Ross Perot and the Call-In Presidency

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Take the parties. They arose in the 19th century as a two-way transmission belt. They gathered grass-roots sentiment and sent it up to the governing elites, who in turn used them to mobilize an otherwise unreachable mass electorate. A century ago you needed party rallies and precinct captains to get the message out. In the age of television and satellites, you don't.

Little wonder that the parties are moribund, that party affiliation is so brittle, that congressional candidates are now political entrepreneurs beholden to no one. The party convention has become positively quaint. Traditionally it was here that the elders gathered to pick their presidential candidates. That role having long since been forfeited to the primaries, the parties have turned the convention into a made-for-TV show. Perot understands that this new contraption -- parties manipulating media to send out the parties' message under cover of "news" -- is Rube Goldberg inefficiency. Why not let one man go on Larry King and send the message out himself, directly?

Big Media? The democratization of communications, from CNN to MTV to C-SPAN, means that these dinosaurs can now be bypassed. Congress? A fen of stagnant waters, a den of special interests. To the town hall!

Of course the electronic town hall, like the other trappings of direct techno-democracy, is an illusion. A New England town hall works because the town is small. Real interaction between people, between governors and governed, is possible. In a vast continental nation like the U.S., it is not. Mass electronic communication is really one-way communication, top-down. For the practiced performer the call-in show is the most easily manipulated forum.

It is precisely because direct democracy is such a manipulatable sham that every two-bit Mussolini adopts it as his own. Pomp and plebiscites. The Duce and the people. No need for the messy stuff in between. Not for nothing did the Founders abhor direct democracy. They knew it to be a highway to tyranny.

The American experiment has always been an experiment in democratic indirectness. The people do not get instant gratification for their political wants. They have them filtered first. The passing of these filtering institutions may be inevitable, but it is no cause for celebration. The parties, Big Media and Congress are, Lord knows, unwieldy, obtrusive and often offensive. But they're all we've got. Until we find something else to stand | between us and the maximum leader, we should be loath to throw them away.

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