Political journalism isn’t Jerry Maguire — precious little of it will have you at hello; actually, much of it can’t say goodbye fast enough. Weeks before the new right-wing online salon (not saloon!) Ricochet officially launched, however, my interest was piqued. The rollout began with a freewheeling, fun, and authentically insightful weekly podcast hosted by heavyweights Mark Steyn, Rob Long, and Peter Robinson. Then news of a crazily divergent, absurdly accomplished writer stable began to trickle out. When the website hired American Spectator favorite, Georgetown University doctoral candidate, and Claremont Institute Publius Fellow James Poulos as its managing editor, though, it became clear something special was brewing, a hunch thus far spectacularly borne out.
The genial, spooky-smart Poulos graciously agreed to chat all things Ricochet — a website with an “About” section that notes, perhaps understated for comic effect, “Not everyone on the Internet is interested in a good conversation,” yet whose managing editor nevertheless dreams of establishing as “a place where the trolls are absent, the flame wars don’t flare up, the contributors are top-shelf, and the conversation is never boring.”
TAS: You were Politics Editor at the interesting, short-lived Culture11. Did Culture11 provide any teachable moments on how to successfully enter the center-right swirl?
James Poulos: It’s a much different world now than it was back then. Obama and the Democrats in Congress have done an impressive job of focusing Americans — not just those of us to the right of center — on both the seriousness of the problems we face and the inadequacy of many of the would-be solutions they’ve put forward. A lot of the heartburn and anxiety that bubbled up at the end of the Bush administration has been converted into productive energy now. But at the same time, it’s also gotten easier to speak frankly about the teachable moments handed down to us from the Bush years. So the center-right swirl, as you put it, is at once more navigable and more interesting. Meanwhile, the way people talk to each other on the Internet has been changing. The big articles, blogs, and aggregated news approach does what it does very well, but it’s not optimized for fast-paced conversations that can also go deep. Given Ricochet’s optimization for exactly that, today’s politics and today’s Internet make for almost ideal launch conditions.
TAS: How important is it to the Ricochet mission for the website to have a Code of Conduct — no obscenities, no personal attacks, no all caps missives (“Online, it’s yelling”), scratch “99 percent of conspiracy theories” — that is pretty stringent compared to a lot of political sites?
JP: It’s important. Filtering out lazy, messy, lousy comments makes all the difference between a conversation you want to jump into and a conversation that sends you running for the door. We get the conversations we ask for. On a site where nobody really cares how awful things get in the comments section, guess what? Things get awful, awfully fast. Raising the bar adds a touch of class and makes it contagious, both stylistically and substantively.
TAS: Any hint as to which conspiracy theories might fall under the umbrella of that allowable one percent?
JP: I’ve heard rumors that a vast conspiracy got Betty White on SNL.
TAS: You’ve made clear Ricochet is not an effort to counteract any particular site or movement, or a vehicle to re-brand the right. And skimming the site one quickly discovers a welcome lack of that sort of egotistical hectoring/malice. Obviously, though, to bring a site into existence with an expressed intent of having a better conversation suggests a need has been identified. So how could the factions of the broad center-right better engage one another?
JP: People all across the political spectrum bemoan the way that American politics tends to fracture into contending factions and sub-factions. It’s true that our cultural politics still rewards the kind of agitated niche-making that really came into its own during the ’90s. But more importantly, when you look at what a traditional publication has to do to stay focused, develop an audience, and contribute a relevant voice to the media conversation, it’s got to pick a niche and stick with it. That’s not just another flaw in the system, it’s part of what makes policy arguments work. Think tanks and wealthy patrons want specific views aired and advanced in a sustained, deeply thought out way. That’s great, but that’s not the full story — certainly not online. Ricochet’s not a traditional publication, so our desire to move beyond ideological niche positioning isn’t just a preference. It’s a reflection of what kind of service we’re providing and for whom.
TAS: Few things circa 2010 are sui generis. What bits, blots, and spirits are you drawing upon as models?
JP: There are a lot of good models out there. Facebook, even with its string of modifications. Twitter. Tumblr. They all have alluring elements, and those elements are great at doing some things and less great at others. That’s the market at work — because each one of those sites, to stick with the examples, provides a significantly different service. The now-typical blog format shouldn’t be dismissed, either. Many of its conventions have been widely adopted because they’re intuitive and they work. So you’re right to suggest that most of all it might be a sort of spirit that’s most adoptable and most adaptable. And that spirit is one that sees good conversation as being better integrated and freer flowing than what you can get with the usual blog setup, yet sees little sense in seeking to blow up Internet tradition and start over.
TAS: The Ricochet site advises those “looking for a site dedicated to inside-the-beltway positioning or political public relations” that they’ve “come to the wrong place.” I’m curious, though — after the deluge of the Bush years and the opening salvos of the Obama years, the calls of racism and classism and all the rest, the whole country feels like a bad comment thread at times — how do we do nuance and ideas and philosophy and congeniality at this point?
JP: It’s an important question, because one thing we don’t want — on Ricochet or in our national politics — is placid, tranquilized, robotic interaction, a discussion carried out and supervised by rooms full of lockbox-era Al Gores. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction out there, and many of our most sensitive arbiters of polite conversation are shocked, shocked to see that everyday Americans have the nerve to actually get animated when their country’s on the wrong track. More broadly, it’s almost as if our popular culture is falling into the trap of thinking that only two exaggerated kinds of friendliness exist — driven by phony or superficial respect on the one hand and super-intimate, BFF affinity on the other.
With that kind of misguided view, unscripted, direct encounters — the lifeblood of a healthy representative democracy — seem risky and awkward. Think of the reaction to the town hall events where politicians were put on the spot by normal folks. Sure, a few of those folks were abnormally agitated and strident. They were interested in ranting, not in a pointed conversation that led to judgments and decisions. The kind of friendliness that powers productive conversations like that is fundamental to American democracy — even though we are a country where noisy, rah-rah protests are also common. The ability to talk through the issues that matter without lapsing into catchphrases or snark is a cornerstone of our ability to govern ourselves well, both politically and in talk about politics. It’s essential we remind ourselves that we can do this even when we’re riled up, because the world isn’t about to get more boring, more predictable, or less important. It’s in that spirit that Ricochet invites you to join the conversation.