• U.S.

Ross Perot and the Call-In Presidency

5 minute read
Charles Krauthammer

It is conventional usage to refer to Ross Perot as a third-party candidate. In fact, he is nothing of the sort. Unlike the classic third-party candidates — say, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace, who in 1948 formed right- and left- wing offshoots of a real political party (the Democrats) — Perot represents no party. He does not even pretend to.

Perot is a one-man band. The fact that one man alone could have had such a meteoric rise begs explanation. Yes, the country is disgusted with Washington gridlock. Yes, both parties have put up maddening mediocrities. Yes, America lionizes tycoons and is occasionally seized with the belief that they — Henry Ford, assorted Rockefellers, most recently Lee Iacocca — can save the country. And, yes, Perot has $100 million to blow.

But the Perot phenomenon signifies something larger, deeper. It signifies a geologic change in American politics: the growing obsolescence of the great institutions — the political parties, the Establishment media, the Congress — that have traditionally stood between the governors and the governed. The traditional way to achieve and wield power in America is to tame or charm or capture these institutions. Perot’s genius was to realize that for the first time in history, technology makes it possible to bypass them. Win or lose, knowing or not, Perot is the harbinger of a new era of direct democracy.

First Perot bypassed the parties. He has no use for them, except as foils for his own pristine independence. He deigned to enter not a single primary, and yet was hailed by exit polls as the winner of California’s.

As for the media, he realized that the proliferation of outlets has created a new game: a way to reach the American people directly, without the mediation of Dan Rather and the New York Times. The Perot campaign owed much of its amazing start to its call-in, soft-news-show launch, which allowed it to get its message out unfiltered.

And as for Congress, Perot promises to bypass it and go directly to the American people in the “electronic town hall” — Nightline with President Perot playing Ted Koppel. It is here, says Perot, that the American people will, in direct communion with the leader, solve those knotty problems that have eluded a clumsy, corrupt Congress.

Coming two-way TV technology will one day make it possible for Perot’s town hall to be more than a glorified national talk show. It could be a place where, as in the original New England town hall, people don’t just talk but vote. For bombing Baghdad, press 1. For continued sanctions, press 2. For punting until next week’s show, press 3.

In 1789 the Founders contrived a deliberately cumbersome political system (elected representatives, separated powers, bicameral legislature, indirect election of the President) to make sure that popular passions were filtered before they could explode into national action. Over the next two centuries, party and press evolved as additional filters between rulers and ruled. Now, announces the Perot phenomenon, these filters face technological obsolescence.

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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