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A Parody of True Democracy

TV plebiscites, as promoted by Ross Perot, lack vital elements of political give-and-take

NO doubt it is a bit early in the game for a definitive assessment of Ross Perot's candidacy, its rise and fall. Before Mr. Perot bowed out, there was dark talk in some corners about "fascism." Others, delighted that the two-party system was in trouble, heralded the coming of a new political day.

Neither of these extreme judgments seems warranted in retrospect. But it is the case that, at its height, Perotism seemed at moments to be shaping up as a Frank Capra horror film. For the darker possibilities of what is usually and, for the most part, mistakenly tagged "populism" bubbled just beneath the surface of Perot's devotion to electronic plebiscites and polling.

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In Capra's films, the villains who would distort authentic civic yearning for their own nefarious purposes are found out and eventually bested. The unlikely hero of "Meet John Doe," the 1941 classic starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, comes to believe the hopeful civic rhetoric put into his mouth by an ambitious, enterprising news reporter - the character played by Miss Stanwyck. Cooper's "Doe" is just enough of an ordinary hick to accept all the stuff about giving "average guys" a chance, as he r eads lines about how "the people" are ready to tear down "all the fences" separating neighbor from neighbor and to help the less fortunate help themselves.

John Doe clubs spring up all over the country. Everyone may join - save politicians because, well, "you know how politicians are." The slogan - "Be a Better Neighbor" - catches on as ordinary men and women go off relief and proceed to help themselves and others. The John Doe movement is successful in part because its members "won't let anyone talk politics with them," and it grows so rapidly that a national convention is called at which Cooper's "John Doe" will announce the formation of a third party: "A

simple idea like this can sweep the country." So it seems.

The John Doe balloon is burst when Doe, having gone from being a well-meaning fake to a believer, refuses to be a patsy. He finally realizes that cigar-smoking, deal-making politicians aim to use the John Doe movement for their own purposes. Having been found out, the bad politicians must destroy John Doe and cut adrift the authentic populism his message has tapped. The John Doe convention ends in despair and disarray, but by the film's end hope glimmers. Maybe the "real" John Doe can recover the simple message about neighborliness and self-help after all. Fade out.

Fade in to 1992 and Ross Perot's early moves to capitalize on such populist themes as anti-elitism and general mistrust of government. He would perfect democracy, he argued, by eliminating barriers between the people's will and its forthright articulation. Pure democracy beckoned, whirring and humming in the background of Perot's vision, in the form of something Perot calls "the electronic town hall."

ADMITTING to possible glitches in the dream, Perot backed off a bit even before he called it quits. He claimed that he would augment the people's direct expression of their will - through instant plebiscites via interactive television and tele-polling - with conventional opinion polls. But Perot still failed to grasp that plebiscitary majoritarianism is quite different from the dream of a democratic polity sustained by reasoned debate and judgment. Plebiscites have been used routinely to shore up anti-de mocratic, majoritarian movements and regimes - Argentinian Peronism comes to mind.

Even if one could devise a more "representative" way to sample the political responses of America's 120 million households, plebiscites must be criticized no matter who is championing their use. Right now it is the Perot forces. A few years back some liberal and democratic theorists hailed the telecommunications revolution as the harbinger of a more perfect democratic order.

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Yet the distinction between a democratic and a plebiscitary system is no idle one. In a plebiscitary system, the views of the majority can more easily swamp minority or unpopular views. Plebiscitism is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with the connivance of, majority opinion. That opinion can be registered ritualistically, so there is no need for debate "on the ground," in an engagement with one's fellow citizens, on substantive questions. All that is required is a calculus of opinion.

True democracy, however, is a deliberative process, a mode of participation with one's fellow citizens animated by a sense of responsibility for one's society. The "participation" of plebiscitarianism is dramatically at odds with this democratic ideal. Watching television is a privatizing experience: It appeals to us as consumers, not as public citizens.

On the surface, being asked your opinion and being given a chance to register it "instantly" may seem democratic - one gets to make one's opinions known. But the "one" in this formulation is the private viewer rather than the public citizen, and he or she gives an opinion rather than concurring or dissenting from a position hammered out through debate. A compilation of opinions does not make a civic culture; such a culture emerges only from a deliberative process.

The electronic-referendum idea fosters the notion that an electronic transaction is an authentic democratic choice. To see button-pressing or making a phone call as a meaningful act on a par with marching, lobbying, writing letters to the editor, working for a candidate, serving on a school board, helping to forge a coalition to promote a particular program or policy, parallels a crude version of the "preference theory" of economics.

THIS theory holds that in a free-market society, individual consumer choices result in the greatest benefit to society as a whole at the same time as they meet individual needs. The presumption behind this theory is that everyone of us is a "preference maximizer."

Aside from being a simplistic account of human motivation, preference theory lends itself to a blurring of important distinctions. According to this theory, there is no such thing as a social good - there are only aggregates of private goods. Measuring our opinions through electronic town halls is a variant on this crude but common theory.

An electronic shell game may con us into believing we are participating when we are performing as the responding "end" of a prefabricated system of external stimuli. Under the banner of more perfect democratic choice, we may share complicity in eroding even further those elements of deliberation, reason, and judgment that alone make genuine choice and democracy itself possible.

This Perot failed to understand. Let's hope that his disillusioned followers may arrive at the recognition of Capra's "John Doe": Democracy cannot be manipulated.

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