Cokie Roberts on How Internet Is Ruining Representative Government
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 97 16:19:30 -0700
Subject: Cokie Roberts on How Internet Is Ruining Representative Government
Forwarded-by: "Dan 'Dante' Tenenbaum" <email@example.com>
Forwarded-by: Gavin Greene <firstname.lastname@example.org>
[This is long but worth the read. Isn't she one of the talking heads on NPR?
Scary... -gavin greene]
[No. She once was an NPR commentator, but she's being more commercial now.
Forwarded-by: James Love <email@example.com>
This is a real syndicated column by Cokie Roberts. It is not a spoof.
Cokie interviewed me about how the Internet is changing the relationship
between citizens and government agencies, after she read about the FTC's
decision to take email comments on the Staples merger. She then wrote this
astonishing column with her husband, Steven Roberts. At the end of Cokie's
column is a letter to the editor sent by Susan Ashdown, a reader of the Salt
Lake Tribune, which is one of newspapers which ran the column. Since Susan
brought this to my attention, I am including her letter. Cokie and Steven
Roberts column, and Susan's letter to the editor, are redistributed with
Jamie Love (firstname.lastname@example.org, 202.387.8030
Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 1997, Page A-11
Internet Could Become a Threat To Representative Government
Cokie Roberts and Steven Roberts
Cyber seduction, cult by computer, kids caught in an indecent web! The
headlines have been scary of late as we learn more about the dangers of the
brave new world of the Internet.
To be sure, the experts keep assuring us that the World Wide Web does more
good than harm-that it can help young people find facts, police officers
hunt down clues, and citizens communicate with their government.
"If you're on-line, you're inside the Beltway," in the opinion of Graeme
Browning, author of the book Electronic Democracy, which argues that the
Internet is making individuals more politically powerful. Sounds good, but
For many parents, the idea of yet another influence in their children's
lives over which they have no control is threatening. The horrible thought
that, in the privacy of your own home, your child could be the target of
some sick predator was frightening enough. Now, since reading the news
recently, the fear of recruitment to some kooky cult must be added to the
list of computer concerns.
Responding to those worries, Congress passed the Computer Decency Act, aimed
at blocking pornography on the Internet. The law was immediately challenged
as an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech, and last month the
Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case. In their questions the
justices revealed the same wide-eyed wonder we feel when hearing about the
latest form of communication. What is this thing anyway? How does it work
and what can it do?
One thing it clearly can do is bring citizens more into the decision-making
processes of government. That came home to us recently when we heard that
the Federal Trade Commission was accepting electronic mail on the question
of whether Office Depot stores should be allowed to merge with Staples.
The FTC has so far received thousands of comments and a spokeswoman says
that, although the merger decision won't be based on what the agency hears
from the public, she thinks the e-mail is a good idea. The FTC decided to
do it, she admitted, because of pressure from the Consumer Project on
"The Internet is the best thing in my lifetime for grassroots organizing,"
exults the Project's director, Jamie Love. He's managed to use the system
to influence various government agencies, and to educate the public. Love
argues that this type of organization and communication cuts through the
special interest politics that he believes rules Washington. "I think
there's a general sense that people who can hire a guy and game the system
have a leg up," says Love.
Somewhere between 250,000 to 350,000 people check into the site dealing with
congressional activities every day. And then many of these people get in
touch with their representatives, by e-mail, of course.
They also get in touch with each other on public policy issues. According
to Love, it's like an electronic town meeting. That analogy makes our blood
run cold. Remember, that was Ross Perot's big idea. Let's just all get
together, via computer, and let the politicians know what we want, so then
they will do it! No more pandering to the big contributors, no more deals
between members, just the voice of the people will be heard!
We hear that and shudder. To us it sounds like no more deliberation, no
more consideration of an issue over a long period of time, no more balancing
of regional and ethnic interests, no more protection of minority views.
The Founders were clear in their advocacy of representative democracy as
opposed to direct democracy. In The Federalist, James Madison asserted that
"the public voice pronounced by the representatives of the people will be
more consonant to the public good than if announced by the people themselves
convened for that purpose."
But representative government is under attack. "We've been electing people
for years and never been in worse shape and felt more disconnected," says
Barbara Vincent of the National Referendum Movement. Her organization wants
to put initiatives and referenda on the ballots of every state so that the
people can decide "the really important issues" while Congress can handle
"everyday affairs." And Ms. Vincent has public opinion on her side. In a
bipartisan poll, fully three-quarters of the people said they favored
putting national issues on ballots across the country.
Computers could make that possible. And, if we're not careful, they might.
Jamie Love is right that people think the game is fixed, and Barbara Vincent
is right that the voters feel disconnected. The best thing the lawmakers
can do to fix that is to call a halt to the money chase, to show
constituents that they count. If that doesn't happen, congress could
eventually find its very existence threatened, thanks to the Internet. And
that would make the current debate over pornography seem like small
From: Sue Ashdown <email@example.com>
To the Editors of the Salt Lake Tribune & United Features:
Now I've heard everything. The Internet is nothing but a
cyber-sewer, full of smut, cults, and now an even greater danger: easy
access to government officials. Cokie Roberts and her husband say their
"blood runs cold" at the idea of citizens emailing their opinions directly
to the Federal Government instead of channeling them through their
"representatives". They argue that it would mean the end of reasoned
consideration of a variety of views, and worse, it might bring us closer to
direct instead of representative democracy - not what the Founding Fathers
intended. (The Founders weren't too keen on emancipation either, but never
Talk about the end of reason. I fail to see how the direct
expression of public opinion logically leads to the destruction of careful
deliberation. Perot wasn't my choice for President, but the mere fact that
"electronic town meetings" were his "big idea" does not automatically make
Personally my blood runs cold when I think of the representative
democracy Cokie has in mind. Her brother, Tommy Boggs, of the Washington
law firm Patton, Boggs & Blow made quite a name for himself as a lobbyist
arguing strenuously on behalf of erstwhile Guatemalan dictators and death
squad financiers in the 1980's and early 1990's. If as the Roberts claim,
a halt to the money chase is a far better solution to voter discontent than
the airing of public opinion through the Internet, then presumably this
means that Tommy's firm will find better uses for its generous cash
donations to candidates across the political spectrum. I can understand
Cokie standing up for her brother's interests - I'd do the same for mine,
who's done reasonably well as an Internet Service Provider, but at least
I'd reveal my motives.
Salt Lake City, Utah
© 1997 Peter Langston