Abstract: Computer networks like the Internet and their political use, which are widespread in the U.S., have led many American political scientists to debate concepts of „electronic democracy“. This essay argues that concepts of electronic democracy must be understood as theories about political participation. To structure the debate and arrive at a more precise terminology, a typology of three different concepts of electronic democracy - Teledemocracy, Cyberdemocracy, and Electronic Democratization - is introduced. Each concept differs in regard to which technology it refers to, which form of democracy is preferred (direct or representative), which dimension of political participation is believed to be the most vital to democracy, and which political agenda is pursued. The concepts analyzed here all depend on specific historic, institutional and cultural attributes of the U.S. political system, raising doubts if American concepts of electronic democracy can be adopted easily in other polities, for example in Europe.
Special note: This essay is a heavily abbreviated English version of my German thesis, „’Elektronische Demokratie’ in den USA - Computernetzwerke und ihre Rezeption in amerikanischen Demokratiedebatten“. As this is an ongoing research project, this paper is intended to invite critical commentary. Earlier stages of this work have been presented at the EURICOM conference on „Virtual Democracy“ in Piran, Slovenia, April 1996, and were published in articleform as „A Road to Electronic Democracy? Politische Theorie, Politik und der Information Superhighway in den USA“, in Hans J. Kleinsteuber (ed.) 1996: Der „Information Superhighway“. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, S. 63-85. Please do not quote without my consent.
The creation and the spread of the Internet and other computer networks has sparked a debate about „electronic democracy“ in the United States. Not only media pundits, but also scholars of
political science ask if it is possible to foster democratic development with the help of communication technology (for example, Bertelsen 1992; Calabrese/Borchert 1996; Friedland 1996; Ogden 1994).
Research on the relationship between computer networks and democracy has turned up ample evidence that concepts of electronic democracy contribute both to democratic theory and our understanding of
the working of a democratic political system in the information age. As I argue in this paper, concepts of electronic democracy can best be understood if they are interpreted as contemporary theories
about political participation.
In the mid 1990s, the use of computer networks in the actual political process is nowhere more widespread than in the United States. The presidency (with its White House Information System), Congress (cf. the legislative database THOMAS, the members’ individual homepages and the private initiative Cap-Web, see Casey 1996), the Judiciary and many state and local governments are all ‘online’ in one form or the other. The major newsmedia all maintain their own political information systems (see, for example, Time-Warner’s PoliticsNow or CNN Interactive). Also, private individuals and initiatives have established independent political information systems, providing the American people with more data about their political leaders than ever before (see as examples California Voter Foundation, Minnesota EDemocracy project and Vote-Smart). Trying to put the ideas of electronic democracy into practice and led by both entrepreneurial and democratic motivations, electronic democracy projects have been launched all over the U.S. (see Becker 1995 for a comprehensive guide to electronic democracy). My hypothesis is that behind these political applications of computer networks are very distinct, and different, concepts of electronic democracy, especially in regard to which roles political information and communication should play in the process of selfgovernment. In order to test this hypothesis, a closer scrutiny of the theoretical foundations of electronic democracy concepts is needed. The aim is to arrive at a typology of different concepts of electronic democracy. This typology will help in structuring an often confusing debate (waged not only in scholarly journals, but also on the vast Internet itself). It will also aim to introduce a more precise terminology for a theory of electronic democracy. Thus, for the first time it will be possible to discuss many distinct, largely unconnected works about electronic democracy in a common frame of reference.
What is meant by the term „electronic democracy“? The term has become the one most often used by those dealing with implications of computer technology for the political process (for overviews see Dutton 1992; London 1994; Van de Donk/Tops 1995). However, the adjective „electronic“ is not precise at all. It could also refer to the use of an electronic microphone or to the use of television (for the later see Saldich 1979). To some extent, „digital democracy“ (as used by Fineman 1995), would be a more precise term. Other synonyms are also possible: „Cyberdemocracy“ (Ogden 1994, Poster 1995), „Virtual democracy“, or „Information Age democracy“ (Snider 1994). However, it is now the term „electronic“ which has become to imply „the application of interactive technology“ itself, as London (1994) has pointed out. Therefore, I will use the term „electronic democracy“ as the basic point of reference in this essay, too.
