Electronic meetings and democracy

Read the original editorial as it appeared in The Daily Progress, April 5, 2020.

Megan's note: I wish I had written this. It's perfect.

Opinion/Editorial: Democracy's health also must be shielded

Local governments are charting new territory in their move to electronic meeting forums.

It’s important that they get this right. They are making changes that go to the very heart of participatory democracy.

First, let’s be clear: The COVID-19 health crisis is a serious one, and it demands serious responses. For this emergency especially, the best thing to do for our health is to limit personal contact with one another. From this perspective, then, governments are to be commended for acting quickly and resourcefully to come up with alternative ways of holding meetings.

Second, we are fortunate to be living in a time where such alternatives exist.

Although the interconnectedness of our society is one of the factors that has enabled COVID-19 to spread so rapidly, that same connectivity also gives us the means to devise workarounds. It was not all that long ago when electronic meetings would not even have been possible, much less implemented so quickly and efficiently.

Still, there are some dangers inherent in the switch to electronic meetings — perhaps not in the least because they do seem to be so clean, quick and efficient.

Democracy, as has often been said, is messy. We embrace that untidiness, however, because in the long run it leads to a system in which more people have more say in how their government is run.

Just as complaints have arisen over “elitism” in the move to electronic learning from kindergarten through college, so, too, is there a potential problem with electronic meetings being available only to those wealthy and empowered enough to have access to computers and to the internet.

Access isn’t a new issue: Some critics already say that the current system excludes some citizens simply because working people don’t have the time or money to show up in person at meetings to make themselves heard.

Who knows? Perhaps those who have electronic connection capabilities at home, but lack the time to drive to and sit through meetings, might eventually benefit from a hybrid system that allows more interactive participation via an online meeting format.

But keep in mind, too, that part of what makes our democracy work is the ability to look our leaders in the eyes and demand answers from them, to insist on personal accountability. It is the ability to see our fellow citizens in action and get a better understanding of their ideas and motives. It is the ability to be enlivened and challenged by the energy of a public meeting, which is always more powerful in person than in an electronic setting.

Taking away these elements may artificially sanitize public meetings and strip them of an element of their humanity. Personal accountability among all of us as neighbors, fellow taxpayers, fellow citizens is just as important as personal accountability between citizens and their leaders. Both types are undermined by the distancing necessitated when electronic meetings replace physical gatherings.

Again, we don’t want to negate that necessity, or look for problems where there are none. Emergency measures are needed for now. There is some indication that congregating in groups intensifies the potential virus load and could make people more vulnerable to infection, so of course responsible leaders would want to mitigate or eliminate that risk.

But while avoiding personal contact is important to our physical health at this time, it is not ideal for the health of our democracy over the long run.

Our leaders must commit to a return to open meetings at shared locations just as soon as the all-clear is given. Electronic meetings might protect them from the discomfort of confronting their critics in person. But democracy cannot thrive in such an environment.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <h2> <h3> <h4>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.