It's early evening in Room 329 on the campus of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication. Although tonight's class on communications policy is meeting for only the second time, its 15 graduate students are already voicing some strong opinions. Elisa Montoya, for example, has decided that she doesn't want to be Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. Instead, she wants to be Justice Thurgood Marshall. Kellie Reagan is expressing her displeasure at having been assigned Senator Barbara Boxer, of California; she'd prefer Senator Ernest Hollings, of South Carolina.
At the front of the room, Tracy Westen, sporting a mop of curly white hair and a big grin, is taking it all in stride. Agent provocateur, Web-based political organizer, former Federal Trade Commission official, and part-time professor at USC, Westen has asked his students to play these real-life politicians in a simulation that he's created to teach how policy is really forged. But now, with the students pushing back, Westen seems downright delighted! This, he seems to be saying, is what healthy democracy is all about. Democracy is based on participation. It's premised on the notion that if people don't like something, they have the right not only to voice their opinions but also to try to change the situation.
Of course, one reason why Westen is enjoying this small scene in his classroom — a microcosm of the fundamental workings of democracy — is that when he looks at the political process at work in California or in the United States, he rarely sees democratic principles being put into practice. From his vantage point as founder of the Web-based Democracy Network, Westen can cite chapter and verse to illustrate the elements of modern-day democracy that are misfiring: Special-interest groups use campaign contributions to manipulate the political process, currying favor with candidates and winning unprecedented access to the day-to-day operations of government. Politicians and elected officials have learned how to use attack ads, sound bites, spin control, and out-and-out falsehoods to thwart real dialogue with voters. And, in the process, they have transformed American politics from the heritage of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the heresy of the Jerry Springer show. For its part, the media seems more interested in grabbing a ringside seat at the latest scandal than in analyzing the nuts-and-bolts issues that genuinely affect voters' lives. And, says Westen, this political miasma has inescapable costs: In the 1998 national election, a mere 36% of the electorate exercised their right to vote — the lowest turnout in American political history since 1942. What's more, Westen points out, the turnout was even lower among new voters between the ages of 18 and 24 — a scant 15% to 20% bothered to cast a vote.
"So," says Westen, "not only did we vote at one of the lowest recorded levels ever, but young voters were voting at only one half of the overall rate. That's a very depressing conclusion, because historically, young voters pump new ideas into the system." Throughout his career, Westen has sought to pump his own new ideas into the American political system. From his days as a law student involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, through his tenure in Washington, DC as deputy director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection during the Carter administration in the late 1970s, to his present involvement as founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies (CGS), Westen has campaigned selflessly and tirelessly for a fairer, more open, and more responsive government.
When Westen founded CGS in 1983, its purpose was to reform campaign-finance laws. Its current mission is equally straightforward: "to enhance the quantity and quality of governmental information available to citizens through the use of modern communications technologies; to expand the opportunities for citizens to participate in elective and governmental processes; to improve the integrity of government decision making; to strengthen government's responsiveness to the public's interests; and, ultimately, to restore public trust in government and the electoral process." For anyone else, pursuing this mission would constitute a full-time job. But for Westen, it is only one facet of a public-service, public-change agenda that has required him to wear many hats: president of the Democracy Network, founder and first vice president of the California Channel, and coauthor of 10 books on campaign finance, ballot initiatives, and judicial and media reform — plus teaching at USC's Annenberg School and at the UCLA School of Law.
"Democracy is an interactive form of government," says Westen. "It's composed of interactions between citizens, candidates, and elected representatives, and they're all involved in communications. There's very little manufacturing involved in government — none in campaigns. It's all speech; it's all communication. So democracy is essentially dependent on the current system of communication. And every new communications system has had a major impact on the political system."
Which is why Westen's newest, boldest nonprofit venture, the Democracy Network, a new communications channel, has the potential not only to join the political fray but also to transform it. This time, Westen is not satisfied with preaching evolution. This time, he wants revolution. "We are trying to shape the architecture of democracy," he says. "The Internet represents an interactive form of communication. It's unlike radio, television, and print, which are essentially one-way media. Only the Internet is two-way: You listen to what others are saying, and then you talk back. You can use the Internet to set up two-way communications links. So, if the government is interactive, and the Internet is interactive, and you put them together, it makes sense that that combination will have a major impact on the political system."
Democracy at Work
The way it works is simple: In the 2000 elections, the Democracy Network (www.democracynetwork.org; www.dnet.org) will feature information on the main issues of every federal race, as well as on statewide races in 11 states for such elected positions as governor and attorney general, and on a large number of state legislative races. All in all, the network will involve between 3,000 and 6,000 candidates. All candidates will be invited to post their positions on the DNet Web site. Candidates will also be able to take part in online debates and discussions by rebutting statements posted by their opponents or by responding to questions posed by DNet users.
"People just don't have time to go to hundreds of Web sites for information on candidates," Westen says. "There has to be a central meeting place where you can easily pick the candidate and the issue that you want — and that's the Democracy Network. DNet is like a shopping mall for political candidates. And it's one-stop shopping because you have access to every candidate. It's kind of a return to the old country fair, where the candidates would come to debate."
