October 6, 2003
It is in our nature to lack vision. We are most comfortable when there
is no decision to ponder, no nuance to agonize over. When people of
vision come forward, they usually say the obvious, only we wish we had
thought of it ourselves. Then there are those who take what's been said
all along, and say it a little bit louder. This doesn't take vision, but
it often takes guts.
If a grassroots campaign for the presidency can be cynical, it is Howard Dean's that will do it. It is clear than Dean has thought long and hard about running for president, only he never would have had a chance in hell. Until, of course, George Bush took America down the hellish path of unjustifiable war, and stirred many passions by feebly trying to justify it. Now, with conditions ripe for an angry and energetic appeal to voter pessimism, Dean's calculations have brought him to the front of the wolf pack. Dean has calculated that the powers-that-be are vulnerable, and dangerously out of touch with the people of this country. Dean saw the tens of thousands of people who packed stadiums to hear then 66-year-old consumer advocate Ralph Nader rail against the corporate duopoly. Dean saw the extreme heights that voter apathy had reached, and knew they couldn't get higher. Dean saw the recklessness with which the Bush team disregarded significant segments of the US population and enormous segments of the world community, even if the rest of the Democrats did not see it. Dean saw a vacuum to be filled, and he jumped into it and started throwing punches. Whether or not this is cynical opportunism, those punches needed to be thrown. Dean has had the guts to throw them.
By stepping forward, Dean has accomplished two things: one, he has knocked Bush off his high horse by helping to create an environment where Bush no longer has sacred political advantage in foreign policy or domestic security. The Democrats who don't follow this lead are toast. Second, Dean has mobilized a significant grassroots campaign -- quite possibly a revolutionary one. That it happened through the internet is less important than that it has happened at all. The digital divide, however, is having an enormous impact on his campaign -- and his supporters are currently getting the granola treatment:
"Holding oceans of blue Dean placards at every stop were nearly all white hands, a homogeneity the campaign tried to counter with a rainbow of supporters on stage, which only drew more attention to the lack of diversity in the audience. The feisty crowds were filled with Birkenstock liberals whose loudest ovations always followed Dr. Dean's antiwar riff -- there were few union members, African-Americans, or immigrants." (New York Times, Jodi Wilgoren, August 27, 2003)
This was precisely the reception Nader's campaign got in 2000, even while Nader addressed issues of real importance to America's minority and immigrant populations. The double standard of course being that Gore's campaign, since he was receiving large minority support, must have been addressing their concerns. If it wasn't clear during Gore's campaign that he was taking the support of people of color for granted, it was made clear during the election's aftermath, when Gore tried to save political face at the expense of Florida's disenfranchised voters. And while the Green Party has made significant improvements in terms of reaching out beyond its traditional white middle-class base, the press coverage continues to be dismissive of the Greens as out-of-touch and elitist. And so, Howard Dean, even as he advocates for bridging the digital divide, creates more headaches for the establishment Dems, will get ridiculed as an elitist who is so out of touch with the working class that the working class would be fools to support him. Only, with Howard Dean the man, there is some truth in this. While it would be hypocritical to point out Dean's millionaire status and ignore Nader's, it's a sure bet that Nader uses more of his dough for the social good.
Indeed, there is very little about Howard Dean the man that is inspiring or even appealing. Howard Dean's campaign, however, is an entirely different phenomenon than the man himself.
Grassroots participatory democracy is what Dean's campaign is about, at least as far as his followers are concerned. Their direct impact on his platform and the direction of his campaign are going to exact their mark on Dean and the public perception of Dean. As long as he continues to respect them, his campaign will be about more than Howard Dean the man. My fear, and the fear of many advocates for social justice, is that the second Dean doesn't need the grassroots, he will abandon all respect. Once nominated by the Democratic Party, Dean may have all the establishment support he needs (combined with a potentially unpopular president) to win the White House. Howard Dean wants to be president, and he would likely do what it take to get there. Countless millions of Americans, including millions of progressives, would be thankful that Bush was dethroned. And Dean's supporters would potentially, much like Clinton's, be taken for granted all over again.
There has been a tremendous thirst among those who want Bush out of office for a candidate to coalesce around as early as possible. Neoliberal ("New") Democrats are quaking in their boots at the prospect of Dean being the Dem they have to support, and are ready to abandon their chief spokespeople in the race (Lieberman and Kerry) for the new New Democrat -- Wesley Clark. While the establishment Dems trash Dean for his lack of experience outside quirky Vermont, they will let slide Wesley Clark's complete lack of understanding of domestic policy. Indeed, much like another W., Wesley is a programmable vessel. Voters beware. Covering his bases as well as any other politician, Clark's criticism of Bush seems to have ebbed and flowed with public sentiment. On April 10th: "Liberation is at hand. Liberation -- the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions." And now: "They picked war over law. They picked a unilateralist approach over a multilateral approach. They picked conventional forces over special-operations forces. And they picked Saddam Hussein as a target over Osama bin Laden." Could not this criticism have been made on April 10th? And what lingering doubt has been erased by our "liberation?"
Which brings me back to vision. Howard Dean has been right and outspoken about the Iraq War. Consider him lucky, because right now that's a winning combination. Same too on his grassroots net-savvy campaign. In many arena's Dean has seen things that well-paid political consultants never even imagined. He has maximized all of the potential energy out there and used it to his advantage, building himself quite a strong head of steam going into the autumn campaign season. But to what end? Only time will tell. Until then, and until Dean can address the fundamental flaws of our socio-political condition (and he hasn't), voters beware. 2004 calls for someone with vision.
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The Greens on Swans
Eli Beckerman is a Green Party activist.
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