Concepts of electronic democracy, as I define them, refer to theories which regard computers and/or computer networks as central tools in the working of a democratic political system. An „Electronic Democracy“ is any democratic political system in which computers and computer networks are used to carry out crucial functions of the democratic process - such as information and communication, interest articulation and aggregation, and decision-making (both deliberation and voting). I will distinguish between three different concepts of electronic democracy: Teledemocracy, Cyberdemocracy, and Electronic Democratization. These concepts differ in their normative assumptions about the use of direct or representative forms of democratic government and the various passive or active roles citizens should perform in the democratic polity. What they share is the belief that the various qualities of new media - interactivity, fast(er) modes of data transmission, opportunities for many-to-many-communication, abundance of information, and new user-control features (see Abramson/Arterton/Orren 1988: 34-60) - can contribute favorably to the democratic political system. In particular, raising the level of political participation is the main objective of electronic democracy advocates.
The use and spread of computer networks in the political process is not the only impetus for the debates about electronic democracy. A second one is equally important. The role of „traditional“ mass media in the American political process has been heavily criticized in recent works about political communication (Diamond/Silverman 1995; Patterson 1993). Mass media coverage has been held responsible for the crisis in political participation (not more than 60 percent of US citizens participated in recent elections). Not only has television been accused of inappropriate, negative and cynical reporting of election campaigns, but there is also some evidence that broadcast mass media (including media formats as talk radio) have caused an alienation of the American public from the political process. Some have argued that TV is to blame for the erosion of „social capital“, e.g. the willingness of people to engage in commonly shared, public activities - once the heart of the American polity, as many scholars since Alexis de Tocqueville have maintained (see Putnam 1995). While empirical corroboration for this thesis is still heavily contested (see Norris 1996), there can be no doubt that disenchantment with the role of traditional mass media in the political process is widespread in the U.S. Thus, and this is my second hypothesis, the debates about electronic democracy have to be understood as a reaction toward the discourse concerning the role of mass media and their relationship to the ever weakening forms of political participation in the U.S.
In constructing a typology of electronic democracy one needs to define appropriate categories after which to distinguish the different concepts. In their comprehensive work about different applications of electronic democracy in Europe, Van de Donk/Tops (1995) have distinguished between three different concepts: those who rely on direct democracy, those which want to make indirect (=representative) democracy more responsive, and those which stress that democracy is more than a method of decision-making, e.g. which view democracy as a „course in civic education“ and thus stress the concept of active citizenhip. While the distinction direct/representative democracy makes an obvious first category for a typology of electronic democracy, the concept behind „active citizenship“ needs to be differentiated further. I suggest to distinguish between four different dimensions of political participation (for similar, but different distinctions see Milbrath 1965 and Verba/Nye 1972): First, the basic dimension of political participation is information-seeking and „keeping abreast with the issues“, much like the duties of the ideal citizen Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he called on every citizen to „stay informed“. Active political discussion with one’s family, friends, colleagues, neighbors etc. is the second dimension of political participation. Voting is the third dimension of political participation. In many political scientist’s views, voting as one of the central concepts of democracy is the most important dimension of political participation. In fact, when one speaks about the decline of political participation, what is normally referred to is the decline in voter turnout rates (see Flanigan/Zingale 1994: 45). However, the fourth dimension of political participation, political activity, is in some respects equally important for the functioning of democracy: political activists work on campaigns, organize local party events or citizens’ initiatives, manage party organizations or interest groups, and volunteer free time on local governing boards etc. Another possibility to distinguish between concepts of electronic democracy is to try to unveil their respective political agendas - e.g. if the concepts pursue liberal or conservative, libertarian or communitarian, or - if possible - more „neutral“ or „objective“ political agendas (see Hagen 1996). However, many of the concepts of electronic democracy follow rather hybrid, diverse political agendas, as will be shown below.
