Tip O'Neill, meet Alvin Toffler.
Richard Hartman's business card is informative and symbolic. It informs you that Hartman is co-founder of Reform Congress 94, described as "America's First CyberSpace PAC." It provides the political action committee's telephone number and fax number, along with Internet and CompuServe addresses. It also tells you that Hartman is one of the principals of the De-Foley-ate Project, which had one purpose: to help defeat Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who until the November election was speaker of the House of Representatives.
The card is symbolic because it doesn't list a physical address. Reform Congress 94 was a "virtual PAC" that used faxes and a computer bulletin-board service to get out its message rather than relying upon legions of volunteers to operate telephone banks and stuff envelopes. Hartman, a software engineer from Spokane, did rent an office, but he says that was "a waste of time and money. We went there twice." Along with one other person, Hartman and his wife Mary ran a political action committee from their home.
The Hartmans officially launched their effort in late August, a few weeks before the Washington primary. They hoped to raise $500,000, but fell a bit short: They received only about $26,000. But they faxed press releases to local radio talk shows, reminding the hosts that Foley had sued his own constituents in an attempt to overturn Washington's term-limit referendum and that he had voted to ban "assault weapons" in the crime bill. They set up an electronic BBS, to which Richard says hundreds of thousands of respondents dialed in.
And when participants in a September gun show in Florida wanted to distribute anti-Foley literature, Richard placed the literature on-line, including the software that would let the folks in Florida produce camera-ready posters. "We could have sent the information by Federal Express overnight," he says. Electronic media, however, "let us tailor the message to this precise audience instantly."
The Hartmans' circumstances were certainly unusual: They weren't political pros trying to run a national operation but rather ordinary citizens determined to defeat their local congressman. Because the local congressman was speaker of the House and a political lightning rod, it was certainly more likely that they would get attention (and contributions) from across the country. And they did know how to use the latest technologies, or as Richard says, "We had the right tools in our tool kit" to run a Shoestring operation. But their unusual story demonstrates the unintended ways in which new technologies have let normal people gain access to the political process.
A new form of activism is shaking the political establishment, and it may crumble congressional and regulatory fiefdoms more thoroughly than last November's election. By using broadcast faxes, satellite television programs, radio talk shows, and electronic forums like those on CompuServe and the Internet, grassroots activists like the Hartmans can bypass traditional media outlets. The rather anarchic nature of computer culture suggests that the infomedia revolution will tend to erode the statist foundations of the political establishment. While this outbreak of cyberpolitics is not universally appreciated, there's little the Beltway power-brokers can do to stop it.
The explosion of cyberdemocracy doesn't please everybody. "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," writes Robert Wright in the January 23 Time. "Intensely felt public opinion leads to the impulsive passage of dubious laws,"...