elections
as affairs in which local citizens would vote for esteemed leaders
of sound character and good family, deferring to a candidate's
social pedigree more than siding with his policy preferences.
The Progressive Era "Informed Citizen" Emerges
we get from the Federalists' pinched perception of popular involvement
in government to the powerful ideal of the "informed citizen"?
Picture a second scene of voting in the mid-nineteenth century,
as mass political parties cultivate a new democratic order.
Now there is much more bustle around the polling place. The
area is crowded with the banners of rival parties. Election
day is not a convivial oasis, set off from other days, but the
culmination of a campaign of several months and many barbecues,
torchlight processions, and "monster meetings." If
you were not active in the campaign, you may be roused on election
day by a party worker to escort you on foot or by carriage.
On the road, you may encounter clubs or groups from rival parties,
and it would not be unusual if fisticuffs or even guns were
employed to dissuade you from casting a ballot after all.
If you proceed
to the ballot box, you may step more lively with the encouragement
of a dollar or two from the party, less a bribe than an acknowledgment
that voting is a service to your party. A party worker hands
you a ballot with the printed names of the party's candidates.
You vote not out of a strong sense that your party offers better
public policies; parties tend to be more devoted to distributing
offices than to advocating policies. Your loyalty is related
more to comradeship than to policy, it is more an attachment
than a choice, something like a contemporary loyalty to a high
school or college and its teams. Voting is not a matter of assent
but a statement of affiliation.
democracy at that point did not require much of a concept of
the informed citizen. Loyalty and regularity, not information,
were political virtues. Only with the reform efforts of the
Mugwumps to make elections "educational" and of the
Progressives to insulate the independent, rational citizen from
the distorting enthusiasms of party, did the ideal of the informed
citizen comes into its own. In the l880s, political campaigns
began to shift from parades to pamphlets, and so put a premium
on literacy; in the l890s, the Australian ballot swept the nation
and so for the first time in American history literacy was required
to cast a ballot; in the early l900s, non-partisan municipal
elections, presidential primaries, and the initiative and referendum
imposed more challenging cognitive tasks on prospective voters
than ever before. These changes enshrined "the informed
citizenry," provided a new mechanism and a new rationale
for disenfranchising African-Americans and immigrants, and inaugurated
an enduring tradition of hand-wringing over popular political
a long story that I can only briefly describe here. From l880
to l9l0, the most basic understandings of American politics
were challenged and reformed. Much of this change came about
self-consciously as a challenge to the power of political parties.
The mass-based political party, invented in the United States
in the early nineteenth century, had been the chief agent of
the new democracy, a democracy more wild and woolly than anything
seen before, especially in its elevation of the election to
an extraordinary carnivalesque ritual.
reformers were not keen on carnival. They sponsored a "Protestant
Reformation" in American politics, with a series of attacks
on the emotional enthusiasm of political participation, attacks
on corruption in campaign financing and campaign practices,
and attacks directly on parties as usurping the direct connection
between citizens and their governmental representatives.
away from the organizational and emotional centrality of the
party was symbolized in the "Australian ballot." This
was essentially the state-printed rather than party-printed
ballot Americans still use today. It swept the country beginning
in l888, endorsed both by the same genteel reformers who sponsored
civil service reform but also by labor and other groups. By
l892, most states employed it. Until this time, a voter on his
way to the polls would be handed a pre-printed ticket by a "ticket
peddler" employed by one of the parties. The voter would
have to do nothing more than place the ballot, which listed
the party's slate of candidates, in the ballot box without marking
it in any way. By this practice, the act of voting reaffirmed
the voter's affiliation with a party rather than emphasizing,
as the Australian ballot did, the voter's relationship to the
ballot shifted the center of political gravity from party to
voter. Voting changed from a social and public duty to a private
right, from a social obligation to party enforceable by social
pressure to a civic obligation or abstract loyalty, enforceable
only by private conscience. The new ballot asked voters to
make a choice among alternatives rather than to perform
an act of affiliation with a group.