In order to better grasp the dynamics of the discourse on electronic democracy, which in fact began more than twenty years ago, it seems a good starting point to distinguish (in a Kuhnian manner) between three different „paradigms“ of electronic democracy, which have been guided by 1) different normative presumptions, e.g. democratic theories, and 2) by different „reference objects“, e.g. communication technologies such as cable TV or computer networks. As will be shown below, three distinct concepts of electronic democracy can be defined in this manner. They vary in their preference for direct or indirect democracy, and they vary in emphasis on different dimensions of political participation. While such a typology of „ideal types“ (in a Weberian sense) helps to better understand the debate on electronic democracy, one needs to be aware that in practice one will hardly find a „pure“ advocate or version of either concept. In fact, as I will show, there are many overlays and shared assumptions between the three different concepts.
To sum up, four analytical concepts for distinguishing between concepts of electronic democracy are possible:
Technological reference objects (communication technologies, such as cable TV, computer networks)
Forms of democracy preferred (direct or representative)
Dimensions of political participation believed to be most vital to democracy (information, discussion, voting, political action)
Political agenda(s) pursued (liberal, conservative, communitarian, libertarian, etc.)
I will distinguish between three types of electronic democracy:
Teledemocracy, Cyberdemocracy, and Electronic Democratization.
The oldest concept of electronic democracy is Teledemocracy. Developed in the 1970s, it became the first widely discussed concept of electronic democracy in the 1980s. While it is impossible to trace who first coined the term „teledemocracy“, it was used by Ted Becker, who experimented with the use of cable TV for political decision-making in the late 1970s. Christopher Arterton also used this term in his critical assessment of Bekker’s and many other projects (1987). Teledemocracy strives to establish more forms of direct democracy within the American political system and aims to employ new communication technologies for this end. Teledemocrats view history on their side and claim that change in American politics today is propelled largely by two forces: “the two-hundred-year-long march toward political equality for all citizens and the explosive growth of new telecommunications media, the remarkable convergence of television, telephone, satellites, cable and personal computers“ (Grossman 1995: 4).
The introduction of cable-TV in the early 1970s with its promises of more diverse content, localized information and the back-channel first sparked the hopes of Teledemocrats (see for example Smith 1972; Sola Pool/Alexander 1973). Not only grassroots activists, but also political scientists and sociologists such as Ted Becker (1981), Christa Daryl Slaton (1992) and Amitai Etzioni (1983) experimented with practical applications of electronic democracy. Inspired by their work, „futurologists“ Alvin Toffler (1980) and John Naisbitt (1982) claimed that Teledemocracy would hold the key for solving many of America’s most pressing problems. Less speculative and based on complex, wellthought out models of democracy, democratic theorists Benjamin Barber (1984) and Robert Dahl (1989) also recommended trial runs with different applications of „teledemocracatic“ devices.
Unfortunately, by the mid 1980s it became clear that cable TV had not led to more forms of direct democracy nor to more political participation on the side of the general public. Thus it was no surprise that skepticism towards the experiments in electronic democracy remained high and widespread (Elshtain 1982, Graber 1995). Yet some, if few, successful experiments with cable-TV based projects on the local level (such as the „Reading“ project, for a critical assessment see Arterton 1987) led the advocates of Teledemocracy to maintain a more optimistic view (see also Slaton 1992).
