Needed: A New Political Literacy for Electronic Town Meetings

by Robert E. Horn

Vice President
The Meridian International Institute

© 1993. Robert E. Horn


During the the 1860 Presidential primaries, Abe Lincoln debated Frederick Douglas up and down the state of Illinois. Citizens walked miles, came by horse and buggy or by train to stand (yes, stand) for up to four hours at a stretch to hear the debates. The Chicago and Springfield newspapers printed every word of them.

The 1992 Presidential election showed that we are entering another era of citizen involvement with public policy: The Era of the Electronic Citizen. This Era brings a new style of involvement and new styles of presentation of public policy for consideration. Foremost among these is the electronic town meeting (ETM). While this form of public discourse is still in its embryonic stages, informed citizens need to begin reflecting on the possibilities, dangers, and standards that will emerge with electronic governance.

Too often, the press still lumps together anything that happens on TV as an "electronic town meeting" but, gradually, we are developing language that makes sense of key differences. Ted Becker, at Auburn University, has suggested: "In recent years, the label electronic town hall or electronic town meeting has been used for events where political leaders have met with citizens to hear complaints and answer questions. When these events have been televised, and particularly when the viewing audience is invited to pose questions by telephone, they are invariably called ETMs by the media and politicians. What they are, however, is more accurately defined as electronic forums (EFs) or electronic hearings (EHs)....Those who experiment with genuine ETMs emulate the New England town meeting -- an entirely different breed of cat. "

I will use the following definitions in this chapter:

The electronic town meeting (ETM) is a newly evolving institution of democratic countries which involves (a) the presentation of information and opinion through various media on issues to a given polity (b) discussion and deliberation, usually on television, and (c) the obtaining of feedback, usually through a scientific sampling of the residents or voters in a given area. (Synonym: "teledemocracy.")

The electronic forum (EF) is an event, on television or radio, in which political leaders or candidates meet with citizens to answer questions about their policies and programs (also sometimes referred to as a "call-in show"). This is sometimes called "electronic schmoozing" with the electorate. It has a definite place in our public discourse, and will develop even further as talk-show hosts develop the ability to explore policy more deeply.

The electronic hearing (EH) is an event, on television or radio, in which political leaders obtain opinions and testimony on a particular issue, program, or legislative bill, but at which no decisions are made and no polls are taken.

While all three are important, electronic forums and electronic hearings are more "free form," so I will not attempt to discuss their formats and standards. The third -- electronic town meetings -- are, I think, more important, because they claim to involve the presentation of deliberation and will include some kinds of public opinion polling, which has become a high stakes component of American politics. Electronic Town Meetings are, thus likely to become a major focus for public judgment about major issues. They deserve, even now, a preliminary outline of what standards we should expect from the program producers. But, first, I want to make sure we are not misled by the town meeting metaphor. There are major difference between electronic town meetings and the old New England Town Meetings which provide the metaphor. The table below outlines these:

Some Unknowns
There are many experiments to be done, much creativity to be focused on the design of ETMs. There is much that is unknown. For example, Program formats, a terms referring to the way discussions and debates are held, the way studio and remote audience participate, and the way scientific samples of opinion are taken, are relatively undefined. At this stage, we do not have a settled classification of formats for ETMs. Some that have been slightly experimented with include the traditional debate format, attempts to build consensus, and formats devoted to agenda setting. Various forms of opinion sampling (including multiple samples taken during the course of a single program) also need to be explored.

Recently, I co-chaired a conference, entitled Designing the Next Generation of Electronic Town Meetings, at the Meridian International Institute. It was the first time the pioneers , those persons who have actually produced ETMs, had gotten together. The conferees concluded that there was much room for creativity and many unanswered design questions in the methodology of ETMs. The most important of these areas are:

There is much work to be done. Yet, as our country begins to move into this area there are standards that can be stated before hand. An essential skill for the informed citizen will be to understand the requirements and vulnerabilities of truly democratic ETMs. It will require a new kind of political literacy. The remainder of this article will outline some of the most important of these emerging concerns.