ballot did not by itself transform American politics, but it
did exemplify a political transformation, but in the end, the
Progressives faced the curse of getting what they wished for
-- the elevation of the individual, educated, rational voter
as the model citizen. Whether actual voters chose more "rationally"
after the Progressive reforms, I cannot judge, but it is possible
to assert that politics came to be organized and narrated in
a way more accessible to rational reflection. Presidents made
promises, crafted programs, offered comprehensive federal budgets,
and championed policies. Newspapers covered politics with a
degree of dispassion. Something we might term "rationality"
became more possible, too, with the proliferation of private
associations focused on lobbying the government. Women, long
excluded from the franchise, had sought political ends through
interest groups; with suffrage, they helped bring an issue-oriented
rather than party-oriented political style into the political
mainstream. Citizens could express policy preferences much more
exactly by supporting a national single-interest or single-issue
lobbying organization than by supporting the broad, mixed efforts
of a political party, by voting in a primary rather than a general
election, by voting directly for senators (after l9l3), and
by voting on state initiatives and referenda.
developments and because of them, political participation drastically
fell. The large voting public of the late nineteenth century
with voter turn-out routinely at 75 to 80 percent became the
vanishing public of the l920s with turn-out under 50 percent.
For the voting public, the road to rational public participation
was finally open, but the festive ritual of community and party
affiliations and rivalries was now closed.
the Court considered questions of civil liberties or civil rights
in two of l60 opinions; in l989 it was sixty-six of l32. The
Supreme Court and American constitutionalism in general shifted
from an emphasis in the nineteenth century on "powers,"
concerned with the relative authority of the state and federal
governments, to an emphasis on rights and the obligations of
government and law to the claims of individuals.
here for citizenship is that until the late l930s at the earliest,
the courts as makers of policy were not on the map of citizenship.
One went to court to resolve a dispute with a neighbor, not
to challenge governmental authority. In the nineteenth century,
the courtroom was rarely a focal point of popular protest, political
theory, or social reform. Now, a new avenue of national citizen
power and a new model for political action emerged.
model citizenship added the courtroom to the voting booth as
a locus of civic participation. Political movements and political
organizations that, in the past, had only legislative points
of access to political power, now found that the judicial system
offered an alternative route to their goals.
rights movement opened the door to a widening web of both Constitutionally-guaranteed
citizen rights and statutory acts based on an expanded understanding
of citizens' entitlements, state obligations, and the character
of due process. This affected not only the civil and political
rights of African-Americans but the rights of women and of the
poor and, increasingly, of minority groups of all sorts.
thinking about "the sixties," there is a tendency
to settle on images of revolution in the streets. There was
revolution in the streets and it made a big difference. But
there was also a second revolution, harder to picture, at least
as profound and enduring in its influence: a revolution in the
Congress, and the most energetic period of legislative activity
since l933-35. It significantly extended the reach of federal
regulatory powers, spurring a federalization of national consciousness
and a striking expansion of the arenas that could be authentically
understood as "political," that is, as having a relationship
to things that government does or might be asked to do.
A bold and
multi-faceted change was underway. It has been called an "unsung"
legislative revolution; I think it might justifiably be called
the silent New Deal. In the course of a decade, the federal
government put more regulatory laws on the books than it had
in the country's entire prior history. In schools and in universities,
in families, in the professions, in private places of employment,
in human relations with the environment, and not least of all
in political institutions themselves, including the political
parties, the rights revolution brought federal power or national
norms of equality to bear on local practices. In each of these
domains, the outreach of the Constitutional order spread ideals
of equality, due process, and rights.
in practically every sphere of American life enacted, under
the banner of rights, what political philosopher George Kateb
has said happens under the concept of "citizen":
a precise definition of the political side of "the sixties"
and of the legacy of the civil rights movement for American
society. The civil rights movement sprang the concept of "rights"
from its confinement in dusty documents and in brave, but isolated,
courtroom dramas. Individuals then carried the gospel of rights
from one field of human endeavor to another, transporting rights
across the cultural border of public and private. Rights and
rights-consciousness have become the continuous incitements
to citizenship in our time.
we have passed from a stage where citizenship was manifested
as an expression of trust in the solid (and wealthy) citizens
of the community to a party-dominated era where citizenship
was expressed as a set of affiliations with political parties
and interest groups. We passed on to an era that held up the
informed citizen as the ideal and created a set of institutions
to help make individual rationality in politics more possible.
