Ross Perot as Master of the Media
His proposed electronic town halls could become the means for high-tech demagogy
ROSS PEROT'S mastery of television raises questions whether a would-be President Perot would use television to serve as tribune of the people or misuse it as demagogue of an electronic mob. At present, questions about Perot's stands on specific issues, his business practices, and his popularity dominate reports of his presidential campaign. Just beyond the horizon, however, looms a bigger issue: Could a President Perot manipulate television to alter the balance of power between executive and legislative
branches of the government and, in the process, diminish journalism's checking function on government and sacrifice minority rights to majority impulses?
Perot's plan for electronic town halls combines television, satellite, telephone, and computer technology to enable participants to cast instant ballots on policy issues by calling an 800 number after viewing Perot-produced public-affairs programming. Used properly, electronic town halls could foster citizen participation and enable a president to overcome gridlock and divided government.
Theodore Roosevelt relied on compliant journalists to publicize his causes. Woodrow Wilson initiated presidential press conferences. Franklin Roosevelt used radio through his fireside chats to speak to voters over the heads of hostile newspapers and a sometimes resistant Congress to push New Deal legislation. John F. Kennedy's televised news conferences helped the youthful president to mobilize public opinion. Within this tradition, Perot would be doing little more than using the available communications
technology to achieve majoritarian goals.
Used improperly, though, electronic town halls could and more likely would further demagogic power in the presidency through spectacles of ersatz political participation. Historical precedents reach to Huey Long and Father Coughlin in Depression-era America, Goebbels and Mussolini in Nazi and Fascist Europe, and back to Savonarola in Renaissance Florence and Cleon in ancient Greece. In such a scenario, a would-be President Perot could abuse minority rights by bullying Congress to enact legislation that c ould violate privacy or other rights yet win mass appeal in electronic referenda. An increasingly plebiscitary trend in politics, weak party affiliation, greater voter volatility, and citizen commitments to single issues prefigure such an outcome.
Citizens have come to rely on television for news and public affairs. Televised imagery of tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square showed the arbitrary authority of Chinese leaders suppressing democracy in 1989. Pictures of Berliners chopping down the Berlin Wall and of Vaclav Havel's rise to power in Czechoslovakia captured the euphoria of the reemergence of democracy in Europe shortly thereafter. Televised images of Boris Yeltsin atop a tank urging Muscovites to resist a botched putsch in 1990 helped to
doom Soviet communism. In 1991, near real-time reporting of the Gulf war showcased the United States as the dominant superpower of the post-cold-war world. In 1992, Perot's artful mix of television, satellites, telephones, and computers enables him to generate interest in a celebrity candidacy vague on specifics but consistent in its message to make government more effective, an attractive theme in American politics.
JOURNALISTS are losers in the Perot campaign. He ignored them by floating the idea for his candidacy on a television talk show. Electronic town halls remove them totally. Perot's satellite hookup to several key states in June to mobilize a campaign organization was essentially a videoconference requiring no journalists to serve as news providers.
In raising issues of democracy and demagogy and in diminishing journalism, Perot's candidacy is indicative of our times and technology. Representative government grew out of the Enlightenment and rested on the supposition articulated by Madison, and observed so keenly by Tocqueville, that democratic government could function only as long as majorities acted with restraint and did not arbitrarily impose their will upon minorities. In 1992, representative government is perceived to be so captured by the in terests it is charged to regulate that many question its legitimacy.
From the Enlightenment on, journalism played a critical role reporting on the state to the public and voicing public opinion about politics. Today, journalism seems so preoccupied with personality and horse-race coverage that its legitimacy is also questioned. At a time when both journalism and representative government are challenged, communications technologies, principally television, enable nearly real-time presentation of public affairs providing immediacy and a sense of participation.
As his present popularity attests, Perot recognizes and is capitalizing upon these trends. The ramifications of his insight could fundamentally reorder democratic institutions.