Electronic Town Halls Can't Beat the Real Thing
By Scott London
Ross Perot is back in the spotlight. On Sunday he will conduct an "electronic town hall" on NBC. "We want to use television to arouse and inform the American people," he says, "to give Americans a voice again on individual issues." He has been advocating the idea since the beginning of his presidential campaign last year.
It's an evocative and appealing idea: to recreate the spirited gatherings of New England townspeople on a national scale through interactive communications technology.
Opinion polls are useless. They furnish us with statistics and give an air of scientific credibility to the fundamentally unscientific business of politics. But they tell us nothing about the quality of the public's thinking.
But as a democratic metaphor for our times, Perot's message is a chilling reminder of a time 50 years ago when another man had a similar idea. His name was George Gallup. He promised that with his newly devised public opinion poll people could reclaim their public voice. In 1940 he wrote, "After 150 years we return to the town meeting; this time the whole nation is within the doors."
However noble his intentions, Gallup's mechanism has been a democratic disaster. After a half century it's beginning to dawn on us that there is no such thing as public opinion. Since people don't normally have fixed opinions or well-established viewpoints on issues, their answers depend on the questions. Since reason — and, by extension, democratic politics — cannot be measured, polls are at bottom useless. They furnish us with statistics and give an air of scientific credibility to the fundamentally unscientific business of politics, but they tell us nothing about the quality of the public's views.
As techno-politics comes of age, there is nothing to suggest that the electronic town hall will be more than a sophisticated Gallup poll. On Sunday, Perot will air a program on congressional reform, after which viewers around the country will be able to fill out a 17-point ballot printed in TV Guide and many of the nation's Sunday newspapers. These ballots will then be tabulated by congressional district and passed on to the appropriate representatives. This way citizens can, in Perot's words, send a laser-like message to their government giving their opinion.
What our democracy needs is genuine public dialogue, not another opinion poll. In this new era of talk-show politics, the dialogue of democracy has given way to a monologue of opinion. Instant analysis, op-ed overkill, and incessant opinion surveys have taken the place of genuine public discourse. What is missing today is the face-to-face interaction, the thoughtful exchange of views and the mutual exploration of complex issues that characterize real town meetings
Perot may turn out to be the real winner of the 1992 elections. Single-handedly he redefined the terms of the national debate and offered the American people an alternative to politics-as-usual. But on Sunday, let's take another look. His electronic town hall idea is unlikely to offer us anything new — only more of what we already have. Instant opinion cannot reform government; it can only amplify the millions of voices that already call out for change.
What we need, Ross, is a real town meeting, not a hi-tech opinion poll masquerading as one.
This essay appeared in the Dayton Daily News, March 20, 1993.