In the early 1990s, the debate on Teledemocracy was fueled with new energy. As part of his populist campaign platform, presidential candidate Ross Perot put the idea of televised electronic town meetings to the top of the media’s, politicians’ and succinctly social scientists’ agenda. The Clinton campaign, already by-passing traditional media through soft-media formats, also staged so-called town meetings. While these meetings were more PR-centered campaign-events, they put new legitimacy to the more theoretically grounded arguments of Teledemocrats. The second reason for the renaissance of Teledemocracy was the technological advancement in new communications media. Renewed hope in channel-multiplication (500-channel-TV), new media formats (call-in shows) and of course the explosive growth of computer networks all helped to reactivate the debate on Teledemocracy. Still, while many activists now see the computer networks as the central tool for the establishment of electronic democracy (see Becker 1995), some activists and theoreticians remain steadfast in their belief that the central tool of an electronic democracy will remain television-based communication technology, as Lawrence Grossman, former president of PBS and NBC-News, has argued: „In its many guises, television, by definition, holds the key to the future of the electronic republic“ (Grossman 1995: 92).
The concept of teledemocracy sees the main causes for apathy, frustration and alienation of the electorate 1) in the current structure of the representative democratic political system and 2) in the effects of current mass media reporting. First, concepts of Teledemocracy argue that the representative government in the U.S. has distanced itself too far from the individual citizens. New telecommunications media could help to bring government back „closer to home“. Moreover, these technologies allow one to cross time and space and enable forms of direct democracy previously thought not to be practical because of the problem of size: „... the old communication limi-tations no longer stand in the way of expanded direct democracy. Spectacular advances in communications technology open, for the first time, a mind-boggling array of possibilities for direct citizen participation in political decision-making“ (Toffler 1980: 429). Some advocates argue that people who previously could not participate in democratic activities, such as attending meetings or casting votes at ballot boxes, could regain their practical franchise - which they never lost legally, but could not exercise anymore due to age or sickness (see Arterton 1989: 51; Hollander 1985: 52, 68). In addition, American openness to new technology is also invoked by champions of Teledemocracy as an argument to support their claim that Teledemocracy will be accepted by the large populace: „If nothing else, America is a nation of button pushers. We love gadgets, dials, digital displays, mechanical operations. Interactive TV brings a new toy into the home“ (Hollander 1985: 29).
Central to the case of teledemocrats, however, is the belief that classic representative government can no longer respond effectively and appropriately to the ever increasing plurality of political inputs in an information society, an era marked by ever greater social differentiation. They argue that only a form of direct or strong democracy, as political theorist Benjamin Barber has called it, will be able to generate political outputs which satisfy citizens’ demands. Civic education, open access to government information and new ways to condunct „electronic town meetings“ are all called for by Benjamin Barber in his „Program for the Revitalization of Citizenship“ - prime applications for both interactive cable TV and computer networks (see Barber 1984: 273-307). In a similar vein, Alvin Toffler has continously argued that representative institutions are not „fit“ to deal with 21st century problems, and has proposed to establish a form of semi-direct democracy, in which new information technologies would play crucial roles: „Using advanced computers, satellites, telephones, cable, polling techniques, and other tools, an educated citizenry can, for the first time in history, begin making many of its own political decisions“ (Toffler 1980: 430, see also Toffler/Toffler 1995). Teledemocracy’s principal aim is to bring „power back to the people“, as Ted Becker has argued in 1981. It is important to note that this normative commitment distinguishes „true“ tele-democrats from those who have used the term for populist purposes, such as Perot and Clinton in their respective campaigns 1992: „TRUE democracy is the use of modern electronic communications and information technology as instruments to empower the people of a democracy to help set agendas, establish priorities, make important policies and participate in their implementation. In a word, true teledemocracy is the use of tele-communications to give the public LEVERAGE in self-governance“ (Becker 1995).
What fills teledemocrats with hope is their deterministic view of the technopolitical history of the U.S.: „The question is not whether the transformation to instant public feedback through electronics is good or bad, or politically desirable or undesirable. Like a force of nature, it is simply the way our political system is heading“ (Grossman 1995: 154). Today, politics’ dependence on opinion-polls and the central role of television in the political process are only two examples that this view merits indeed some plausibility. Teledemocrats see many of these developments with great skepticism, and thus suggest reforms with which they believe pitfalls can be avoided and a better form of democracy be created. Apart from their often overboarding rhetoric, their policy-recommendations tend to be more tempered. Hardly any teledemocrat wants to establish a pure direct democracy. Most of them want to supplement existing representative structures with elements of direct democracy either horizontically (= in addition) or vertically (= on the local level as opposed to the national level). Barber and Grossman are both inspired by the idea to establish a public-owned sector next to the commercially owned media channels. One needs to distinguish again these later advocates of Teledemocracy, which go to great lengths to establish a theoretical democratic framework for their ideas, from more populist variants, who largely use the idea of teledemocracy for a jeremiade against the current political system as a whole (as, for example, Hollander 1985).
