In 1969, computer-processing magnate Ross Perot had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign. The opening of “Perot’s Vision: Consensus By Computer,” a New York Times article from that year by the late Michael Kelly:
WASHINGTON, June 5— Twenty-three years ago, Ross Perot had a simple idea.
The nation was splintered by the great and painful issues of the day. There had been years of disorder and disunity, and lately, terrible riots in Los Angeles and other cities. People talked of an America in crisis. The Government seemed to many to be ineffectual and out of touch.
What this country needed, Mr. Perot thought, was a good, long talk with itself.
The information age was dawning, and Mr. Perot, then building what would become one of the world’s largest computer-processing companies, saw in its glow the answer to everything. One Hour, One Issue
Every week, Mr. Perot proposed, the television networks would broadcast an hourlong program in which one issue would be discussed. Viewers would record their opinions by marking computer cards, which they would mail to regional tabulating centers. Consensus would be reached, and the leaders would know what the people wanted.
Mr. Perot gave his idea a name that draped the old dream of pure democracy with the glossy promise of technology: ‘the electronic town hall.’
Today, Mr. Perot’s idea, essentially unchanged from 1969, is at the core of his ‘We the People’ drive for the Presidency, and of his theory for governing.
It forms the basis of Mr. Perot’s pitch, in which he presents himself, not as a politician running for President, but as a patriot willing to be drafted ‘as a servant of the people’ to take on the ‘dirty, thankless’ job of rescuing America from ‘the Establishment,’ and running it.
In set speeches and interviews, the Texas billionaire describes the electronic town hall as the principal tool of governance in a Perot Presidency, and he makes grand claims: ‘If we ever put the people back in charge of this country and make sure they understand the issues, you’ll see the White House and Congress, like a ballet, pirouetting around the stage getting it done in unison.’
Although Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he would not try to use the electronic town hall as a direct decision-making body, he has on other occasions suggested placing a startling degree of power in the hands of the television audience.
He has proposed at least twice — in an interview with David Frost broadcast on April 24 and in a March 18 speech at the National Press Club — passing a constitutional amendment that would strip Congress of its authority to levy taxes, and place that power directly in the hands of the people, in a debate and referendum orchestrated through an electronic town hall.•