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.