On Halloween, former Clinton political consultant Dick Morris dressed up as a populist visionary and went out on the Internet. His new Web site, vote.com, asked visitors to “vote” yes or no on questions such as “Protect Gays from Hate Crimes?” and “Increase the Minimum Wage?” Each time a user clicks a box taking one side or the other, an e-mail is sent to Congress or the White House conveying his e-mail address and his position on the issue. “We’ll send your vote to your congressional representative, your Senators and the President,” Morris promises on the site’s home page. This, he asserts, is “direct democracy.”
Like his past careers as Bill Clinton’s savior, confessor, accuser, and pundit-translator, Morris’ latest incarnation is an act. He’s not building direct democracy. He’s building a rather different political system, which might more aptly be called dickmorrisy. How does dickmorrisy differ from democracy? Let us count the ways.
1. Morris picks the issues. As “Frame Game” has previously explained, the power to choose and craft questions is more profound than the power to choose and craft answers. That’s why other Web sites, such as faqvoter.com, let users pose questions to politicians on any topic. Morris knows that the first rule of politics is to dictate the agenda–and at vote.com, he’s the dictator. So while vote.com asks visitors, “Should Hillary Have Spoken Out when Mrs. Arafat Made Controversial Comments About Israel?”–a no-win question about the woman Morris excoriates elsewhere on the site–it asks no similarly rigged question about Mrs. Clinton’s opponent, Rudy Giuliani.
2. Morris frames the arguments. “On vote.com, you can get the pros and cons on various issues and cast your votes,” CNN’s Bob Franken told viewers two weeks ago. Well, not quite. What you get are the pros and cons Morris chooses to include. Take the question Morris posted Wednesday: “Admit China into the World Trade Organization?” At vote.com, you can click to read a few paragraphs of the arguments on each side about economics and human rights, but there’s nothing about how “engagement” (as one side sees it) or “appeasement” (as the other side sees it) might affect nuclear proliferation–a consideration that might have changed your mind. Morris never links you to sites that offer more detailed arguments than his. He wants you to stay on his site, read his summaries, and pull the trigger.
3. Morris simplifies your views. Morris says vote.com is “fully interactive” and “gives us a chance to speak out and to be heard. When you vote … we’ll send an immediate e-mail to significant decision makers … telling them how you feel.” But while you can explain the nuances of your position on a bulletin board at vote.com (just as you can in Slate’s “Fray“), the only thing Morris lets you communicate to your government is yes or no. On vouchers, for example, I checked the box marked “Yes–Use competition to improve schools,” because I favor pilot voucher programs and public school choice to shake up the education system. My vote was translated into an e-mail to Clinton and Congress stating, “On the question Vouchers for Schools? I voted YES.” Since more than 80 percent of vote.com users have voted yes on this question, Republicans will no doubt cite these “votes,” including mine, as a mandate for nationwide private school vouchers. Morris hasn’t conveyed my opinion. He has misrepresented it.
4. Morris distorts your degree of interest. Morris concedes that vote.com doesn’t represent the whole population (since the average Internet user is wealthier and more educated than the average person, for example), but he argues that it faithfully simulates an election because it expresses the votes of those “who care enough to speak out.” He says he built vote.com “to set up a way for voters to speak out” because “I trust the voters.” Of course, voters already had a way to speak out: They could–and did–write letters and e-mails to the government, but only when they cared enough to do so. The labor and thought that went into those letters helped politicians understand how many voters really cared about an issue and exactly what those voters thought. If Morris truly “trusted the voters,” he would have left this system alone. Instead, by simplifying the “voting” process and flooding politicians with thousands of identical one-line e-mails, he obliterates the distinction not just between my opinion on vouchers and Bill Bennett’s, but also between Bennett’s intense interest in the issue and my faint interest in it.
5. Morris defines where politicians stand. Vote.com “will elevate the dialogue between members of Congress and their constituents to a new level,” writes Morris. “When your congressional representative votes on the issue, we will e-mail you to tell you how he or she voted. Right before election day, we’ll send you a report card listing how they voted on all the topics you voted on.” Morris says the report card will show each voter “what percentage of the time his congressman agreed with him.” Report cards aren’t new–they’re used by the Christian Coalition and other interest groups to reduce complicated issues so that each politician can be labeled “pro-abortion” or “pro-environment.” Report cards don’t transfer power from politicians to voters. They transfer power to the intermediary that gets to characterize how politicians have voted. If vote.com succeeds, Morris will become that intermediary.
6. Morris controls the special interests. Morris says vote.com “will give us all a chance to be heard so our voice gets loud enough to drown out the special interests that run Congress.” Meanwhile, he predicts that “money won’t work in politics anymore, because you won’t be able to reach people by buying television ads,” since “the Internet is taking the place of television in politics.” So if you’re a special interest, where can you take your money to reach the voters? To Morris, of course. He boasts that vote.com is “free” because “we get our money from advertisers.” And who’s going to advertise on a site where people vote on political issues? Why, special interests, naturally. Morris already quotes leaders of groups such as the AFL-CIO in the arguments he summarizes for voters. The more influential these summaries become, the more each interest group will be willing to pay to get its views and quotes into them.
7. Morris represents the Internet. “Edmund Burke, a British statesman, called journalism the Fourth Estate during the French Revolution,” recalls Morris. “We think the Internet is replacing the media, so we call it the Fifth Estate.” But rather than relinquish this catchy title to the whole Internet, Morris claims it for the “magazine” (translation: column) he writes on vote.com. He sees the power center of the future, and he wants to dominate it. When critics ignore or dismiss Morris, he accuses them of ignoring or dismissing the Internet. The White House, citing technical reasons, has capped the number of e-mails it will accept from vote.com each day. Morris, in turn, has charged that “the Internet administration is burning the bridge to the 21st century” and is “discriminating simply because this is over the Internet.” Morris, it seems, has taken his philosophy less from Robespierre than from Louis XIV: l’Internet, c’est moi.
8. Morris controls the voting process. Morris constantly describes his visitors as “voters” who are engaged in “referenda” through vote.com. The site advises them when the “polls” will “close” on each referendum and assures them afterward that “your vote really counted.” Meanwhile, Morris warns the White House against “censoring” the “views of those who vote” through his site, and he advises members of Congress who don’t accept e-mails that “we’ll have to tell their constituents who participate in vote.com referenda that they won’t take e-mail, even from those who elect them.” He also promises to crack the whip on wayward legislators by publishing the “referenda results, broken down by state and congressional district,” in the Hill, a congressional newspaper. By adopting the language of elections (“vote,” “elect,” “referenda”) and by encouraging voters and politicians to treat vote.com as the vehicle through which the public delivers mandates to its leaders, Morris is trying to make vote.com, in effect, the place where people vote. Vote.com would become, as Morris envisions it, the nation’s “town meeting.” And Morris would run the meeting.
Morris, of course, insists that vote.com poses no such threat. “It’s a ballot box,” he says. “It has no point of view.” What a brilliantly innocuous metaphor, devised by a master manipulator to obscure his manipulations. This, it turns out, is the most important difference between democracy and dickmorrisy. The only thing worse than a cacophony of special interests plastering their views all over the nation’s airwaves and legislation is a single special interest that owns the ballot box–and knows how to make itself invisible.