Although he was far from the first politician to go online, Republican presidential
candidate Bob Dole was the one who really legitimized the Internet as a political
At the end of his first presidential debate with Bill Clinton in 1996, Dole
the World War II veteran and former majority leader of the U.S. Senate
recited the address of his campaigns Web site and encouraged
people to visit.
It was the first time a candidate had ever mentioned a Web site in a presidential
debate and the surest sign possible that the Internet had arrived on the political
Never mind that Dole got the address wrong (he left out one of the dots, a
crucial mistake). It was the thought that counted.
Only four years later as the 2000 campaign blasts into full swing in the United
States, its de rigueur for candidates seeking offices ranging from president
to dog catcher to have Web sites. Republican Steve Forbes even announced his
candidacy for president on the Internet. Virtually all political parties,
ranging from the largest to the most obscure, have Web sites, as do thousands
of interest groups, think tanks, trade associations, labor unions, agencies
at all levels of government, news organizations that provide political reports,
polling firms, private individuals, and just about everyone else involved
in the political process.
Perhaps most telling, candidates in their stump speeches have added the Internet
to their discussions of enduring issues such as welfare, education, and the
economy. Theyre discussing topics such as electronic privacy, free speech
online, protecting children from online pornography, and Internet taxation
all issues that didnt even appear on the political radar only
a few years ago.
Of course, some candidates have stumbled over the Internet. Those who flooded
the Internet with messages touting their candidacies earned the wrath rather
than the votes of Internet users who hate the proliferation of unsolicited
e-mail known as spam. And Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was blasted
after he claimed credit for creating the Internet.
Lawmakers in Congress and statehouses nationwide also have noticed the Internet.
Theyve introduced hundreds of bills to regulate it or to keep
government out of the regulation business.
The use of the Internet as a political tool is not limited to the United States.
Political organizations, candidates, and governments around the world have
embraced the communications opportunities that the Internet presents. In fact,
some of the most interesting political uses of the Internet are occurring
in countries such as China, where it has opened if only slightly
the door that previously blocked all public debate.
Impact in Politics
So what does it all mean? Will the Internet become a great democratizing influence
that levels the playing field, boosts political participation, creates new
opportunities for dialogue between politicians and those they represent, gives
voice to the speechless, and generally restores the political process in the
United States, if not around the world? Or is all the fancy talk just a lot
The answer depends upon whom you ask. In recent books about the Internets
impact on politics, two respected authors came to diametrically opposing conclusions.
Gary W. Selnow, a professor of communication at San Francisco State University,
took the "pro" position in his book Electronic Whistle-Stops:
[T]he Internet is shaping up to be a serious international medium that
will radically alter politics in the United States and abroad, and whats
more, it will impact society on a larger level. It stands to change political
and ideological alignments, the substance of news available to the population,
and the relationships between political leaders and the people.
Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University,
took the opposite view in his book The Web of Politics:
The most likely Internet users will continue to be the affluent, the most
common users of Internet political information will be the already politically
interested, and those who will use the Internet for political activity will
be primarily those who are already politically active. And that is why the
Internet will not lead to the social and political revolution so widely
The reality is likely somewhere in the middle of these two viewpoints. When
you are assessing the Internets impact on politics, its crucial
to remember that the Internet is a tool nothing more, nothing less.
As with any tool, its power depends upon the context in which its used.
A hammer is a great tool for pounding nails but a lousy one for leveling fresh
cement. So it is with the Internet.
What the Internet does best is distribute information. Without question, the
Internet has made a huge range of political information available that previously
was difficult or impossible to obtain. You can find out whos giving
money to political candidates, check the voting records of your representatives
in Congress, read the texts of bills being considered by Congress, read the
full texts of speeches by candidates (without the news media serving as a
filter), subscribe to e-mail alerts on issues ranging from abortion to gun
control, find advocacy groups that work on issues that interest you, read
political news from a wide variety of media outlets, and much more.
Release of some of this information can have major consequences. For example,
the House of Representatives changed the political landscape forever when
it placed on the Internet the full text of the report by Independent Counsel
Kenneth Starr regarding his investigation of President Bill Clintons
affair with Monica Lewinsky. Millions of people read all or parts of the report
within days of its release.
The Internet also is good at mobilizing people, at least in some cases. The
most notable example is the 1998 election of Jesse Ventura as governor of
Minnesota. Although some commentators have incorrectly attributed Venturas
victory to the Internet, online communication clearly played a role in his
election. Perhaps most important was the Jesse Net, an e-mail alert list that
had 3,000 subscribers by election day.
In an article following the election, Venturas webmaster, Phil Madsen,
said the Internet was only one tool in the campaigns arsenal:
Without the Internet, we would have lost the election. The same applies
to all other components of the campaign. Take away the debate inclusion,
public campaign finance money, campaign office, telephone team, good media
relations, public policy research, campaign leadership, quality candidates,
a staff that worked well together, eager and hard-working volunteers, etc.,
etc., etc., and we would have lost as well.
