Changing Concepts of Democracy

Friday, May 8, 1998
1:45-3:45 pm

Speakers: Lawrence Grossman and Michael Schudson
Moderator: Henry Jenkins

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Henry Jenkins: All notions of democracy assume an informed and participatory citizenry, and that means discussion of democracy must include a discussion of media. Just as the emergence of the American republic was bound up with information technologies -- with the printing press, with the pamphleteer and the rise of partisan newspapers -- so digital media has sparked new thinking and discussion about democracy. It seems important to begin our conference by considering what we mean by the term democracy and how me might think about its emergence historically.

picture of henry jenkins


[The complete text of Lawrence Grossman's paper is also available.]

Lawrence Grossman: Technological changes are transforming our political system, creating a new "electronic republic" -- a hybrid form that adds elements of direct electronic democracy to America's two-hundred year-old representative republic.

The Internet has the potential to give individual citizens a seat at the table where major political decisions are weighed. But can the citizens of this emerging electronic republic be trusted to hold up their end in helping to craft sound public policy decisions when the people's ignorance of many key issues is profound, and their interest in government is sporadic. An ignorant, impassioned and disengaged majority can make terrible mistakes about major life and death issues.

The keypad ballot permits "voting" as often as any elected official wants to know what the public thinks. Press 1 to vote for candidate A, press 2 to vote for candidate B, press 3 if you think we should go to war, press 4 if you think we should stay out, press 5 if you want more information, press 6 if you want to suggest which targets to bomb. Will it come to that? Unofficially, we have already reached that stage, in continuous electronic polling and focus group interviews.

As new electronic tools enable direct participation in decision-making, it is essential to use those tools to equip the public with the knowledge that will enable them to make reasoned, informed political decisions. But our present national telecommunications policy does virtually nothing to encourage the electronic media to operate in the public interest, beyond requiring three hours a week of educational programming for kids.

We need an entirely new telecommunications policy for the digital age to serve the public interest. We must provide for a parallel, powerful, well-financed not-for profit, public telecommunications system that will operate along side the private, commercial system. This system should become our civic center, our source of lifelong learning, our educator, our vital information provider, our arts center.

The new public policy I have in mind would bring about a great interactive multimedia public telecommunications network designed to serve all of the people, run by an alliance of universities, public library systems, museums, arts and science academies as well as such national non-profit institutions as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and Public Broadcasting.



The commercial marketplace will certainly not finance this electronic freeway. But Congress has a brilliantly successful precedent to follow here. It should use as an example the Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which sold off hundreds of thousands of acres of public land to finance our public state universities.

We are now at a time when our society can earn a vast public dividend from the commercial use of the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum. At least a portion of the proceeds of the spectrum auctions should be used to create a public telecommunications trust fund.

This fund could be used to serve the essential needs of a civilized society and an informed democracy by helping to raise the level of public discourse and the quality of public decision making. It is essential that we adopt some policy to move in this direction before its too late.

[The complete text of Michael Schudson's paper is also available.]

Michael Schudson: Digital media may make it more difficult to think about democracy coherently because they seem to promise that the concept of the informed citizen can finally be realized. If the digital media are to be integrated into a new democracy, they must be linked to a serious understanding of democracy and citizenship. We require, though, more than a recycling of the old notion of the informed citizen. Our American history reveals four distinct versions of democratic citizenship that have been influential, and any vision of how digital media might enhance democracy must take account of all four.

picture of Schudson


  • This country began with a Democracy of Trust, in which citizens voted for esteemed leaders of sound character and good family, deferring to a candidate's social pedigree more than siding with his policy preferences. Today, we still find it useful to vote for the solid citizen.
  • A Democracy of Partisanship evolved later, emphasizing the parties and other institutions which are still useful today for mediating between private individuals and public governing bodies.
  • A Democracy of Information arose in the Progressive Era, as the center of political gravity shifted from parties to voters. A new type of ballot asked voters to "choose among alternatives" rather than to perform an act of loyalty or affiliation with a group. This is the origin of our notion of the "informed citizen" -- the voter whose informed understanding enables her or him to choose public officials and policies at the ballot box.
  • A Democracy of Rights has emerged in recent decades, as the courtroom was added to the voting booth as a locus of civic participation. The defense of rights will also continue to be an crucial part of democracy in the future.


I propose a reconstituted democracy of information in which the obligation of citizens to know enough to participate intelligently in governmental affairs should be understood as a "monitorial" obligation. A monitorial citizen scans (rather than reads) the informational environment to be alerted on a wide variety of issues for a variety of ends.

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, but most people turn on the stove rather than rub two sticks together on a daily basis. Why do we expect people to be political backpackers in public life? How much of the obligation to be knowledgeable about politics can citizens relinquish without doing violence to their democratic souls? There is surely a line of willful ignorance that, once crossed, crosses out democracy. On the other hand, in most areas of our lives, we have a division of labor between expertise and self-help that gives credit to both. In politics, we should also have plausible aims that balance citzenly competence with specialized expert resources.

The quest for a language of public life that reconciles democracy and expertise is a task that merits renewed attention. As we have discussions about a wired nation as if every citizen should be his or her own expert who communicates directly with political representatives without benefit of mediating institutions, I leave you with those two words---expertise and institutions. I believe that any notion of democracy in the digital age is going to have to find a place for both of them.


Discussion Highlights

Doug Schuler: I agree that not everybody can know everything about every issue, but no politician can know everything either. Legislators are passing laws all the time, and often they don't know anything about what they're doing. I think it is a huge mistake to say, "Well, let's just rely on them".