Broadening and deepening the debate between political candidates is a central purpose behind the Democracy Network, which was founded in 1996 as a joint venture between Westen's Center for Governmental Studies and the League of Women Voters. In a section of the DNet Web site labeled "the issue grid," candidates in any given race can upload their positions on any issues that they choose. Their opponents then automatically receive an email informing them of those statements. The opponents can then either post a rebuttal or opt to have a "no comment" icon appear under that topic on the issue grid. Candidates respond more often than not — and join the debate.
Why is this important? Because, as Westen is quick to point out, in typical television election coverage, the so-called issue spread only covers three or four hot-button topics. In California, for example, the same big four — crime, taxes, immigration, and welfare — tend to predominate. Which means that if you're interested in hearing about a noncore issue such as education, the environment, or health care, you're out of luck. And even on these core issues, candidates rarely, if ever, actually engage in face-to-face debates. Instead, most political discourse takes place in expensive, slickly produced 30-second television spots, in which candidates seek to transform complex problems into simple, bumper-sticker slogans. Candidates who can't raise the money to buy television time are excluded from what passes for political dialogue.
Last year's gubernatorial primary in California offered a classic case in point. The campaign, the most expensive in California history, featured only one televised debate between the candidates. And when it was first scheduled, not one of California's television stations — including the Public Broadcasting affiliates — agreed to carry the debate live. Finally, the night before the debate, Los Angeles's Channel 5 decided to air the debate — the next morning at 11 AM, when most people would be at work. Nor was the debate open to all candidates: Of the 17 candidates running for governor, only the four frontrunners were invited to participate. And of the vast variety of problems and concerns facing California, only nine issues were addressed during the debate.
The Democracy Network changed all that. First, Westen and members of his team listened to the debate live and copied down all of the questions that were asked. Then they emailed those questions to the 13 candidates who hadn't been allowed to participate in the debate. Within a few hours, Westen had responses from those excluded candidates posted on the Web site. By the next morning, almost all of the frontrunners had posted rebuttals of their own. Then democracy broke out, and the debate took on a life of its own. The debate expanded from the original 9 issues to 35 issues, covering everything from the environment to community-oriented policing to the media's coverage of violence.
"DNet's technology has the capability of bringing everyone into the debate, not just the frontrunners," says Westen. "I think that's significant, not because the others are necessarily going to win — although occasionally they will — but because they will perform their true role, which is to push the debate."
And, says Westen, more debate means more substantive discussion of the issues. And that gives voters more and better information to help them make smarter choices at the ballot box. "We're not only getting greater breadth, we're also getting greater depth," says Westen. "We're finding issues that would never be addressed in any other medium. For instance, what are the chances of a candidate asking about funding for the arts during a televised debate?"
But expanding and deepening the debate is only one way in which the Democracy Network empowers its users. Voters can also use the Web site to do an easy side-by-side comparison of candidates' positions on a particular issue. Take education, for example. If voters want to compare two candidates' positions on that issue, they need only go to the issue grid and read the candidates' statements or the text of the full debate. A few years ago, when Westen and his staff tried to do the same comparison by phone, the process took three weeks. Today, thanks to the Democracy Network, anyone can do it in a matter of minutes. "There are a number of reasons why people don't participate in politics," Westen says. "But I don't think that it's because they're uninterested. I think that it's because they can't do it efficiently."
DNet offers more than ease of use. Through hotlinks to briefing papers and background materials on major issues, the Web site also provides context. Users can find out where the candidates' campaign financing comes from, check out their biographies, and read statements from their endorsers.
Over time, the site will also become a historical record with lasting significance. Instead of disappearing into the telesphere, candidates' past positions will remain online. "Let's say that you're trying to make up your mind about an election in the year 2004," Westen says, "and a candidate makes a statement about what to do about drugs or crime. As we build up our history, you'll be able to go back and read what that candidate said in 1998, or in 2000."
The idea is to engage more people in the political process by making democracy as user-friendly as online chat, or as e-commerce. And the more people get involved in that process through the Democracy Network, says Westen, the more substantive the process will become. "You can put together TV commercials that are all image and no substance, and they work because people will retain that image in their mind," says Westen. "But when a voter spends time going through the Democracy Network, finding the race, looking at the candidates, picking an issue, they've already gone three or four clicks, and they don't want empty promises or vague generalities. That puts pressure on candidates to respond in a new way."
The Democracy Network will also change the economics of campaigning, lowering the financial barriers to entry for candidates who may wish to run, but who don't have huge war chests. But, Westen recognizes, the site will only succeed if people use it. And to that end, he is trying to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible. He has already negotiated a deal with AOL, which has agreed to put DNet up as a featured site, and discussions are under way with some of the Web's other megaportals for similar advantageous treatment. And like any CEO of a Web site, Westen understands that speed is critical. "It's important that we get in and do this right," Westen says, "and keep the costs very low — because otherwise someone else will get in and raise the cost." And if a commercial site beats him to the punch, then the entire set of problems that plague conventional politics will simply migrate to the Web with candidates forced to raise more money to buy a presence on the Internet. "This is a preemptive entry by a public-interest organization, trying to keep excessively commercial outfits out," Westen explains.