1. The Crooked Plebiscite.

Politicians have frequently commissioned polls guaranteed to produce the results they wanted. And, of course, there are historical examples of rigged elections. ETMs sponsored by a candidate are almost always suspect. The New Electronic Citizen must ask: who is sponsoring this ETM? Who is paying? Who is profiting? Who is controlling the agenda? Who has set up the format? Who has invited and screened the studio audience? If the answer to one of these questions is a single candidate then we know that the kind of public deliberation required by a vibrant democracy is not taking place.

2. The Demagogue Demands Immediate Action.

We have seen national presidential candidates ask a crowd put together by their advance persons, yes or no questions and then declare that a national consensus exists and immediate action must be taken. Indeed, former candidate Ross Perot paid for a list of almost 20 such yes or no questions to be printed in TV Guide and then asked on a half hour program in time time for the questions to be filled out and sent to his organization. Fortunately, it appears that most American were not fooled into believing that this was a scientific, fair, or democratic form of of running an ETM.

3. Steamroller Rush to Judgment.

Deliberation in democracy requires taking the time to understand how the decision might ultimately impact different interests and individuals. Such a deliberation process often takes weeks or months and involves a number of groups, according to Daniel Yankelovitch in his book, Coming to Public Judgment. informed citizens will ask themselves, "Is there adequate time -- several weeks -- for me to discuss the topic of this ETM with my family, friends, neighbors and colleagues?" "Is there a second (and more) program that will take up the issue again?"

4. The Stacked Agenda and the Rigged Question

Pollsters have known for a long time that how you phrase a question has a large influence on the answer you get. And the outcome of a political process is often determined by what issues get on the agenda and how they are stated. Informed citizens will require that questions and agendas themselves be the subject of ETMs.

5. Emotions Overwhelming Deliberation

Human decisions are influenced by emotions -- often negative ones. While feelings should not be absent from policy-making, we need to design the ETM process so that knee-jerk emotionality does not govern outcomes. Informed citizens will ask themselves, "Has this ETM been designed to play on my emotions or to foster careful, rational deliberation?"

6. Confrontation-Oriented Moderator

Broadcast news anchors and reporters are usually the first candidates suggested as moderators of ETMs. But most of them have an ingrained bias toward heightening confrontation rather than getting people to deliberate, to listen to each other, to explore common ground, and to work toward consensus. Can news anchors learn to work in an entirely different mode, one that might actually lead to deliberation and even movement to consensus. Politically savvy citizens will tell their local TV stations what the think of the process and how the moderators are doing. They will look for a new kind of professionalism, rather than the superficial hit-and-run confrontationism of the conventional news program.

7. Fights Over Data Rather Than Over Policy

Often TV debates degenerate into debates over numbers and do not focus on the broad questions of the directions that policy should take and of what kind of society we want to live in. Informed citizens will look for the participants and the conveners to solve some of these problems so that valuable deliberation time on the air will not be filled with haggling about data.

8. Fair Polling

Many of the so-called electronic town meetings on national TV to date have relied on polls that were not randomized scientifically. Rather, they simply asked callers to call a 1-800 or 1-900 number. These simply do not fairly or scientifically represent the entire nation (or state, or metropolitan region). They are biased in favor of those who are listening, those who have a direct financial (or other) interest in the outcome of the policy, those who have the discretionary cash to make the calls. New Electronic Citizens will expect that polls conducted in connection with ETMs will meet rigorous standards of fairness and science.

Other Issues
There are a number of issues that have not been addressed by scholars and those advocating the installation of ETMs.

9. Interaction with Campaigns

What will happen to an ongoing series of town meetings about particular issues when candidates begin their campaigns for office? Should candidates be allowed to make presentations in ETMs? If so, which candidates?

10. Superficiality of Topic Choice and Discussion

It would be unfair to fail to give all participants adequate time to present their points of view. But giving equal time to every nuance or position could unreasonably lengthen an ETM program and perhaps make it more superficial. How do we achieve a balance in depth of topic presentation and fair representation of diverse points of view?

Someone who reads the transcripts of the Lincoln - Douglas debates comes away with the impression that the standards for public discourse, the depth of exploration of the topic, the requirement to listen, the ability to remember and answer claims and rebuttals were much more demanding than those required of the contemporary TV talk-show viewer. For electronic town meetings to flourish, we will need a new kind of political literacy with informed citizens playing a more active role in pressing for democratically sound approaches to ETMs.