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THE MOST VILIFIED EXPANSE OF asphalt in the history of the universe is, almost certainly, the Washington Beltway. Whereas most municipal freeways are associated with fairly mundane evils -- potholes, rush-hour traffic -- the Beltway has come to symbolize nothing less than a looming threat to American democracy. It is the great invisible buffer, impermeable to communication, that separates the nation's capital from the nation. It is what keeps many politicians -- the ones with an "inside the Beltway" mentality -- out of touch with the needs of the citizenry. It is the reason Washington's "media elites" are so clueless as to what's really on America's mind. It is why voters get congressional gridlock when they want action, and congressional action when they want nothing in particular. In a typical indictment, one columnist recently called some piece of Washington policymaking "too secret, too expert, too Beltway."

The solution, some observers say, is simple: use information technology to break through the Beltway barrier. Ross Perot champions an "electronic town hall," a kind of cyberdemocracy that, via push-button voting, would let people make the wise policy decisions their so-called representatives are failing to make for them. And now, vaguely similar noises are coming from someone with real power -- inside-the-Beltway power, no less. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who last week spoke at a Washington conference called Democracy in Virtual America, is trying to move Congress toward a "virtual Congress." He envisions a House committee holding "a hearing in five cities by television while the actual committee is sitting here." He's also letting C-SPAN's cameras, the electorate's virtual eyeballs, peer into more congressional hearings. And under a new program called "Thomas," after Thomas Jefferson, all House documents are being put on the Internet for mass perusal by modem. Thomas, says Gingrich, will shift power "toward the citizens out of the Beltway." It will get "legislative materials beyond the cynicism of the elite." And as this online material sparks online debate, Americans can "begin to have electronic town-hall meetings."

This may sound visionary, but it's nothing compared with the vision sketched by Gingrich's favorite futurists, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, in their book Creating a New Civilization. The Tofflers view the old-fashioned, physical Congress as suffering from a progressive erosion of relevance that calls for a wholesale rethinking of the Constitution. "Today's spectacular advances in communications technology open, for the first time, a mind-boggling array of possibilities for direct citizen participation in political decision-making." And since our "pseudo-representatives" are so "unresponsive," we the people must begin to "shift from depending on representatives to representing ourselves."

One problem with all this enthusiasm about electronically wiring the citizenry to the Washington policymaking machine is that in a sense, it's already happened. Politicians are quite in touch with opinion polls and have learned not to ignore the Rush Limbaughs of the world, with their ability to marshal rage over topics ranging from Hillary to the House post office. Public feedback fills Washington fax machines, phones and E-mail boxes. From C-SPAN's studios just off Capitol Hill, lawmakers chat with callers live -- including callers who have been monitoring their work via C-SPAN cameras on Capitol Hill. More messages from the real world pass through the Beltway barrier than ever before. And contrary to popular belief, politicians pay attention. What we have today is much more of a cyberdemocracy than the visionaries may realize.

The other problem with all the plans for a new cyberdemocracy is that judging by the one we already have, it wouldn't be a smashing success. Some of the information technologies that so pervade Washington life have not only failed to cure our ills but actually seem to have made them worse. Intensely felt public opinion leads to the impulsive passage of dubious laws; and meanwhile, the same force fosters the gridlock that keeps the nation from balancing its budget, among other things, as a host of groups clamor to protect their benefits. In both cases, the problem is that the emerging cyberdemocracy amounts to a kind of "hyperdemocracy": a nation that, contrary to all Beltway-related stereotypes, is thoroughly plugged in to Washington -- too plugged in for its own good.

The worst may be yet to come. The trend toward hyperdemocracy has happened without anyone planning it, and there is no clear reason for it to stop now. With or without a new Tofflerian constitution, there is cause to worry that the nation's inevitable immersion in cyberspace, its descent into a wired world of ultra-narrowcasting and online discourse, may render democracy more hyper and in some ways less functional. We have seen the future, and it doesn't entirely work.

"Electronic town halls" featuring push-button voting have always faced one major rhetorical handicap: the long shadow of the Founding Fathers. The Founders explicitly took lawmaking power out of the people's hands, opting for a representative democracy and not a direct democracy. What concerned them, especially James Madison, was the specter of popular "passions" unleashed. Their ideal was cool deliberation by elected representatives, buffered from the often shifting winds of opinion -- inside-the-Beltway deliberation. Madison insisted in the Federalist Papers on the need to "refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

Madison would not have enjoyed watching how the "three strikes and you're out" provision wound up in last year's crime bill. The idea first took shape in California, where 18-year-old Kimber Reynolds had been murdered by a career felon. It was electronic from its very inception: the legislation was co- authored by talk-radio host Ray Appleton from Fresno who knew the victim's father and had fielded outraged calls after the killer's lengthy criminal record came to light. As the idea gained ground in California, it spread east. Its popularity was electronically catalyzed -- on talk radio, especially -- and electronically expressed in telephone polls, on the airwaves, by fax. President Clinton, with the support of Congress, complied promptly and cheerfully with the people's will. A push-button referendum would not have worked more effectively.