From the arguments cited above the conclusion is to be drawn that Teledemocracy concepts of electronic democracy have a clear preference for forms of direct democracy and are mainly concerned with the voting and political activity dimensions of political participation. Also, better and more complete political information for the electorate is a central concern to Teledemocrats.
While Teledemocracy concepts were developed first as a reaction to cable TV, Cyberdemocracy concepts directly responded to the evolution of computer networks. Especially the experiences of early users („on-line“ since the 70s on nets like EIES, Usenet, Bitnet, and Internet) have shaped the Cyberdemocracy ideas.
The term „Cyberspace“ as a „’spaceless place’ where words, human relationships, data, wealth, status and power are made manifest by people using computermediated communications technology“ (Ogden 1994: 715, see also Rheingold 1993) is widely known today. It’s one of the key-terms used by scientists, artists and others who deal with the consequences of computer networks for human and social life. The term was invented by science-fiction novelist William Gibson: „Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . .“ (from: Neuromancer, Gibson 1984: 51).
The Cyberdemocracy concept was developed in the peculiar mixture between hippie and yuppie-cultures in the American West, which became typical for a new „virtual class“ living and working between Stanford University and Silicon Valley (Barbrook/ Cameron 1996). The two dreams of this virtual class mix in the Cyberdemocracy concept: the dream for true democracy, generally understood as direct, selfempowered citizen government, and the dream for material wealth, the individual pursuit of happiness (generally measured in dollars and stock values). Both dreams meet in an anti-statist outlook on politics: the state is viewed as a potential threat both to individual freedom and the maximation of wealth.
From this basic set of convictions, a two variants of Cyberdemocracy have been developed. One, more conservative and libertarian, stresses the importance of a free market and unfet-tered capitalism, the other, more liberal and communitarian, stresses community values. The first one is most pointedly championed by the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), whose Magna Charta for the Knowledge Age was the first attempt to create a political theory of cyberspace (cf. Bredekamp 1996). Its authors include Alvin Toffler, James Keyworth, a former Reagan technology advisor, Esther Dyson and George Gilder. It is no coincidence that the PFF is close to Newt Gingrich, who was among the first members of Congress to establish an e-mail address and helped to launch THOMAS (but waited long to create his own homepage, see Casey 1996: 111).
The more community-oriented version of Cyberdemocracy has been formulated mainly by Howard Rheingold („The Virtual Community“), but its ideas are widely shared by others (see Poster 1995; Morino Institute 1995; Doheny-Farina 1996). Rheingold describes how members of the Bulletin-Board-System „The WELL“ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) built their own community, which created not only a wealth of new friendships, but helped its members ‘IRL’ - in real life, too. Rheingold was among the first to appreciate that computer-networks had a big advantage over cable TV: computer-networks were much more interactive, and allowed many-to-many-communication, and not only one-to-many-communication: „This idea of many-to-many communications as a framework for collective goods is a powerful one that many who are familiar with previous communication revolutions are often slow to grasp. ... For years, educators and political activists have not taken advantage of the power inherent in CMC [computer mediated communication, M.H.] networks because they failed to take advantage of the power of a many-to-many or network paradigm“ (Rheingold 1993: ch. 9). Rheingold and other Cyberdemocracy advocates believe that this creation of community can build the much missed social capital so yearned for by American political scientists and politicans. These communities are empowered via computer networks: „The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost - intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most important, political leverage“ (Rheingold 1993: Introduction).
