BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

In many ways, it's back to the 1830s. Candidates will canvass voters in their homes; citizens will question politicians in public forums. The big difference: it will all take place on the internet

When Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across the U.S. in the 1830s, the French social observer was struck by both the interest and influence of average citizens in the electoral process. ''The American people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe,'' he wrote in his famous book, Democracy in America.

Today's voters are feeling less potent than those of de Tocqueville's time. The game now in politics is to raise enormous amounts of money from special interests and then spend it on gobs of TV advertising--in which candidates are packaged like beer. Victory goes to the best mass marketer.

But politics is changing once again. Look ahead a few years, and it could well resemble what de Tocqueville saw. The Information Revolution is likely to democratize politics by weakening the elites' grip on information. American voters, instead of being passive recipients of news and advertising from a few TV networks and national publications, will receive information from hundreds of competing sources, such as E-mail lists and Web sites. What's more, interactive media will let them talk back.

In de Tocqueville's America, politics was rowdy and personal: torchlight parades, hard cider, and partisan shouting matches at public debates. It became rather sanitized and distant in the 20th century. But it's getting personal again. In the 21st century, the masses will attend campaign events in cyberspace and exchange insults in online chat rooms. ''There is a huge amount of pent-up political expression in America today that will democratize our culture,'' says Cincinnati marketing-communications executive Richard A. Segal Jr., the Web guru for Republican Presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

The new style of campaigning doesn't take money out of politics. Segal, a master of targeted E-mail lists and other Information Age tools, is using them to drum up support for Forbes, who is hardly a man of the people. Rather, what's going away is the tight link between moneyed interests and the traditional apparatus of party politics. In the ascendancy are single-issue groups that can mobilize their troops with a computer keystroke, and coalitions around causes or candidates. ''It ends up weakening institutional structures,'' says White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. ''That's bad news for party discipline and good news for creativity.''

This disruption of the status quo is not all to the good. For nearly two centuries, two major parties have moderated the public's passions because neither has dared stray too far from the center. If the parties splinter, the U.S. could wind up with a fractured, stalemated Congress and a President preferred by only a small portion of the electorate. To avoid obsolescence, the Democrats and Republicans themselves will have to harness technology to build cohesive blocs of voters from splinter groups.

De Tocqueville would surely recognize the democratic bent of the new politics. ''There is not a country in the world,'' he declared in 1831, ''where man more confidently seizes the future, where he so proudly feels that his intelligence makes him master of the universe, that he can fashion it to his liking.'' ''In essence,'' says Democratic consultant Dane Strother, ''it's back to the future.''

By RICHARD S. DUNHAM

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