The more things change
- By John Monroe
- Jun 04, 2001
The Internet, of all things, could revive a 200-year-old argument about
the shape of American government. In the first two decades after the passage
of the U.S. Constitution, the debate was waged between Federalists and Republicans
— and between John Adams, the second U.S. president, and Thomas Jefferson,
In short (at the risk of over-simplifying), Adams believed the nation
needed a strong central government to administer the affairs of the people,
both internally and externally, while Jefferson wanted as little government
as possible, believing a federal bureaucracy would mute the "will of the
Adams' view had won out by the middle of the 20th century, if not earlier,
as the federal government increasingly took shape the way he had envisioned,
even though Jefferson's vision of democracy remains a central tenet of our
The Internet could shift the balance again — not by ridding the country
of two centuries of bureaucracy, but by giving people a new way of making
their voices heard. In a representative democracy, people generally express
their much vaunted "will" by electing officials, or throwing them out, based
on their political record. Between election days, there's always the option
of writing letters, making phone calls or even attending public hearings,
but most people do not have the time or resolution.
The Internet changes the dynamics by making it ridiculously easy for
people to find out what their government is doing — by reading meeting minutes,
budgets and other information online — and to make their voices heard — through e-mail, online forms and other applications, which might entice
people to speak out who otherwise never would.
In the spirit of Jefferson, it's tempting to envision a grass-roots
effort bringing about an interactive democracy in which constituents use
the Internet to exercise a direct influence on their representatives. Unfortunately,
it's not likely to happen. Interactive democracy, like representative democracy,
must come about by conscious choice. It's a practical problem, not a philosophical
one (which was how Adams approached politics). Were there a groundswell
of e-mail messages in a city of any significant size, city staff would quickly
be overwhelmed, and the "voice" of the people would be lost in its own din.
Software is now emerging to help organizations automate e-mail management
to a certain extent, but even that is not enough. Eventually, if agencies
are committed to this idea and not just playing around, they must restructure
their staffs — and probably expand them — to make it work.
Even then the volume might be overwhelming, particularly since the Internet
does not respect political boundaries, and it's not always easy to sort
out the voice of the constituents from the general clamor.
Ultimately, governments must decide if it's worth it. In this month's
magazine, we see government agencies beginning to struggle with both the
pros and cons of electronic communications.