More conservative champions of Cyberdemocracy agree with the importance of the net as a community-building tool, but stress the profound impact of network technology on the dominant modes of production. Not material goods, but information will be the central resource of the 21st century. The authors of the Magna Charta believe that from this shift not only big business, but the individual will profit as well. (However, its bias toward the demands of the big telco and cable companies is a well-noted fact, see Miller 1996). Yet the creation of a virtual „production space“ has consequences for the „material polity“ as well (see Poster 1995). The latter one has to adopt. Claims to power will not be based on material property, but on communicative power. Thus, the democratic organization of the virtual space is one of the top priorities of the Cyberdemocracy concept. Both liberal and conservative proponents of Cyberdemocracy agree that the chief foe is centralism, both in political and communication structures, which is regarded as undermining vital forms of self-government: „The political significance of CMC lies in its capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy’s monopoly on powerful communications media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen-based democracy“ (Rheingold 1993: Introduction). In this view, the decentralized, anarchic structure of the Internet appears to be the perfect antithesis to Washington, D.C., the inflexible „imperial city“ (Vlahos 1996), and the centralized media strongholds in New York.
While Cyberdemocrats, like Teledemocrats, call for more direct forms of government, they stress different aspects of political participation. Discussion and political activity as communal forms of political participation are most important to them. Their prime concern is to (re-)create (virtual and non-virtual) communities as a counter-base to centralized forms of government. Before the last concept of electronic democracy, Electronic Democratization, is discussed, one special, critical note on Cyberdemocracy is due. The San Francisco based authors James Brook and Ian Boal have argued that the shift from the material political sphere to Cyberspace as central reference point can be regarded as a virtual flight, paralleling in cause and aim much to the white flight from the inner cities and their problems to more „civilized“ - and ordered - suburbia: „The wish to leave body, time, and place behind in search of electronic emulation of community does not accidentally intensify at a time when the space and time of everyday life have become so uncertain, unpleasant, and dangerous for so many - even if it is the people best insulated from risk who show the greatest fear“ (Brook/Boal 1995: IX).
In contrast to the Teledemocracy- and Cyberdemocracy-concepts, the Electronic Democratization-concept does not want to establish direct forms of democracy, but wants to improve representative democracy: „The greatest potential of new information technology to improve democracy lies in its ability to enhance mediated democracy“ (Snider 1994: 17). Its prime concern is the enlargement of information channels. Although there is this difference in means, the goal of the Electronic Democratization concept is the same as for all concepts of electronic democracy: „Electronic Democratization ... is defined ... as the enhancement of a democracy, already assumed to be initiated, with new communication technologies in ways that increase the political power of those whose role in key political processes is usually minimized. We assume that such Democratization brings more people into power ...“ (Hacker/Todino 1996: 72).
Not surprisingly, the main champions of the Electronic Democratization-concept are members of the „establishment“, e.g. members of Congress (more precisely: their staff), White House officials, political scientists and journalist from „well-known“ institutions. Their main concern is how to extend the „information advantage“ computer networks have yielded to members of the information elite to the general public, so that the democratic political system will gain as a whole. For the advocates of Electronic Democratization, political apathy and disenchantment with government is not caused by the basic structure of the representative political system, but by certain imperfections and malfunctions in it, which can be remedied in principal. The advocates of Electronic Democratization want to create new and alternative (in regard to mass media) channels and modes of information and communication between the public and their elected representatives. At the heart of this argument is the age-old American discourse over free access to information. The importance of sufficient information for all participants in the democratic process has always been well understood by American democrats, both in political theory and political practice. It is no accident that access to legislative records, bills and reports via THOMAS is managed by the Library of Congress, the prime holder of information in the United States. But not only the THOMAS- and the White House Information System as government sponsored services were initiated by this belief in free access to information, so were most of the private initiatives who supply political information via computer networks. This is true for non-profit initiatives such as CapWeb and the California Voter Foundation, as well as for commercial services as PoliticsNow or Congressional Quarterly’s Voter96.
