PERSPECTIVE ON GOVERNMENT Our Political Process Suits the 18th Century Technology has changed but decision-making has not. Our out-of-sync `democracy’ is slow, costly and exclusionary.

Posted on Friday, May 15th, 1992 by floraschnall //Articles

News flashes across the planet in seconds. Electronic transfer zips billions of dollars from continent to continent in minutes. Entire professions and industries and nations dis-exist and coalesce overnight. The world is streaming ahead faster and faster-but the American election process creeps along slower and slower.

We are in the middle of another volatile election year. Month after endless month, candidates for the presidency and Congress wake up at agrarian hours to stand on street corners shaking hands and pleading for votes. Tens of millions of dollars are frittered away on predatory media blitzes.

What is endlessly called a “democracy” is actually a 200-year-old system of decision-making, a representative form of government totally out of sync with the realities of this late-20th Century. It is slow, costly, exclusionary, undemocratic and often trivial.

Specifically, elective government is an anachronism because:

– Modern generations are more self-reliant and less power-oriented than previous generations. Imagine asking them who the “head of household” is or who should “lead” on the dance floor. In my seminars for industry, older executives often complain that young employees don’t know how to take orders; young, educated personnel insist that senior officers are too “controlling” and out of touch with new ways of doing things.

– Information has been one of the principal tools of power. As information decentralizes, the relative power of governments declines. It is not an accident that in recent years the most profound transformations in North America-the civil-rights movement, the consumer and environmental movements, the women’s movement-have been spearheaded by activists outside government. Governments are less able to control events. Telecommunication is the powerful tool that enables these peoples’ initiatives.

– Elective governments may have worked well in the agrarian and early industrial ages, when change unfolded slowly. But this plodding process of electioneering for months is now absurdly slow. Pressing national and international policy decisions, for example the current peace talks in the combustible Arab-Israeli conflict, have to be put on hold for months.

The people of North America have changed, the technology has changed, the pace of events has changed-but the basic manner in which national decisions are made has not.

In the United States, nearly half of the eligible voters persistently do not vote. This may only be partly due to chronic apathy. There is abundant evidence that people also feel left out by the exclusionary nature of this political process. North Americans are actually more activist than ever, but are no longer content to be juvenilized by an antiquated paternalism.

The future doesn’t come with blueprints, but here’s a sketch of one possible postindustrial civic decision-making process:

Once a month, or as frequently as is necessary, a list of issues would be submitted to the people in a referendum. A certain number of “signatures,” written or electronic, would be necessary to get an issue on the referendum. All sides of an issue would get equal time in the electronic and print media. When possible, computer projections of probable consequences of each option would be aired.

People would participate in referendums by telephone or computer, logging on with personal code number to select from a menu of options. Televoting could be done from anywhere: home, office, beach, car. The maybe-candidate, Ross Perot, has nodded in this direction with his proposal for weekly opinion referendums.

An ad hoc referendum committee comprised of people selected at random by computer, somewhat as in jury duty today, could serve for a month or two at time. This committee could see to the drafting of ballot measures, supervise the voting and oversee implementation of the referendum decisions. Leaders and representatives are superfluous-we need facilitators.

Without leadership struggles, the decision-making process would be depoliticized, freeing it of the wasteful personal ambitions and partisan politics that hobble elective government. Referendums focus on the merits of different plans instead of calculating their effect on a candidate’s electability. Computer testing of consequences of each option further helps objectify the process.

The modern path to genuine democracy is to create mechanisms empowering people to vote not for leaders but directly on issues. This at last is government by the people and for the people.

Published by the Los Angeles Time on May 15, 1992


This is an ever-relevant article of FM’s. 19 years after FM’s piece, we are still living in Ronald Reagan’s America, and it might be worth discussing exactly why we are. Three words: the politics of nostalgia. Many Americans (roughly 25-30 percent) are very old fashioned, though not in the way they live. James Reston wrote, “Americans change things with their hands, but they are very conservative, though they admire those who ‘live modern'”.
The ongoing celebration of Reagan demonstrates the politics of nostalgia; Reagan left office 22 years ago and died seven years ago, yet he is talked about by his admirers as if he were still president.
It is as if we were living in 1806, and discussing George Washington as if he were alive, still president.

Posted by Alan Brooks on April 24, 2011

“It is as if we were living in 1806, and discussing George Washington as if he were alive, still president.”

Americans in late colonial and early Federal times usually had some education in the classics, and they often invoked Greek and Roman models in their understanding of politics. Washington had Joseph Addison’s play “Cato” performed for his men during the Revolutionary War, for example, and not for entertainment purposes, but for political indoctrination about the need to defend liberty even at the expense of your life.

The past continues to influence culture in organic societies, in other words, even when they “modernize.” As another example, I’ve read that Iranians still produce and display art work with Zoroastrian symbols and themes, but they deny that these representations have anything to do with their ancestors’ religion before their conversion to Islam.

Posted by Mark Plus on September 4, 2011

“Americans in late colonial and early Federal times usually had some education in the classics, and they often invoked Greek and Roman models in their understanding of politics.”

Yes. Andrew Jackson said in one of his speeches right before Lincoln was assassinated, “Plebian am I”;
and who was Lincoln shot by?: an actor whose family very often performed in Shakespeare’s plays concerning Romans such as Caesar. There was and still is an obsession with the Rome of 2,000 years ago.
BTW, I happen to like Reagan– but I’m tired of hearing about him now that it has been 23 years since he left office, and the GOP has dithered without the Cold War to unite them; without Reagan to be their… Caesar.

Posted by Alan Brooks on February 17, 2012

Well, sure.
More’s the pity, Mark- that we are so stuck in the past while looking towards the future.

Posted by Alan Brooks on February 20, 2012

Then so much for rapid social progress, Mark.

Posted by Alan Brooks on February 28, 2012