The site is up and running, but like most other new sites, the Democracy Network is still in rapid-growth mode. "We are testing ideas by implementing them and seeing what happens, except that we're doing it with the fundamental structure of democracy, which to me is a very important task," Westen says. "There are a lot of people who work in digital communications on video games, home shopping, movies on demand, online auctions, and more. But to me, the most interesting sites deal with how our government functions. The potential gains that these sites offer are enormous."
The Making of an Activist
Westen traces his interest in communications and in democracy back to his days managing the campus radio station at Pomona College, and to his time as a law student and activist at Berkeley during the turbulent 1960s. In the 1970s, he formed the nation's first public-interest law firm and advertising agency, Public Communication Inc., which created such famous public-service announcements as the 1972 Chevrolet engine-mount-recall spot featuring Burt Lancaster.
But it is his four-year stint inside the federal government as a deputy director in the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection that Westen describes as the source of his real education. Shortly after Westen's arrival, FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk, who had already established his own reputation as a political activist, asked Westen to figure out what to do about television ads aimed at children. Under an FTC rule-making proceeding that has been described as "the most controversial agency initiative ever conceived," Westen worked up a proposal that ranged from the mild (requiring increased disclosure of the products being advertised) to the comprehensive (banning all ads aimed at children too young to understand the seller's intent).
Suddenly, Westen found himself locking horns not only with broadcasters and advertisers but also with toy manufacturers, cereal makers, and even cigarette companies (who feared they would be next). Instead of fighting Westen's proposal head-on, his opponents amassed a $15 million campaign fund and used it to lobby Congress to take away the FTC's authority to enact such general rules, limiting the agency to working on a case-by-case basis. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan brought a conservative administration to Washington, Westen knew that he had lost that battle.
Westen's experience in government convinced him that much of the problem with politics resulted from the way in which campaign financing drives the system. So in 1983 he founded what would later become known as the Center for Governmental Studies to try to reform the political process. In addition to looking at the problem of campaign financing and its warping effect on the system, Westen began focusing on the other half of the campaign-finance problem: the demand for money that is prompted by the expense of buying paid advertising in the media. In 1989, he founded the California Channel, which provides C-SPAN - like coverage of California's state government. Today, the channel broadcasts gavel-to-gavel coverage of the everyday workings of California state government to about 6 million homes. That experiment with alternative communications technology prompted Westen to ask the next question: What impact would interactive technologies, such as the Internet and video-on-demand, have on the political process? Westen's response to that question was to create the Democracy Network.
But for all of his activism, Westen is no starry-eyed utopian who views the Web as the answer to all of the world's problems. Quite the contrary: Without serious campaign-finance reform, Westen says, the quantity and quality of public participation in America's democratic experiment will continue to decline. So strongly does Westen hold to this view that over the past 15 years he and his organization have directly written or helped to shape dozens of state and local ballot measures, laws, and ordinances seeking to bring about campaign-finance reform. Still, the Web does offer a new and important tool for changing the national political discourse. "What I do think," Westen says, "is that the Web will have a more positive effect on politics than any other technology that has come along in the past 200 years."
Eric Ransdell (email@example.com), a contributing editor for Fast Company, is based in San Francisco. Visit Tracy Westen's Center for Governmental Studies on the Web (www.cgs.org).
Sidebar: What's Fast
Democracy is hard work — just ask Tracy Westen. Fast Company asked him to outline the rules that he follows in his work for the Democracy Network.
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
Always do whatever you can to shape the way that events are moving. When we did public-service announcements, our goal was to open up a wedge into paid media for consumer-oriented advertising. Back then, advertising was available only to those who could pay for it. We felt that there ought to be a right of access for consumers and public-interest groups as well. And in an indirect way, the argument that we launched made it all the way to the Supreme Court (CBS v. FCC, 1973).
The most significant new ideas often come from the interstices of two fields.
People out in right field or in left field are often completely locked into their own mind-sets and worldviews — which is why so few good ideas come from people with hardened mind-sets. The strength for us at the Democracy Network is that we're not Web designers. Instead, we're trying to blend what we know about politics with what we know about communications.
Everything worth doing has to have a positive social benefit.
Otherwise, why do it? Back in the 1970s, I worked out in principle the idea of a comedy channel. I knew that it could make a lot of money. But once I began to think about it, I realized that I'd rather spend my time on things that have a positive social benefit.
The most important changes are structural changes.
I spent time in Washington trying to implement some significant changes. I was blocked, and I began analyzing why. As I looked deeper, I saw that underlying most political decisions was a river of money. If you want to succeed, you have to address those underlying factors that tilt the playing field.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.