Next to information systems, Electronic Town Meetings (ETM which are featured by Electronic Democratization concepts. With these, direct feedback links between voters and representatives are created. Here, emphasis is not put on the voting, but on the deliberative part of decision-making (cf. Elgin 1993). ETMs also cater to the communitarian train of thought, which has infused the beliefs of Electronic Democratization adherents just as it has progressed into the political day-to-day life in the Clinton presidency (see Hacker 1996: 219). (It is also no coincidence that scholars Amitai Etzioni and Benjamin Barber are known for works both on communitarian theory and political uses of communication technology. Etzioni has advised the Carter and Clinton administrations.) This communitarian-representative ideal of electronic democracy stands in clear constrast to the direct democratic ideal of the other concepts of electronic democracy: „If the poll symbolizes the plebiscitarian theory of participation, the town meeting symbolizes the communitarian conception. The endeavor is to use the new technologies to overcome the difficulty of practicing town-meeting democracy in an area as large as the nation state“ (Abramson/Arterton/Orren 1988: 166, similar Hacker/Todino 1996, Miller 1996).
Also, the Electronic Democratization concept stresses that computer networks are a valuable tool for the strengthening of civil society, because transaction and organization costs of associations and interest groups can be reduced (Bonchek 1995, early already Lowi 1980: 462f and Abramson/Arterton/Orren 1988: 126-133). While this is regarded as contributing favorably to democratic life, it is not overlooked that the downside might be a fragmentation of the public sphere, the creation of many different issue publics. To guard against this trade-off and search for appropriate remedies - especially in creating information-systems and ETMs, is one of the prime tasks for political leaders, at least as scholars of the Electronic Democratization concept see it (cf. Abramson/Arterton/Orren 1988: 162f).
Concepts of Electronic Democratization favor improvements in representative forms of democracy and stress the importance of information exchanges and political discussions for political participation. The concept, probably because it is more in accord with the mainstream of the American elites and public, who strongly favor representative democracy over direct democracy, has been crucial in the implementation of many political uses of computer networks today, especially in the area of political information systems. The creation of new information flows (see recent surveys such as Pew Research Center 1996) are truly „electronic additions“ to democracy, e.g. to representative democracy.
The differences in the three concepts of Electronic Democracy can be summed up in the typology presented in table 1. In this typology, special emphasis is put on the normative assumptions about democracy the concepts make, which is why their differences in regard to forms of democracy and dimensions of political participation preferred is highlighted. Because it is hard to match any concept with a clear and singular political agenda, that distinction is dropped. The difference between technological reference objects is reflected in distinguishing between Teledemocracy (originating in the wake of the introduction of cable TV) on the one side, and the two other concepts of electronic democracy on the other. As Teledemocrats shift to computer networks as preferred medium, this distinction is likely to loose significance in the future. However, adistinction between creating „virtual“ (e.g., more or less exclusively in „Cyberspace“) and „real“ forms of direct democracy will remain prevalent, reinforcing the distinction between Teledemocracy and Cyberdemocracy.
forms of political participation most central
preferred forms of democracy
The differences outlined above not withstanding, the concepts of electronic democracy presented here share many propositions in common, especially in regard to the nature of the theoretical problem addressed and their dependence on distinct characteristics of American schools of political thought.
The basic problem all concepts of electronic democracy address is the perceived crisis in political participation and the dysfunctional role of mass media in the political process. Their central line of reasoning starts with the assumption that the proper functioning of the American democratic political system is disrupted by at least three variables: a lack of communication and information between the general public and the decision-makers in the political system, a lack of political participation, which is either caused by structural or functional deficits in the political system, and a negative effect of mass media both on the political system in general and on political participation in particular.
As a remedy, the introduction of computer networks helps to alleviate these structural and functional deficits of the political system. First, they create new information and communication channels between the public and decision-makers. Thus, they serve as an alternate form of media and help to make necessary adjustments in the representative system or to establish more direct elements of democracy. Second, computer networks are believed to empower and strengthen the political polity by fostering or creating new political communities, which can be organized locally or issuespecific (via discussion-groups, ETMs, etc.). As a consequence, thirdly, the use of computer networks in the political process is attributed with the power to increase political participation and thus strengthen the democratic political system.
