December 16, 2003
Dick Morris And The Tar Pit

I listened to Chris Lydon’s interview with Dick Morris a couple of days ago. If you haven’t gotten into Lydon yet, you should; he’s a great interviewer, and he has talked to a wide range of the most interesting people in the netroots/social software world. However, his chat with Morris is less a window into the mind of a visionary than it is a view into the mind of a dinosaur — trapped in a tar pit and too dumb to even know he’s sinking.

Morris, you see, says that the current brouhaha over netroots and open politics, sparked by the Howard Dean campaign, is a passing thing — that it will be like the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief flowering of hope and anything-goes democracy that will inevitably be ground down by the forces of reaction, in this case the Bush/Cheney juggernaut.

His evidence? Well, Howard Dean has been successful by building a mailing list with half a million e-mail addresses on it — but the RNC has a mailing list with 20-30 million e-mail addresses on it. Game, set, match.

And this is where Morris betrays his dinosaur thinking. The genius of the Dean campaign has not been in collecting contact addresses; campaigns have been doing that since the beginning of time. It’s that they are the first campaign to come up with a credible answer to the question of, what do you do with all those volunteers, besides ask them for money? How do you fire them up?

Dean’s people have used the Net to tie those half million people together into a connected force that is unlike any other that we’ve seen in American politics. (Listen to Lydon’s interview with Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi to see how.) That’s a very different thing than just pushing “We’re great, vote for us” messages down the pipe at people. Half a million truly engaged people are far more valuable than twenty million people who grudgingly consent to listen to you yammer on in an endless one-way spiel about how fantastic your guy is.

This, then, is the tar pit that Morris is stuck in. He makes the by-now-beyond-cliche Dean/McGovern comparison, but fails to recognize the key distinction that this time is different because the terrain has shifted. McGovern had to fight his campaign in a world where everybody got the news from one of three channels and where Walter Cronkite could end his newscast by saying, without irony, “And that’s the way it was.” Could you imagine Tom Brokaw posing today as such an omniscient arbiter of Truth? Aaron Brown? Bill O’Reilly?

Morris touts his Web site,, as an example of the potential of the Web to reshape democracy. But is nothing more than a glorified online poll. “Should Former Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein Face The Death Penalty At His Upcoming Trial?” screams the home page, with buttons labeled “Vote Yes” and “Vote No”. But why should I bother? Is anybody listening when I vote? And even if they are, is this anything new or revolutionary? Isn’t it just “direct democracy” — or, as it’s less kindly known, mob rule? Do we really want our government to have all the wisdom of a typical online poll?

That Morris thinks that this is something revolutionary and that what Dean is doing is nothing special shows his ignorance of what’s really going on. He’s sinking deeper into the tar by the minute. Howard Rheingold titled a chapter in his book Smart Mobs “How to Recognize the Future When It Lands on You”. Something tells me Morris might want to give that one a read.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at December 16, 2003
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