Net Election


{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}
By Dick Morris
Renaissance Books, 237 pages, $22.95

As a political pundit, Dick Morris has learned that making fanciful predictions is essentially a no-lose proposition. Audacious speculation is popular entertainment that encourages more media attention. And by the time you’re proved wrong—as Morris’ forecasts are more often than most—no one remembers anything you said.

Morris has now applied his brand of political forecasting to cyberspace. His newest book speculates that in the near future, the Internet will take power away from out-of-touch elected officials, lobbyists, and the news media and give it back to “the people.” His central assertion is that this will occur through the phenomenon of online elections, which Morris believes will eventually become so powerful that they will usher in a new form of popular government, a sort of cross between California’s initiative process and the audience polls on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Morris prophesies nothing less than a transformation of our system of government from a Madisonian model of representative democracy to a Jeffersonian model of direct democracy.

The basic flaw in Morris’ thinking is that there is no thinking. He comes up with a glib idea and asserts it as an inevitable certainty. He advances no arguments, considers no objections, and presents no evidence. Morris simply asserts, in a variety of ways, that online voting (by which he actually means online polling rather than online voting in legally binding elections) will bring all good things to pass. He contends that electronic democracy will return young people to politics, reduce the power of money in campaigns, vaporize the power of the press, and compel elected officials to be responsive to their constituents. By the end of his utterly indigestible book, he hasn’t given you a single reason to agree with anything he says.

It’s all the more frustrating, then, that Morris has stumbled across a truly interesting wrinkle in political theory. The 18th-century debate between advocates of representative democracy and supporters of direct or assembly-type democracy was essentially pre-empted by practical problems. In any democratic governing unit larger that the Greek polis or the New England village, there has never been any feasible way for citizens to deliberate and decide without delegating authority to representatives. The Internet reopens this debate by making direct democracy on a large scale both theoretically and practically possible. Under what circumstances some form of more direct democracy might be desirable is a subject ripe for philosophical and practical analysis.

Morris, however, goes nowhere near such questions. He sidesteps the issue of whether we should rewrite the Constitution to get rid of Congress by assuming that Internet plebiscites will function as superpolls rather than as legally binding votes. But he assures us that the results of these “elections” will be so compelling that legislators will be unable to ignore them. Strong statements from the citizenry, broadcast over the Internet, will erode representatives’ Burkean power of conscience and make them into Rousseauean vessels of the popular will.

Polling does indeed make public opinion more powerful, simply by letting representatives know what their constituents really think. But the Internet doesn’t do anything to make elected officials’ knowledge of public opinion either more complete or more decisive. Morris expresses hostility toward traditional polling, complaining that it “has moved away from being statistically representative of the general population.” But he doesn’t explain why he thinks conventional polls are getting worse or, more important, why his version of Internet voting is better. In truth, it’s just the reverse. As Chris Suellentrop explained in this “Net Election” column, Morris’ kind of “election” is simply a statistically invalid kind of polling.

Such biases only make sense when you realize that professional pollsters are Morris’ competitors and that his book is more business plan than political tract. Morris and his wife have started a company with the same title as his book. conducts what it calls online elections every day and generates prefabricated e-mail messages to elected representatives. That makes the venture sound more elevated than it really is. Monday’s question, for instance, was, “Do You Believe JonBenet Ramsey Was the Victim of an Intruder?” (“No! Someone in the Ramsey family is responsible” won 76 percent to 24 percent over “Yes! Her parents had nothing to do with her death.”) The site then sends the “opinions” of the people who voted to relevant elected officials. In this case, that means spamming Boulder, Colo., District Attorney Alex Hunter with 14,000 worthless messages. Why bother? I think even a crude populist like Morris would agree that criminal prosecutions shouldn’t be put up to a vote.

As William Saletan noted in a “Frame Game” column, Morris’ model of democracy theoretically gives immense power to people who write the questions and frame the issues, i.e., Morris himself. In practice, however, his model of democracy is nothing more than a slightly sinister version of the audience polling that’s part of many daytime talk shows. Officials respond to Morris’ robot-generated spam with automatic responses of their own, if they bother to answer at all. Their computers talk to his computers. His political “revolution” amounts to nothing more than a new kind of junk mail.

Dick Morris has transformed himself from political Svengali to Internet guru, but the slightly cracked egotism remains. His vision of the political cyberfuture isn’t Utopia. It’s Me-topia.