And as Madison might have guessed, the result was more gratifying viscerally than intellectually. "Three strikes" was notable not only for the shortage of politicians eager to loudly denounce it but also for the shortage of policy analysts who enthusiastically embraced it. While liberals deemed it draconian, many conservatives found it a constitutionally dubious exertion of federal power, as well as a sloppy form of draconianism. The law does nothing to raise the cost of the first two strikes, and meanwhile spends precious money imprisoning men past middle age, after most of them have been pacified by ebbing testosterone, free of charge. Of course, on the positive side, the law does have a catchy title. (How would the crime bill read if baseball allowed each batter five strikes?)

That policy "elites" aren't wild about something does not mean it's a mistake. But whatever the merits, the process that produced "three strikes and you're out" reflects a shift in American governance since the republic's founding -- the growing porousness of the supposedly impregnable buffer around Washington. This was outside-the-Beltway politics, and is typical of our era.

This constant canvassing of public sentiment, one of two basic kinds of hyperdemocracy, is a straightforward outgrowth of information technology. The second basic kind -- the one more specifically linked to gridlock and to the budget deficit -- is a bit more subtle and more pernicious. And like the first one, it ultimately gets back to Madison. In addition to his dread of mass "passions," Madison had a second nightmare about "pure democracy": it "can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction."

He was mostly worried about oppressive majority factions. The modern special-interest group was a species unknown to him. Still, he had a fundamental insight that explains the subsequent origin of that species and its growth. The beauty of a large country, he noted, is the damper it places on factionalism. For when people are dispersed far and wide, even if some of them have "a common motive," the distance among them will make it hard for them to organize -- "to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other." The history of communications technology over the past 200 years is the history of those words becoming less true.

Technologies ranging from the telegraph to the telephone, from typewriter to carbon paper have all made mass organization easier and cheaper. And since the 1960s, the technologies have unfolded relentlessly: computerized mass mailing, the personal computer and printer, the fax, the modem and increasingly supple software for keeping tabs on members or prospective members. The number of associations, both political and apolitical, has grown in lockstep with these advances. One bellwether -- the size of the American Society of Association Executives -- went from 2,000 in 1965 to 20,000 in 1990. As for sheerly political organizations: no one knows exactly how many lobbyists there are in Washington, but the Congressional Quarterly estimates that between 1975 and 1985 alone the number more than doubled and may even have quadrupled.

There was a second impetus to interest-group growth: in the 1960s, just as the technology of computerized direct mail was emerging, a proliferation of government programs created fresh issues to get interested in. Combined, the two factors were explosive. The American Association of Retired Persons, founded in 1958, did its first lobbying in 1965 with the arrival of Medicare. Over the next 25 years, its membership grew from a million to more than 30 million. Today it sends out 50 million pieces of mail a year. And when its members talk -- especially about Medicare or Social Security -- Congress listens.

Information technology has also revolutionized the form such talk can take. Meet Jack Bonner, voice for hire. On behalf of an interest group, Bonner and Associates can spew 10,000 faxes a night. But Bonner is better known for applying a more personal touch. When he works on a piece of legislation, he first isolates the likely swing votes, then has his software scan a database of the corresponding congressional districts, seeking residents whose profiles suggest sympathy with his cause. When influence is in order -- after, say, a sudden and threatening development at a committee hearing -- his people call these sympathizers, describe the looming peril and offer to "patch" them directly through to a congressional office to voice their protest. "But only in their own words," stresses Bonner, mindful that congressional staffs are getting better at spotting pseudo-grass-roots ("Astroturf") lobbying. Bonner charges $350 to $500 per call generated.

The striking thing about many modern special interests is how unspecial they are. Whereas a century ago lobbying was done on behalf of titans of industry, the members of, for example, AARP are no one in particular -- just a bunch of people with an average income of $28,000 who happen to have gray hair. Indeed, they're so common that they account for one in six American adults -- maybe you, maybe your mother, certainly someone you know. And if you're not in AARP, perhaps you are in the National Taxpayers' Union, the National Rifle Association or, less probably, the Possum Growers and Breeders Association. Or the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Or the Beer Drinkers of America -- 190,000 members strong and devoted to low beer taxes. "Almost every American who reads these words is a member of a lobby," writes Jonathan Rauch in his recent book Demosclerosis. "We have met the special interests, and they are us."

