Being John McLaughlin

Being John McLaughlin

Being John McLaughlin

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 13 1999 3:30 AM

Being John McLaughlin

Where can you talk (OK, yell about) politics on the Net?

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

When presidential candidates brag about their "dialogue with the American people," as they inevitably do, what they really mean, of course, is their "monologue at the American people." They orate, you write a check. This is not conversation, it is a sales pitch. (The candidate's idea of give and take is you give, I take.) Even the much-vaunted campaign Web sites allow visitors no more engagement than sending an e-mail off into the inky void.

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But it is an Internet axiom that there are no one-way streets. For Netizens, a "national conversation" requires actual discussion. There are plenty of Web sites that will feed you political information--see Jack Shafer's " The Lazy Man's Guide to Political Obsession" for the best--but where can you go on the Net to debate, bicker, blab, argue, spar, kvetch, or just plain gossip about the presidential campaign? Where can you play John McLaughlin to another cybergabber's Jack Germond?

The first stop is Usenet, where dozens of political newsgroups are gearing up for Iowa and New Hampshire. Alt.politics.election is the most fertile of these bulletin boards, but other heated campaign confabs can be found at alt.politics.republicans, alt.politics.liberal, alt.politics, alt.politics.usa, alt.politics.media, us.politics, alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater, and others. (If you're not used to Usenet, you can access the groups at Deja.com.)

Newsgroupies aren't yet fixated on 2000, so to find campaign chat you'll have to bypass endless threads about Waco, the Brooklyn Museum, Jesse Ventura, and Masonic conspiracies. But once you do find it, the Usenet campaign talk is a tonic. At their best, the groups spin off both Al Frankenesque quips and high-minded colloquies about campaign platforms. On alt.politics, for example, a couple of dozen folks spent several days drilling down on Bill Bradley's health-care proposal. Meanwhile, "Athanaric" capped an alt.politics.republicans debate on George W. Bush's alleged cocaine use with an endorsement of a powderhead president: "Stoners ... just sit around hitting the bong, watching CNN, and sending Secret Service guys out to bring back some Taco Bell. Real cokehead politicians would be running around getting things done. You can't sit still and be lethargic after doing a fat rail! I'm for Bush here." (It must be admitted that there is a lot more quipping than wonking in these debates.)

The newsgroupies are wonderfully vitriolic. Many of the discussions are flame wars, and almost all are uncivil. (Conservatives are the clear champions: A thread titled "Republicans shoot American children in the back" is easily trumped by "Democrats believe in raping their own daughters.") But the intimacy of the newsgroups frequently borders on claustrophobia. You'll see the same names and the same harangues over and over if you stay too long in a group. And Usenet attracts more than its share of obsessives (most are garden-variety Waco conspiracists or anti-Clinton loonies). Many threads that begin by analyzing Al Gore's campaign end by denouncing the "Vice Criminal" and the "First Rapist."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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For less rant and more substance, head to the political Webzines. Slate'sown forum, " The Fray," always has several active campaign threads, usually pegged to " Ballot Box" or " Frame Game" columns. Because The Fray is linked to specific, campaign-related articles, it tends to stick to the election and not meander off into conspiracy land. Salon also has lively campaign chat in its " Table Talk" section: It tends to be more conversational but less focused than The Fray (he says unbiasedly).

The portal sites are trying to grab a share of the campaign palaver, too. Yahoo! hosts several dozen political discussion "clubs." Most claim only a handful of members (e.g., Republicans for Bill Bradley), but some of the larger ones are quite lively, especially " Fear and Loathing on Campaign 2K" and " Campaign Techniques," where they were debating whether candidates should ever make campaign promises when I visited. MSN offers a similar array of Web communities, though they are far less active. Both CNN and MSNBC are chockablock with political bulletin boards, though they too are tepid.

Sadly, otherwise abundant political sites such as Political Junkie don't embrace conversation. Only Primary Diner has a forum worthy of the name. I learned more about the pros and cons of the front-loaded primary season from the prattlers at Primary Diner than I have from years of C-SPAN watching.

When you tire of the staidness and bipartisanship of the mainstream BBSs, invade the free-fire zones of FreeRepublic.com and Lucianne.com. These are the spawning grounds of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. FreeRepublic gained a modest name for itself during the Lewinsky scandal as a haven for Clinton haters, and Lucianne.com is the queendom of Lewinsky doyenne Lucianne Goldberg. Lucianne and FreeRepublic serve presidential chat laced with arsenic. Specially targeted: George W. for conservative flaccidness and Gore for enviro-kookiness. (These sites are proudly conservative, except when it comes to intellectual property law. They reprint articles--or huge chunks of articles--from other publications without seeking copyright permission.)

You can also conduct your 2000 debates purely by e-mail on a politics listserv. The listserv I'm on--subscribe by sending the message "sub politics [your name]" to listserv@aloo.netaxs.com--has not yet focused on the campaign, but will as Iowa and New Hampshire beckon. (You can search for political listservs at L-Soft. Please tell us if you find a great one.)

The presidential candidates are beginning to acknowledge all this online campaign talk, if only halfheartedly. Most of them have participated in live chats at MSNBC or CNN.com. (Read the transcripts of the better CNN chats here. Look for the Allpolitics section toward the bottom of the page.) But the chats are basic Q and A's: Chatters ask routine questions, the candidate types back a canned response. It's too bad the candidates' lone exposure to Internet talk is so denatured, so polite, and so very dull. They could learn something--not much, perhaps, but something--from the lively, nasty online discussions they're missing.