It must not be overlooked that many of the premises or problems mentioned in this essay are specifically American. The concepts of electronic democracy presented above are oriented toward the American political system, its presidential form of government, a clear three-way split among the branches of government (as opposed to the structure of a parliamentary system), its singlemember district representation in the House of Representatives, and its long cultural traditions which include a dynamic evolution of the political system, always trying to balance a fundamentally representative form of democracy with new democratic structures inspired by direct democratic ideals.
Also, the theoretical underpinnings of the electronic democracy are profoundly U.S.-American in nature, too. The Founding Fathers and their ideas are very well alive in modern-day concepts of electronic democracy. Especially Thomas Jefferson and his concept of civic education is sought after (see, for example, Arterton 1987: 14; Dahl 1989: 339; Grossman 1995: 239). Many advocates of electronic democracy seem to imply that Jefferson is the true inventor of the ideas behind electronic democracy, as two visual examples demonstrate: the e-mail signature of Chris Casey, who put Ted Kennedy as the first Senator on the Web and initiated CapWeb (figure 1), and a collage taken from the homepage of „CitizenPower“, the webzine maintained by Ted Becker and his Teledemocracy Action News Network (http://www.auburn.edu/tann/cp/; fig. 2). These pictures are worth more than a thousand words.
Also, the frontier-metaphor which has been central to the „American experience“ is easily adopted for the project of „civilizing cyberspace“ (to borrow the book-title by Steven Miller 1996). The Magna Charta compares the electronic networks to a „... frontier ..., calling to mind ... the spirit of invention and discovery that led ancient mariners to explore the world, generations of pioneers to tame the American continent and, more recently, to man’s first exploration of outer space. (...) Cyberspace is the latest American frontier“ (PFF 1994). Furthermore, Daniel Burstine and David Kline end their book on the economic entrepreneurs in cyberspace with the following quote: „Americans have always needed and benefited from new frontiers to pioneer. In cyberspace, we have the opportunity to experience anew some of the exhilaration that goes with blazing a trail and opening up virgin territory. Along this electronic frontier - with all its perils and nightmares - we have our last, best chance to rekindle the great American Dream.“ (Burstein/Kline 1995: 360).
Especially as a non-American political scientist one needs to be careful when attempting to adopt American concepts of electronic democracy for analytical purposes in different polities. In some
countries, neither the institutional nor the cultural settings lend themselves easily for an adoption of American concepts of electronic democracy. In Germany, for example, a static approach to the
democratic constitution, distrust of direct democracy originating from experiences in the Weimar Republic, a general lack of interest by politicians in media, and skepticism toward the effects of new
media result in a more cautious and often timid approach to ideas of electronic democracy (see Hagen 1996). A result of this is that political uses of computer networks are less discussed and
therefore less wide-spread in Germany than in the U.S. Thus, it comes as no surprise that concepts of electronic democracy do not figure prominently in German discourse on the information age.
Cursory evidence suggests that other European countries are more open to ideas of electronic democracy, especially England, the Netherlands, and scholars in the relatively young democracy in Slovenia
(see Van de Donk/Snellen/Tops 1996, Van Dijk 1996, see the essays in Media Culture&Society Vol. 18(2), 1996, ed. by Colin Sparks and javnost/the public Vol. 3(1), 1996, ed. by Slavko
To analyze concepts of electronic democracy on a world-wide scale, a comparative framework is needed which takes into account factors of theoretical traditions, institutional arrangements and political cultures of the polities for which the concepts are created. The typology of electronic democracy presented above might be a first starting point.
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Thanks also for initial publication of this page to VInCI. VInCI by SPOKK is located at the Justus-Liebig-Universität of Giessen.
Date of Publishing: Mar-97