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Previously in Web Citations:

Revenge of the Wizards

Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.

Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!

Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.

A Penny for Your 'pinion

Ben Auburn on what Epinions.com learned from the Weblog, and what Webloggers may be learning about the Web. (Hint: it has something to do with money.)

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Forget Windows, or even Linux. The defining artifact of the Information Age may be the chain e-mail. A testimonial by Nicholas Confessore.

The Addiction Addiction

The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

The Great Divide

The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson

More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.

December 1, 1999

Vote.com If nothing else, Dick Morris is a master of self-reinvention. Less than a year after his sexual peccadilloes knocked him from the peak of political strategydom, Morris morphed into a Sharp-Tongued Pundit, publishing a best-selling political memoir, Behind the Oval Office, and signing on as a New York Post columnist and a commentator at the Fox News Channel (both owned by Rupert Murdoch). With his recent book The New Prince -- which seeks to convince readers that his own principle-free pragmatism is the politics for the twenty-first century -- Morris edged closer, at least in his own mind, to the status of Beltway Wise Man. Now, with the launch of Vote.com (and a new book of the same title), Morris has adopted yet another public persona: Voice of the People.

The premise of Vote.com is simple. "The Internet is filled with chances for us to listen and read," the introduction explains. "This site gives us a chance to speak out and to be heard." What this means, essentially, is that Internet users can go to Vote.com and take part in an online poll. "Should the Ten Commandments be Posted in Public Schools?" "Should Kids who Kill be Tried as Adults?" "Should Hillary Have Spoken Out when Mrs. Arafat Made Controversial Comments About Israel?" You decide! After tabulating the results, Vote.com will send a tally to the relevant politician, bureaucrat, or other public official, and The People Will Have Spoken.

Yet Vote.com says far more about pollsters and the politicians who hire them -- and the politics that pollsters and politicians together promulgate -- than it does about voters. Vote.com is based on two assumptions. The first is that all issues can be boiled down to two opposing sides, complete with two opposing sets of arguments and two opposing sets of facts. For instance, should China be admitted to the World Trade Organization? Click "Yes!" if you think "It's good for trade, human rights and the rule of law"; click "No!" if you think we should "Make Beijing clean up their act first." If a Vote.com user desires more information on China, he or she can click on additional links to "The Facts," pro and con, and "The Arguments," pro and con -- but what those links lead to is at best rehashed press releases from Amnesty International or Trent Lott, and at worst dry argument summaries detached from any sort of social or historical context. What the columnist E. J. Dionne has called "the politics of false choices" is in full bloom at Vote.com, which casts all issues into dialectical boxes that do little to advance serious critical thinking by the average citizen. It's ironic, then, that Morris has named the site's forthcoming online magazine The Fifth Estate (ostensibly because the press, which Edmund Burke termed the Fourth Estate, is being replaced by the Internet) -- if anything, the failings of Vote.com serve to remind us of the value of a restless, independent media that provides citizens with a truly reliable means to stay informed.

Ultimately, however, Vote.com's second big assumption is far more pernicious than the first. Unlike the Founders -- who abhorred, with good reason, the thought of a plebiscitary democracy -- Morris believes that the right decision on any given question can be deduced by taking a poll. There are no first principles for Morris, a man who has written (in The New Prince) that when a President's approval rating "dips below 50 percent, he is functionally out of office." If 51 percent of Vote.com surfers vote yes for slavery, we can only assume that Morris and his staff would duly send on a memo to Jesse Helms urging him to reopen U.S. relations with the Sudan. What the voters want, after all, the voters get.

--Nicholas Confessore

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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Nicholas Confessore is a staff writer at The American Prospect.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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