How technology is destroying American democracy

Electronic democracy is not a good thing

Barack Obama
(Image credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

At the dawn of the information age, technology promised to transform American politics into something close to a pure democracy. Each voter would be able to easily register his or her opinion on a variety of issues! Lawmakers would know exactly how their constituents felt! Consensus could be reached on how to fix even the nation's most intractable problems!

During the 1992 presidential campaign, billionaire populist Ross Perot waged an independent candidacy based on these ideas. He proposed "electronic town halls" — an idea he first advanced in 1969 — which would allow voters to give near-instant feedback to their elected officials using their televisions and phones. Perot's idea was so powerful that it was partly adopted during the campaign with town hall-style debates where audiences posed the questions instead of journalists. That conceit has been a fixture of debate season ever since.

But even as information technology has advanced to the point where most Americans have a computer in their pocket, our politics has gotten worse. Much worse. We're more connected than ever — yet our elected officials are more divided, less gets done, and voters are more angry than ever.

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What Perot and other proponents of electronic democracy didn't foresee was how technology can be used to divide and splinter us.

Take gerrymandering, the drawing of odd-shaped congressional districts to maximize the strength of one political party. It's a practice that has endured for more than a century. But now, mapping technology has advanced to the point where districts can be easily drawn to include (or eliminate) not just neighborhoods, but individual blocks and even houses. The result is completely partisan districts that vote the same way in every election. Republicans were so effective at gerrymandering congressional districts after the 2010 Census that most political forecasters think it's nearly impossible for Democrats to win the House until after the next round of redistricting in 2020.

Technology has also given unprecedented influence to insurgent forces in American politics. While American political history has plenty of examples of insurgent candidates challenging the political establishment, it's been very difficult for them to gain a strong, long-lasting foothold and actually win elections. As we saw in the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, it's now much easier to harness the power of the grassroots. Technology has reduced parties' traditional role as major gatekeepers of power. This has made it harder for parties to forge compromises and pull together governing coalitions.

But perhaps most important, technology has changed how campaigns reach out to voters, work with the press, and raise money. Candidates used to win elections by appealing to the ideological middle, the swing voters with less allegiance to any political party. Technology now makes it easier for candidates to mobilize their bases — typically the most ideologically committed voters — and make sure they get to the polls. Each successive election over the last decade or more has led to a more partisan Congress. There are very few lawmakers left who could legitimately be considered swing votes.

There's little doubt that technology has made our lives better in many ways. But it seems to be destroying our politics.

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