Virtual Democracy and Computer-Mediated Political Communication (CMPC): The Role of the Clinton White House in Facilitating Electronic Democratization and Political Interactivity

by Kenneth L. Hacker, Ph.D.
Department of Communication Studies, New Mexico State University


This paper reports an analysis of the Clinton White House system of computer-mediated communication between American citizens and the White House.

While empirical in intent and exploratory by the nature of the topic, the analysis evaluates the White House system in relation to communication theory and political theory.

With a review of sociological, large-sample user data gathered by system designers, interview data, and qualitative small-sample user data, the author makes the following generalizations about the system.

The logic of the White House system centers on the premise that electronic democratization is possible and has begun, yet will take many years to have its positive effects on citizen empowerment empirically visible. Various forms of empirical data indicate that the White House system effectively provides an easy channel for citizens to access government documents and to send electronic mail to the president or other administration staff. However, there is little support at this time for claims that the system has contributed to electronic democratization or democratization in general.

Theoretically, it is possible that if sociotechnical designs move toward greater political interactivity, it will be possible to use the system for socializing citizens into more political participation. This is a positive possibility that requires more focus and political will. The objective of this paper is to extend previous analyses of the use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) to extend electronic democratization, by describing and evaluating the progress made in the design and use of the Clinton White House Electronic Mail System (and its accompanying system of document retrieval). Differing layers of data are examined and summarized. These layers include questions asked to designers of the system, sociological data contextualizing the system, user survey data gathered by the system designers, and exploratory observations of user reactions made by this researcher. These various data are juxtaposed with communication theory and political theory in order to make generalizations about the system's contribution to electronic democratization.

The analysis attempts to avoid definitive generalizations about the system in favor of noting the philosophical and sociotechnical aspects of its development in relation to theoretical propositions regarding democracy and participation of citizens within a democracy. This entails addressing the objectives of the designers, the empirical realities of current usage, struggles for future directions, and potentials for contributing to new forms of political communication and citizen empowerment. Included here are an analysis of system development and a suggested framework for building more effective political interactivity.

This paper was presented the Political Communication division of the Speech Communication Association, November, 1996.


This page revised last on April 27, 1998.