deanism: what's next?
A recent post by Peter Frase on his well-written blog raises the question of what, if any, sustained political action will come out of the energy and excitement around the 2004 election. Besides being the overall topic of my Master’s Thesis, this is a question of tremendous importance and a topic of much hand-wringing.
There has certainly been an explosion of new organizations and formations since the Howard Dean campaign swept young people, microserfs, and previously apolitical middle class folks up into a tizzy. This is in addition to the proliferation of lefty blogs and online fora that this website is, in some respects a part of. I was (and am) a Dean supporter, so I mean no disrespect here.
Nonetheless, as Peter notes in his post, it is not clear that there is any there, there, when it comes to the new “movement”. If an organizational model is emerging, it seems to be based on loose, affiliative networks such as Democracy for
There are three basic ways to assess the efficacy of these organizations, keeping in mind that in many respects it is too early get a good read on anything. In no particular order, they are: impact on elections, impact on the Democratic Party and, finally, their ability to help build a progressive majority in American politics.
The first test of this New Model Army was the ’04 Presidential election. It’s difficult to assess what the overall impact was of MoveOn and it’s coterie. Many say that their ads and public statements scared middle-of-the-roaders into supporting Bush. I’m not so sure. I think it is safe to say that a lot more precincts got walked because of their efforts than otherwise would have. They were crucial feeders into labor-run, pavement-pounding efforts like America Coming Together. One could take a bare-knuckles approach and say simply that, in the end, the election was lost. This would be simplistic, however. The Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory cannot be underestimated.
Furthermore, many generations of insurgent activists have rebounded from defeat and had a lasting impact on American politics. The young volunteers who worked for Adlai Steveson in 1956 went on to transform Democratic politics in
This brings us to the other two potential contributions of “Deanism”, their ability to transform the party, and to shift political trends to the left. It is here that their strategic choices will be put to the test. Unlike other historical insurgencies within and around the Democratic Party, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to “take over” or directly control the organs of the Party per se. This may be a smart strategy given the fact the structural and cultural changes that have all-but eliminated Democratic party organization. It may be that there is no party left to take over. On the other hand, conservative activists have certainly done a good job of transforming the Republican Party in their own image. They have effectively eliminated their left wing, with only a small rump of liberal Republican Senators left, and left cowering. Howard Dean’s election as DNC chair was certainly a major victory, but as with all elections, putting the right man (or woman) in place is not enough. Without pressure from below, Howard will have to listen to other benefactors- donors, electeds and consultants. Dean himself has been begging his onetime followers to follow him into the party at the grassroots level. So far, his own organization, Democracy For America, has not been facilitating such a strategy. If they are not going to take over the party, then, the strategic choices made by their new, “outside” organizations are crucial. Nearly all of them are gripped by some level of schizophrenia about their relationship to the party and to electoral politics.
I agree with Peter, as well as other readers and commenters on hoverbike, that we should not abandon the tradition and strategy of deep organizing. Nor should we assume that a couple of smart, media-savvy middle-class technicians at MoveOn HQ in
In a sense, this conundrum is not so different than that faced by the anti-globalization movements.
Again, it is too early to tell for sure what will come of all of this. However, it is also too early to readily dismiss the new activism. Sophisticated electoral operations like the ones promoted by Progressive Majority are racking up successes. Organizations which primarily do community-electoral organizing are utilizing some of the tactical innovations of the new-economy based political work. Case and point is SF’s Power Pac. I, too, miss the deep organizing and ideologically-grounded organizational homes I used to have. We must admit, however, that these models are not fairing well themselves, from declining membership in Swedish Social Democracy to the almost complete disintegration of Peter and my alma mater, DSA.
I, for one, am hoping (and working) for momentum, and not just a moment.
A link replicated from Peter's Blog worth passing on: Geoff Kurtz on two books from the new political order.