Changing Concepts of Democracy
by Michael Schudson
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.