Grassroots Reseeded: Suites vs. Streets
For as long as I can remember, pundits and political reporters have bemoaned low voter turnout and attacked public apathy in elections. But given the paucity of avenues for popular engagement and the myriad ways regular people are cut out of the political process, the remarkable thing isn't how few Americans participate in elections. What's remarkable is how many do.
In the run-up to the 2004 election, Democratic voters seeking Kerry/Edwards yard signs called in to Air America Radio. Exasperated, they called the liberal radio network because they could find no signs at their local party offices (if they could find any local office). The candidates weren't campaigning in their states, and there was no useful information on the Kerry/Edwards website. After John Kerry conceded, the candidates gave high-minded speeches ("This fight has just begun...and we will be with you every step of the way," said John Edwards). But that very day, campaign offices closed, phones were disconnected and exhausted workers were scattered to the winds (some were still owed checks). The massive independent mobilization that thousands of volunteers had been part of evaporated too, as nonparty groups like America Coming Together (ACT) downsized. "Tony from Marin," a caller to RadioNation, told a typical story: "I traveled to Nevada at my own expense with a dozen friends to do something. In the eighteen months since, all the energy and air was let out of the balloon of activism, and I'm finding that now I'm on nobody's active list."
At the level of candidate selection, priority-setting and campaigns, the Democratic Party and its voters had effectively been delinked. The same thing happened the last time a Democrat captured the White House. Reaching voters through TV advertising and direct mail, Bill Clinton won by promising everything to everybody and proceeded to preside over a penthouse party: all top-floor suites, no staircase to the streets, more focused on mobilizing money than people. After 2004, Howard Dean pledged to change all that. Dean, who had tasted the possibilities of the grass- and netroots and caught a glimpse of the party's shambles during his bid for the nomination, ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee promising to launch a "50-state Strategy" to rebuild the party from the bottom up.
Now is when the talk meets the walk. The Deaniacs have come into their own--men and women who were trained in Dean's 2004 campaign are plotting the strategies of all the Democratic front-runners. Dean of the scream is coaching the state parties, and something like the infectious grassroots glee that Dean's supporters felt years ago appears to be animating (especially) Barack Obama's volunteers. Forty years after the coming apart of 1968, could this be the year that Democrats finally permit regular people to play a real role in party politics? Or is a whole new cohort of eager-beaver change-makers signing up for heartbreak?
Talk to the people at the DNC, and it's a brand-new day. At the level of technology, staff and resources, there's been what one staffer described as an extreme makeover. Backed by state and local elected officials, Chairman Dean confounded his Beltway critics when he increased contributions to the party (especially all-important small contributions of "hard" money). By the 2006 midterms, the DNC was paying 183 people to work for forty-nine state parties (between three and four workers per state). For the first time in party history, Democrats had a national, fully functioning computerized voter file accessible through a single user-friendly online tool [see Matt Stoller, page 20]. Just about anyone could slice and dice data and print up-to-date precinct maps from a laptop, and party organizers could communicate with voters through those voters' own social networks, courtesy of software applications like Facebook.
It's not the stuff that turns on political reporters. After all, campaign correspondents don't actually cover campaigns; they cover candidates. Hence the oceans of ink spent on Obama's speaking style, Edwards's energy and Hillary Clinton's emotions or lack thereof. What's ignored in most reporting is what really counts in a tight election: the field game, which is to say, the organizers' skills, their tools, and their own and their volunteers' level of commitment.
"Long-term infrastructure-building isn't sexy, but those who were skeptical are less so now," DNC communications director Karen Finney told me recently. The 2006 midterms, she said, "showed how investing in grassroots pays off." This past May the DNC hired a new political director, David Boundy, who had a history in field organizing for the AFL-CIO. Boundy launched the Neighbor to Neighbor canvassing project, which he hopes will have trained a half-million volunteer leaders by Labor Day.
"You are the grassroots leaders of this party," Dean tells potential volunteers somberly in a DVD shown at house parties. "The linchpin of our plan is you."
But the skeptics haven't quite been vanquished. All this "you" and "us" talk is great. But how does it translate into policy? Is the penthouse party dead or only resting?