Changing Concepts of Democracy

by Michael Schudson

3,903 words
posted:  June 4,  1998

[The text below is a complete transcript of Schudson's talk at the Democracy and Digital MediaConference held at MIT on May 8-9, 1998.]

I. Artifacts of Democracy

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.

The relevance 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.

In everyday 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 find out.


II. "The Citizen" of the Founding Fathers

Imagine 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.

In such 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.

Even the 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.

When George 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.

The Founders' 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.



III. The Progressive Era "Informed Citizen" Emerges

How did 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.

American 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 ignorance.

This is 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.

Gilded Age 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.

The shift 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 state.



The Australian 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.

The Australian 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.

Amidst these 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.

IV. Rights-Conscious Citizenship

In l935 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.

The lesson 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.

The new 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.



The civil 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.

In popular 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.

What happened 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":

...the mere status of citizen in which one is eligible to run for office and to vote in the contested elections for office is a continuous incitement to claim the status of citizen -- or something analogous -- in all nonpolitical relations of life. Indeed, the incitement is to politicize the nonpolitical relations of life and thus to democratize them.

This is 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.



V. Conclusion

In conclusion: 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.

I propose 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.)

There must 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?

The idea 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.

The monitorial 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.



We have 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.

Most political 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.

A final 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 them.[1]

[1]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 citations.