That lobbying has embraced the middle classes hardly means it's now an equal-opportunity enterprise. Wealthy people can still afford more of it, and the poor are still on the sidelines. Housing projects aren't leading targets for direct-mail solicitations. Still, lobbying has gotten more egalitarian, more democratic, as technology has made mobilizing groups cheaper.

On its face, that seems fine. If we must have lobbyists, they might as well represent regular people, not just oil barons. The trouble is that regular people, like oil barons, are usually asking for money, whether in the form of crop subsidies for farmers, tax breaks for shopkeepers, Medicare or Social Security payments, or various other benefits. So the increasingly "democratic" face of interest groups means the American government is asked to pay more, which means finally Americans of all classes are too. And the ultimate cost could be larger still. The budget deficit is not only a grave problem in itself, a theft of resources from the next generation, but also one reason politicians feel too strapped for cash to earnestly confront the other leading contender for gravest problem: the existence of an urban underclass. This sort of predicament is what the Founders designed representative democracy to solve. "They saw the public interest as a transcendent thing that enlightened people would be able to see and promote. It wasn't just a question of adding up all the interests," says historian Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution.

American University political scientist James Thurber, author of the forthcoming book Remaking Congress, calls politics in the information age "hyperpluralism." He remembers sitting in congressional hearings for the 1986 tax-reform law as lobbyists watched the proceedings with cellular phones at the ready. "They started dialing the instant anyone in that room even thought about changing a tax break." Their calls alerted interested parties and brought a deluge of protest borne by phone, letter or fax. "There is no buffer allowing Representatives to think about what's going on," Thurber says. "In the old days you had a few months or weeks, at least a few days. Now you may have a few seconds before the wave hits."

The firms that orchestrate those waves from special interests often describe themselves as nonideological. But it is inherent in special-interest work that they will time and again be employed to defend the budget deficit against brutal assault at the hands of fiscal responsibility. When in February 1993 President Clinton proposed an energy tax that was hailed by economists and environmentalists, something called the Energy Tax Policy Alliance paid for a fatal multimedia campaign. When he suggested in the same budget plan cutting the business-lunch deduction from 80% to 50%, it was the National Restaurant Association that stirred to action, sending local TV stations satellite feeds of busboys and waitresses fretting about their imperiled jobs. And the restaurateurs hired Jack Bonner to roll out the Astroturf. "I see it as the triumph of democracy," Bonner said of his livelihood in a Washington Post interview. "In a democracy, the more groups taking their message to the people outside the Beltway and the more people taking their message to Congress, the better off the system is."

Special interests are legendary for distorting facts and preying on fear. The letter from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare that helped trigger the rapid-fire repeal of a 1988 law to ensure catastrophic coverage under Medicare began with the words, "Your Federal Taxes for 1989 May Increase by Up to $1,600 . . . Just Because You Are Over the Age of 65" -- even though 60% of all seniors wouldn't have paid a dime more in taxes. The tone of cool reason favored by the Founding Fathers is similarly lacking from this Jerry Falwell mailing: "American troops are again facing madman Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf -- but the enemy here at home may be much more dangerous! . . . Homosexuals are Bill Clinton's 1 allies."

Still, special interests often do traffic in facts. Their stock in trade is sounding alarms about legislative threats to people's interests, and often they can do that honestly. This, in a sense, is more disturbing than the cases of dishonesty or demagoguery. It means that the corruption of the public interest by special interests is no easily cured pathology, but a stubbornly rational pattern of behavior. The costs of each group's selfishness are spread diffusely across the whole nation, after all, while the benefits are captured by the group. Though every group might prosper in the long run if all groups surrendered just enough to balance the budget, it makes no sense for any of them to surrender unilaterally.

Given that accurate information, rationally processed, often leads people to undermine the public good, how excited should we be about Gingrich's Thomas, the online data base of congressional documents? Granted, there may not be a lobbyist manipulating the data flow. But that does not mean interest-group politics won't result. In cyberspace, technology may have finally reached a point where groups form spontaneously; on the Internet, passing information to a neighbor of like interest is a push-button exercise and can easily trigger a chain reaction. The result is a mass mailing that requires neither a centralized mass mailer nor the cost of postage and paper. And the next step can be a genuine, unrehearsed protest -- grass roots, not Astroturf -- that rolls into Congress or the White House via E-mail. Gingrich promises that Thomas will take power away from lobbyists, but if so, that may just mean Thomas has taken over their dirty work. (And after all, why should lobbyists be exempt from technological unemployment in the information age?)

