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Joel Rutstein


R  Wells

I second the sense that technological aspect of Dean's campaign is easily fetishized. And I also think S. Rosenberg's New Democratic Network Blog comments actually raise a warning flag in this regard. As suggested by the Decembrist, what makes technology relevant, or effective, is how its used in the context of an existing balance of ideological forces and on the ground alignments, or, in a related sense, how it is used by emerging ideological forces and alignments to push politics in a certain direction. Rosenberg's comments suggest a narrow, and indeed classically "machine" oriented view: the emphasis seems to be on the methods of gaining power rather than on the actual content of the politics that gets you there and shapes the way you govern. As the still very worthwhile Max Weber essay "Politics as A Vocation" put it, modern professional politics was not so much about ideas, but gaining and keeping the sinecures that come with electoral might (Weber took the Democratic party of Jacksonian America as exemplary). A pessimistic analysis, no doubt; but as Rosenberg seems to see it, what Dean represents is merely a method of getting power and keeping it for New Dems. I suppose its not out of the question: Like Clinton’s campaign, might the grassroots feel of an internet based mobilization provide a sense of “putting people first” so as to get someone (Dean?) elected, only to have them turn Eisenhower Republican once in office?
The thing is, Dean's campaign in an important way is a movement in need of candidate, and Dean's stridency on the War, on the hard rightism of the Bush administration generally, fit the bill. The ideas circulating around amongst the Deanies may be well to the left Dean's own; indeed, this seems to me where a lot of the energy comes from, with the internet helping it out but not determining its ultimate force and destiny. As Dean cycles towards the center--his foreign policy speech, given new urgency by Saddam's capture, suggests that has begun--it will be interesting to see what happens to this energy. Dean may be a bubble, and this may burst it. Still, the endorsement of Afscme and especially Seiu, still pretty brick and mortar outfits (to stick with the business metaphors), and then of Jesse Jackson Jr. and to a lesser degree, that of "I'm coming back home" Al Gore, suggest that some saw, at the very least, opportunity in the figure of Dean to push progressive-populist ideas and politics (beyond Iraq) to the top of the agenda. Win or lose, the longer run impact of the Dean campaign on national party politics and internal democratic politics depends on its cultivation of a lasting coalition between two groups now coalescing around Dean: the middle and upper middle class, probably mostly white, check writing internet based element and the phone banking, more working class, of color, dues paying service and public sector union members. Such cross class power blocs are the stuff of effective politics. But as an example to follow, the Dean experience with the internet thus far could easily fortify another kind of coalition; or for that matter, inspire the short circuiting the one that is now nascent in the Dean campaign. So its not the technology that's political, but who is using it to say and do what for whom. Mcluhanesque notions about the media—here the internet—being the message are the after thoughts of a politics already underway.


I think you've identified the real innovation here, namely the decentralization of the campaign. Everything else just a tool to bring it about. That decentralization confounds modern campaigns AND modern media, having more in common with genuine grassroots and pop culture movements.


I would add that aside from their dwindling numbers, there is another major problem with conventional "mass-membership issue advocacy organizations." Theda Skocpol writes about it in her book "Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life."

Do the members of these organizations do anything other than give money and maybe write an occasional letter to their Senator or representative? Do they actually meet with other members voluntarily and discuss politics and plans of action?

Not really. They never really "built real organizations around loyal memberships." They leave the actual runnings of the organization to the professional staff while their "memberships" are nothing more than cash cows that they spam with mail and phone calls asking for more money.

Dean's decentralized meetups (now continued as Democracy for America) are a bit different in this regard. The meetups have people physically coming together, running their own meetings, discussing politics, deciding what they can do collectively, etc. This is a revival of real civic social interactions, whose decline Robert Putnam writes about.

Conventional mass-membership organizations should use this meetup technology to encourage their members to actually meet with each other and participate more fully in the running of the organizations. Of course, the staffs and boards of most of these organizations will not encourage this because it decentralizes control.

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