Michael Schudson: My claim is that we need to find a place for expertise, but I agree that expertise can be found in a variety of places. The notion of "expertise" itself might be democratized, but I'm just wary of condemning expertise because it's not democratic. It is democratic. It is the form of cultural authority that is most democratic because anyone has potentially access to some kind of expertise.


Bernard Frieden: Mr. Grossman, you gave a very persuasive account of a number of trends in state and local politics that have had the effect of weakening the role of elected representatives and giving citizens a more direct voice. But did the electronic media really cause this, or were they at hand to facilitate trends already under-way?

Lawrence Grossman: They were certainly not the total cause. But the electronic media have made it possible to poll public opinion on a daily basis. The one modification I might make to Michael Schudson's smart formulation is that expertise and the monitoring public are intertwined and influence each other. The monitoring function is not just one of voting every two years or four years, but ought to involve a daily monitoring of substance in between elections, which is a radical change from the way democracy used to operate.



Yaron Ezrahi: May I suggest a slight re-framing of the concept of "monitoring citizen". How is the perception of the government changed by adding the dimension of the Internet? Obviously, a relatively small group of people can know so much more than everybody else by simply using the Internet competently. How does the addition of an elite of extremely well- informed citizens create anxiety to the government in terms of its transparency? It seems to me, that what has been changed over time is not so much the idea of the monitoring citizens but the technology of monitoring and its distribution of power.

Michael Schudson: I think the intensity of what a small stratum can know on particular issues is increased by the Internet. What's most interesting might be whether the relative power of organized interest groups may be changed by this.

John Allen: Lawrence Grossman said that we should not surrender control completely to the marketplace to determine what happens in information technology because it wouldn't produce the civic outcomes that we want. But the prevailing wisdom is that because the technology is changing so quickly, one has to leave control to the marketplace because only there do you get the kind of de-centralized, rapid response that you need to make good use of resources. I'm interested in hearing you address that and how you think the system that you sketched for us would overcome that problem.

Lawrence Grossman: I'm a great fan of the marketplace, but it is not everything. You need institutions and organizations to deal with things that the marketplace cannot deal with effectively. The marketplace is judged by the one, simple criteria of whether you make more money this year than last year? There are many other values and judgments of importance that are essential to equality and democracy. The marketplace should not be expected to take care of those needs. And in this country, our electronic communications media largely ignore this whole other aspect. Those values and needs have always needed subsidy; they always will.



Roger Hurwitz: The Web is rapidly changing, and we see a situation where there are these same patterns of media concentration and quality production requiring increasing expenditures of money to make the message flashy and enticing to the eyeballs, which is similar to what happened to radio and television and other previous media. The raising of the threshold of communication creates problems.

Also, the various definitions of democracy have considerable design implications. For example, a system to support the monitorial citizen will look at a stream of incoming information and take action dependent upon certain critical values of that stream of information, perhaps differently from a national information utility that will support the deliberation and discussion that Lloyd Morrisett talked about earlier today.

There have been experiments involving large, participatory, on-line meetings that found that multi- topic conversations requiring people to weigh in on every issue produce overly complex and unwieldy outcomes. But there are also some experiments that show that local expertise can be built up and that, as Yaron Ezrahi points out, the ability of people who participate in these interactive forums to reach out and get relevant information does augment the monitoring and the informed-citizen capability. So I think what these new media can do should not be minimized in light of what previous media have failed to do.

Nolan Bowie: In regards to the suggestion that experts would somehow make democracy better, whom do you think the experts should be and in what areas should we rely upon them? It seems to me that the most important things are democratic values, and I'm not sure where you would go to find the expertise for that.

Also, would the experts be democratically selected, would they have a constituency, and to whom would they be accountable? Independent government agencies such as the FCC, the Federal Election Commission, the Department of Education, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration--all are composed of experts. On the other hand, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, where experts studied the social, political, economic and cultural impacts of new technologies, was dissolved because the government saw no need for such expertise.



Michael Schudson: My claim was that, in contemporary democracy, we have to find ways of reconciling expertise with democratic participation. I would not claim that we have to turn our politics over to the experts. One interesting study of decision-making in Congress said showed that they rely on one another; they turn to other experts among themselves. They don't get informed on every issue; they can't. But I don't have an answer to your deeper question about who's an expert, who decides, how are experts made accountable. There are lots of complicated issues there.

Lawrence Grossman: The separation between the expert and the ordinary citizen is no longer a separation that anybody can count on. Anybody has access to all kinds of information through the Internet, which is eroding the institutions that we used to revere, whether it's government, medicine, law or even religion. One of the real changes that's going on is a merging of expertise and ordinariness, with a lack of a demarcation which we used to take for granted. Certainly, the rise of the Internet has made that possible.

Lloyd Morrisett: I wonder if you would comment on the idea of a "contractual democracy." So many of our relationships, as opposed to 50 years ago, are now being defined by contract more precisely and in more areas of life than ever before. Do you see the rise of the contract as a mechanism of defining relationships that will be important in defining our notion of democracy?

Michael Schudson: That is another product of contemporary developments in democracy, and I think it's an appropriate one.



David Thorburn: I'd like to conclude with a brief anecdote connected to our larger theme. This conference was advertised on the Internet through the Media In Transition website. I received an email registration from a Californian who wrote: "I'm not sure I can attend your conference, but I very much hope to, even though I'm an eighth grader in San Diego." Now I do not see any eighth-grader here, so I take it he did not make the conference. But I think it is signifies something of the democratic potential of the Internet that an event advertised on our website here in Cambridge should reach across the country to civic-minded eighth-graders.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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