We have moved on again to a form of citizenship nested in a
strong, jealous rights-based political culture. Yet I believe
that, despite this rich and multifaceted legacy, most thinking
about citizenship is confined to the model of the individual
informed citizen, and employs a rather rigid version of that
model. I would like to offer an alternative.
that the obligation of citizens to know enough to participate
intelligently in governmental affairs should be understood as
a "monitorial" obligation. Citizens can be "monitorial"
rather than informed. A monitorial citizen scans (rather than
reads) the informational environment in a way so that he or
she may be alerted on a very wide variety of issues for a very
wide variety of ends and may be mobilized around those issues
in a large variety of ways. Print journalists regularly criticize
broadcast media for being only a "headline service,"
but a headline service is what, in the first instance, citizens
require. ("The redcoats are coming!" said Paul Revere
as he rode through every Middlesex village and farm, apparently
not embarrassed by the brevity of his soundbite.)
be some distribution across people and across issues of the
cognitive demands of self-government. Consider an analogy: it
is fun to go camping and to be able to take care of one's every
need for a few days in the mountains. But in everyday life,
most people are glad to turn on the stove rather than rub two
sticks together and to buy a packaged chicken at the supermarket
rather than trap a rabbit in the woods. We rely on the farms,
milk processors, and government inspectors to see that milk
is pasteurized, we do not do it ourselves; we trust in the metropolitan
water supply to purify water, not our own chemicals. Why, then,
in public life, do we expect people to be political backpackers?
Why does political theory prepare us for camping trip politics
rather than everyday politics? Why should we expect that when
we are all wired we will be closer to some kind of democracy?
of the monitorial citizen offers an alternative. Monitorial
citizens tend to be defensive rather than pro-active. They are
perhaps better informed than citizens of the past in that, somewhere
in their heads, they have more bits of information, but there
is no assurance that they know at all what to do with what they
know. They have no more virtue than citizens of the past --
but not less, either.
citizen engages in environmental surveillance more than information-gathering.
Picture parents watching small children at the community pool.
They are not gathering information; they are keeping an eye
on the scene. They look inactive, but they are poised for action
if action is required. The monitorial citizen is not an absentee
citizen but watchful, even while he or she is doing something
else. Citizenship during a particular political season may be
for many people much less intense than in the era of parties,
but citizenship now is a year-round and day-long activity as
it was only rarely in the past. In this world, monitoring is
a plausible model of citizenship.
I do not
think we can or should be political backpackers. Over the past
century and a half, Americans have delegated fire-fighting in
our cities to professionals rather than relying on volunteers,
although it remains important that everyone understand basic
fire safety, perhaps keep a fire extinguisher at home or in
the car, maintain smoke detectors in the house, and know how
to dial 9-l-l. We have subcontracted medical care to hospitals
and physicians, on the one hand, and households, on the other,
where shelves are stocked with diet books, women's magazines,
Dr. Spock, and an array of over-the-counter medicines.
arrived, in short, at a division of labor between expertise
and self-help that gives credit to both. We do this in politics,
too, but without having found a place in either popular rhetoric
or democratic theory for the use of specialized knowledge. That
is a task that merits renewed attention: the quest for a language
of public life that reconciles democracy and expertise.
commentary today operates within the culture of Progressivism
and assumes what we might term the Progressivist fallacy --
that politics equals policy. This is one view of politics. But
other views not only have been powerful in the past but persist
today. Think of electoral activity that has no evident relationship
to policy of any sort -- elections of team captains, class presidents
or student councils, elections in fraternities and sororities,
most elections of school boards, many elections of local government,
and most elections in professional associations. Sometimes candidates
for office in such elections feel obliged by Progressivist ideology
to concoct some pseudo-policy statements, but only under the
most unusual circumstances would any voter decide on this basis.
Here the democracy of the solid citizen endures. The democracy
of the solid citizen, the democracy of party, and the democracy
of rights all offer approaches to citizenship that are not in
the first instance information-centered models. We need to draw
on them and learn from them in reformulating what citizenship
can be and what we would like it to be today.
observation: the democracy of partisanship and the democracy
of rights both call attention to two concepts that are far too
often omitted in discussions of digital democracy: expertise
and institutions. We are not going to have a democracy without
expertise, nor should we want to. We are not going to have a
democracy without a variety of institutions that mediate between
private individuals and public governing bodies, nor should
we. But we do have and will have continuing discussions about
a wired nation as if every citizen could be and should be his
or her own expert and could and should communicate directly
with political representatives without benefit of mediating
institutions. That talk will get us nowhere. So I leave you
with those two words -- expertise and institutions. Any notion
of democracy in the digital age will have to find a place for
This paper is based on the forthcoming book, The Good Citizen:
A History of American Public Life, to be published by The Free
Press in September, l998. Please see that work for full bibliographic