Already the spontaneous formation of a single-issue interest group has been seen on the Net. In 1993 the Federal Government announced plans to promote the Clipper chip, which would have ensured the government's ability to decipher / messages sent over phone lines by modem. The circulation of an anti-Clipper petition turned into a kind of impromptu online civil-liberties demonstration, boosting the number of signatures from 40 to 47,500.

The oft-expressed hope for cyberspace is that any tendency toward fragmentation into contending groups will be offset by a capacity for edifying deliberation. And decorous dialogue has indeed been seen there. But cyberspace is also notorious for bursts of hostility that face-to-face contact would have suppressed. And a perusal of the Internet's newsgroups suggests that any tendencies toward convergence will have some real gaps to bridge. There's alt.politics.greens, alt.politics.libertarian, alt.politics.radical-left, alt.fan.dan-quayle, alt.politics.nationalism.white, alt.fan.g-gordon-liddy, alt.rush-limbaugh.die.a .flaming.death. In a nation that has trouble fixing its attention on the public good and is facing increasingly bitter cultural wars, this is not a wholly encouraging glimpse of the future. There's no alt.transcendent.public.interest in sight.

Not to worry. In the Gingrich camp, optimism runs rampant. Alvin Toffler and a few other seers prepared a "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which supports Gingrich. The authors dismiss in Tofflerian language those who fret about social balkanization in cyberspace as "Second Wave ideologues" (that is, Industrial Revolution dinosaurs, not clued in to the "Third Wave," the knowledge revolution). "Rather than being a centrifugal force helping to tear society apart, cyberspace can be one of the main forms of glue holding together an increasingly free and diverse society." The key to a "secure and stable civilization" is to make "appropriate social arrangements." Unfortunately, they never get around to specifying the social arrangements.

If there are "arrangements" that would indeed bring stability to a cyberdemocratic society, they might be found by first dispelling all residues of election-year rhetoric and acknowledging that Washington, far from being out of touch, is too plugged in, and that if history is any guide, the problem will only grow as technology advances. The challenge, thus conceived, is to buffer the legislature from the pressure of feedback.

One possibility is electoral reform. But limiting the number of congressional terms, the current vogue, makes less sense than expanding the length of terms. The incentive to vote for a responsible budget that's < healthful in the long run but painful in the short run depends on whether you face election next year or in three years.

There is another possible solution: leadership. Someone -- a President, say -- could actually stand up and tell the truth: that various public goods call for widespread sacrifice. But leadership is harder in an age of decentralized media -- an age of "demassification," in the Tofflers' term. In the old days a President could give a prime-time talk on all three networks and know that he had everyone's attention. But this sort of forum is disappearing as conservatives watch National Empowerment Television, nature buffs watch the Discovery Channel, sports fans watch ESPN. When Clinton sought to address the nation last December after his party's debacle, the networks, conscious of their competition, were reluctant. But they finally gave him the midsize soapbox they can deliver these days. He used it to promise a tax cut.

This was widely viewed as shameless pandering, not to mention a cheap imitation of Republican pandering. But it wasn't viewed as surprising. Politics is pandering in a hyperdemocracy; to lead is to follow. Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution sees this as one of the great social costs of modern information technology: in a kind of Darwinian process, hyperdemocracy weeds out politicians with the sort of strong internal principles that defy public opinion. "The advantage enjoyed by people willing to trim their views to the tastes of the electorate was smaller back when you couldn't find out what the electorate thought," Aaron says. Today, "few of those with core principles survive." If you don't obey talk-radio or public-opinion polls, you're ushered offstage.

Perversely, though, politicians are also punished if they do obey. The classic complaint about President Clinton is that he stands for nothing. Which is to say, he's willing to do just about anything to satisfy voters. Since the 1960s, the number of Americans expressing trust in Washington has dropped from around 70% to near 20%. This is commonly interpreted as a judgment against the growing power of special-interest lobbyists. But it could also be a reaction against the increasingly abject spinelessness of politicians, a byproduct of the very same trend. Indeed, the one clear exception to the number's downward drift are the Reagan years. Aaron says, "Even Democrats like me, who believed Ronald Reagan was a malign force, respected him, because, damn it, there were things he really stood for."

President Clinton, being inside the Beltway, periodically gets accused of being out of touch, of not "getting it." But he has shown that he "gets" the basics: that voters are worried about crime, for example, and that they hate to pay taxes. If there's anything major he doesn't "get," it's that in a hyperdemocracy, "getting it" can be self-defeating. The voters demand slavish obedience, but the more they receive it, the less they respect it. Has this sort of disrespect reached such a level as to be actually auspicious for a politician who leads rather than follows? It is hard to say. Few politicians seem inclined to conduct the experiment.