The Internet is especially good at mobilizing people around issues. In March
1999 the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said an Internet
e-mail campaign caused the agency to withdraw a proposed "Know Your Customer"
policy. The policy, which was aimed at detecting money laundering, would have
required banks to monitor customers accounts and report any unusual
activity to federal regulators.
The agency received 257,000 comments about the proposed policy, with about
205,000 arriving by e-mail. The overwhelming majority denounced the proposal
as an invasion of privacy. The Libertarian Party was a major force behind
the unprecedented number of comments. It launched a campaign opposing the
policy through its Web site and an e-mail alert list, among other venues.
By the end of the campaign, 140,000 people had subscribed to a new party e-mail
list about privacy issues, according to the New York Times.
The Internet also is good at helping groups or individuals publicity express
their views, no matter how modest their resources. Free Internet access and
Web space are available to anyone who can access a computer at home, school,
work, or a library, making it possible to create a simple Web site at no charge.
This is a boon for third parties, smaller organizations with limited budgets,
and individuals who otherwise might not be able to get their message out because
of high printing and distribution costs for traditional political literature.
This is not to say, however, that the Internet levels the playing field between
those who are well funded and those of modest means. Simply creating a Web
site does not guarantee that anyone will visit. Well-funded site owners can
buy advertising for their site and engage in a wide range of other promotional
activities that draw in visitors and cost money. The well-established
also have a built-in advantage simply because the public tends to gravitate
to what it knows. Thus Al Gores campaign site automatically receives
far more hits than Web sites operated by any third-party presidential candidate.
The Internet is lousy at creating true two-way communication between candidates
and voters. Sure, most candidates Web sites ask visitors to vote in
online polls, send in their views by e-mail, or engage in other alleged "interactivity."
Unfortunately, its all a sham. The dirty secret is that campaigns ignore
the polls and e-mail opinions from online visitors except to harvest
e-mail addresses for future campaign mailings. Results from online polls are
not scientific and thus are of no use to a campaign, and candidates lack the
time and resources to engage in one-on-one e-mail conversations with voters.
A few campaigns have instituted online "town meetings," where a
handful of visitors get to interact with the candidate online, but such opportunities
are still rare.
The Internet also fails miserably (at least so far) in creating useful forums
for members of the public to discuss political issues. Dozens of Usenet newsgroups
allow people to express their views about various political topics, but they
commonly erupt in flame wars that scare away any rational discussion.
The Internet and Voting
A huge push is underway to allow voting online. Proponents claim that instituting
Internet voting would re-ignite interest in politics, remove obstacles to
voting, and vastly expand the number of people who cast ballots. Only 49 percent
of the voting age population voted in the 1996 presidential election, according
to the Federal Election Commission, so low turnout is a serious problem in
But even setting aside the numerous problems associated with on-line voting
security breaches that could lead to massive fraud and lack of computer
access by the poor being just two there is no evidence that allowing
Internet voting will actually increase voter participation.
The best evidence comes from the National Voter Registration Act, which went
into effect in 1995. The law allows people to mail in their voter registration
forms or to register when they obtain drivers licenses or apply for
Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, Medicaid, and other
social services. The law was intended to make voter registration easier.
So far the results have been underwhelming. The Census Bureau found that the
percentage of the voting-age population registered to vote actually dropped
2.3 percent between 1992 and the 1996 election, the first that took place
after the law took effect. The Federal Election Commission, using slightly
different statistical methods, found a 1.8 percent increase in registration
in the 43 states and the District of Columbia covered by the new law.
Whichever number you accept, making registration easier had little effect
on voter registration numbers. The same would be true of Internet voting.
Why? Because the reasons people dont bother to vote have nothing to
do with the supposed difficulty of the process. Rather, they stem from disenchantment
with the political system.
The Census Bureau documented this attitude in the 1996 election, when it asked
people who were registered but didnt appear at the polling place why
they failed to do so. Some 16.6 percent said they werent interested
in the election, and 13 percent said they didnt like the candidates.
Another 21.5 percent said they had no time off or were too busy (another way
of saying they werent interested), and 4.4 percent forgot to vote (again,
a way of saying they werent interested). Added together, those four
responses accounted for 55.5 percent of all people who didnt vote. Only
4.3 percent said they failed to vote because they had no transportation to
What these numbers point to is a lack of interest in voting, not a lack of
opportunity. But with a political system that churns out Tweedledee and Tweedledum
candidates, campaigns that focus on not making mistakes instead of articulating
a vision, a political "debate" geared toward polarization instead
of consensus building, and a corrupt campaign finance system that makes elected
officials the servants of special interests instead of their constituents,
is it any wonder that people dont vote? Fixing these and other systemic
problems in American politics would likely boost voter participation, but
they have nothing to do with the Internet.