Does Dean for America have a second act? That’s the question a lot of people have been asking after the collapse of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Not so much because they’re interested in the former Vermont governor’s personal trajectory but because something unusual just happened in American politics: A couple of hundred thousand people put their hearts, minds, mousepads and checkbooks together and drove an insurgent to the center of the political process. In doing so, they forced the rest of the Democratic field to adopt their message, style and values. Perhaps even more important, they got a taste of their own power. “We all felt the muscle flex of this new progressive movement and were stunned by it,” Nicco Mele, Dean’s webmaster, told me recently at the Politics Online conference at George Washington University. “Everybody wants to carry that forward.”
But no one knows exactly how. Maverick populist candidacies always generate important ripple effects–like the many black mayors elected in the wake of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 run. But it’s awfully hard to bottle political lightning. John Anderson didn’t even try after his 1980 independent run, leaving his supporters orphaned. Jackson actively discouraged the continuation of vibrant grassroots-driven Rainbow Coalition state chapters after 1988, preferring to centralize control in what became little more than a leadership PAC. Jerry Brown’s 800-number callers and $100 donors (he refused to take more) were never knitted into anything after 1992. Ross Perot drew about 1.5 million dues-paying members into United We Stand America in 1993, but then his authoritarian leadership–Congressional district coordinators couldn’t even get a list of phone numbers of local supporters out of Dallas–rapidly drove that group into the dust.
But this time, there’s a new ingredient: the Internet and all the capacities for bottom-up and lateral networking it offers. “The cat is out of the bag,” says Scott Heiferman, CEO of MeetUp.com, the social software tool used so effectively by Dean to bring together tens of thousands of supporters. “The people have it in their brains that they can organize themselves.” Not only that; both by design and by accident, Dean’s core staff really did share a lot of power with their base. If you want to find out who in your ZIP code signed up as a Dean supporter, you can get many of their names at Deanlink and even send them an e-mail. If you want to post an announcement about an upcoming event, you can freely comment on Dean’s blog. No major campaign in US history, to my knowledge, has ever ceded this much control to its base.
Thus, to glimpse where all this goes next, you have to look beyond the efforts of a few leaders and wade through a sea of Dean-inspired activist networks that are basically hubs of independent Democratic activism. For example, the network of Dean’s house-party coordinators is deciding whom they’ll raise money for now: John Kerry, the DNC, local candidates or 527s. At MyVoteIsMyVoice.com, activists are putting together a summertime “Deanfest” for thousands of progressives around the Democratic convention in Boston. Britt Blaser, an open-source developer, is assembling a nonprofit, Open Republic, to collect and refine the movement’s innovative tools, the better to assist lower-level candidates. If anything, the biggest problem for these post-Dean ripples is coordinating their efforts without a strong center guiding them.
It’s too soon to say if Dean, or his visionary campaign manager, Joe Trippi, will be able to play that role. Trippi was first out of the gate, announcing Change for America, a follow-on effort, at the beginning of February. But so far, apart from launching a lively weblog and gathering a couple of dozen core Dean staffers at his Maryland farm for a weekend of brush-clearing and manifesto-drafting, he hasn’t taken any formal steps. A promised series of citizen summits in major cities has been delayed.
Then there’s Dean himself, who has just announced the creation of Democracy for America, complete with a website and blog, which looks very much like his old campaign. Dean has promised to travel the country promoting grassroots politics and progressive candidates and has already announced partnerships with SEIU and AFSCME (the two major unions that endorsed him), as well as 21st Century Democrats, a group that recruits and trains candidates. But the details are still sparse.
There’s evidence that Dean has inspired a wave of new aspirants to public office. Zephyr Teachout, Dean’s director of Internet organizing and outreach, told me she’s counted at least 100 Dean-inspired candidates running for office, ranging from the Dekalb, Indiana, County Council to Congress. More are popping up each day on a Yahoo! groups list called Democratic Wings, where they share ideas, tactics and resources. These new leaders are a direct outgrowth of Dean MeetUp local coordinating committees that are still active. “The power of the MeetUp model,” says Teachout, “is that it generates these steering committees and draws out volunteers with talents, something that never happens with canvassing operations or direct mail.”
This suggests that worrying about the lack of a strong center may not matter, as emergent self-activating and self-organizing people may find equally valid ways to knit themselves together. And the bottom-up Dean experience may have taught a whole cohort of activists that politics is more satisfying when you’re in the driver’s seat. Chris Finnie, a Californian active in a group of several hundred self-described “Dean Leaders,” says that having seized the tools and opportunities the campaign presented them with, few are willing to go back to just coughing up money for various causes and candidates. “We’ve discovered we can do more than that,” she says. Recently, she said, she got an e-mail pitch from the Democratic National Committee that rubbed her the wrong way. “They view the Dean campaign as a study in how to use the Internet to raise money from a whole new group of donors. We view it as a tool that empowers people to take back their political voice and power.”