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The political legacy of Howard Dean

The presidential campaign of the Vermont upstart is finished, but did his grassroots strategy and Internet savvy change the political process?

Peter Tupper 16 Feb
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A lot can happen in a few months.

In late 2003, Dr. Howard Dean was the most exciting thing in politics. For North American progressives, he was the great hope, not just to defeat President George W. Bush in November, but to change the way the political process worked.

The Vermont governor's insurgent campaign raised an unprecedented amount of funding through online contributions, and also built great grassroots support through thousands of local meetings and house parties, facilitated by and other online social tools. People who would never have taken part in a campaign donated and volunteered. Dean's staff published web logs with daily updates. Dean won the straw primary managed by online activism group Instead of the top-down, centre-out model of politics as usual, the Dean campaign was an example of social networking enabled by technology.

Then the serious election season began, and the Dean bubble burst. In January 2004, Dean came in third in the Iowa caucus and second in the New Hampshire primary. In Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, Senator John Kerry won again in the race for the Democratic nomination, and Dean came in a distant third, the latest of a string of defeats. Dean had pegged his hopes on a win in Wisconsin, and promptly withdrew as a candidate.

How viral are Dean's methods?

Now that the Dean campaign has foundered against the electoral system, does it mean that the new style of Internet-enabled politics was a repeat of the dot-com boom-bust, another case of the Internet believing its own hype? Or is there still life in the idea of people using the Net to become politically active?

Among Dean's supporters and admirers here in Canada, some of the liability goes to technology, or rather overestimating what the technology could do.

Stephen Legault, executive director of, a group that builds custom software for conservation groups, says, "The problem with the Dean campaign isn't the tool, it's the delivery. No amount of fancy gadgets and whizz-bang online are going to make up for a failure of the candidate to connect with the voters. I think we're seeing a really good example of that with Dr. Dean's campaign. He was the early frontrunner because he was able to generate a lot of money, which is something that we in Canada should definitely be looking at, and generate a lot of on-the-ground support. But that support didn't translate into delegates, and that's what counts when it comes to American politics."

Greg Nelson, senior managing partner at CTSG, a software firm that sells solutions to progressive groups, concurs. "Even with this incredible communications mechanism they had that was national, they weren't able to counteract the effect of the nightly news, the newsmagazines, the weeklies and the daily papers that were all writing about whether or not Howard Dean was electable." How the traditional media judged the Internet's favourite candidate was still a factor.

Politics, internet not an easy mix

Jason Mogus, president of Vancouver-based web firm, sees the Dean story as a clash of cultures. "What Howard Dean and the social network movement did does not easily align with the way modern political parties run and make decisions. They tend to be very closed systems. It takes a long time to get into the inner circle and be part of the power structure."

"I think what [Dean] did is, he engaged a lot of new people in politics that aren't part of the institution, and then the system moved into the institution, and those people aren't in the institution, so of course he didn't win. Those people that are supporting him, that were excited and engaged through those social networking tools, are not part of the institutional structure that chooses a candidate. Will they become that in four years? That's the big question between now and then."

Another problem was, as Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil said, "All politics is local." Dean's support was built through the Internet, where location is irrelevant.

Nelson explains: "I think the number one reason, though, is that Dean's success was built around the fact that they were able to nationalize the campaign very early on, and martial the resources of supporters across the country to help him surge to the front.

"But the Democratic primary, especially the way it's set up this year, is totally local, and particular issues for Iowans and New Hampshirans may be different than what the national Dean supporters were looking at and why they supported this candidate. At the end of the day, the fact that he had... hundreds of thousands of donors, raising the most money at that stage ever for a Democratic nominee, was less important than the fact that he had a hard time convincing more than 50,000 Iowans to vote for him."

The Net is good at linking people through their interests and affinities. However, the Canadian and American election systems are strongly geographical, as shown by the parliamentary ridings and the electoral college. From a technical viewpoint, you can view this as a form of measuring by sampling. If the support is deep enough in a few key areas, it's probably deep enough overall. 

Dean campaign moved debate

Even though it may fail in its stated goal of getting Dean in the White House, the Dean campaign has had a significant impact on the American political scene.

First, Dean changed the terms of the debate, moving the centre to the left for other Democratic candidates. Says Mogus, "You've got John Kerry... a multi-decade senator, who has been part of the establishment, now talking about anti-war and now talking about America's role in the world, in a way that he wasn't six months ago. So, all those people that were engaged through the online medium and in Dean's campaign [and] gave their $10, $20, $50, should be really proud of the changes they've caused, which is what we're really looking for."

Second, the campaign energized and interested a lot of people who would not have been involved otherwise. Nelson sees the Dean campaign as a success just by existing. "Dean was able to mobilize supporters and help them find each other and find people in their local area that agreed and thought the same ways as they did about issues as they did. He gave them something to do, which is get involved, to come to house parties, to donate money and to generally turn what was a very small, virtually unknown small state governor's campaign, an insurgent campaign, into the front runner, and for six to eight weeks, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party, [which] is an amazing accomplishment."

Third, the Dean campaign didn't just exploit a new communications medium. It changed the content of that communication, by listening to the people's messages instead of only delivering its own. Mogus sees this as a change with lasting implications. "I'd say online is once again at the forefront of pushing the new ideas, and it's not quite big enough to win but it's certainly big enough to affect the mainstream. [The Dean campaign] certainly raised the bar and every single politician worth their salt in the western world is taking a much more serious look at how online is part of their strategy."

Canadians are slow learners

Here north of the border, we have our own political struggles. However, the style of politics facilitated by technology hasn't taken hold yet.

Mogus, who hosts an annual conference on technology and politics called Web of Change, sees Canada and the U.S. as ready for a change: "There are vast, vast groups of disaffected and disengaged citizens in both countries, and the province of British Columbia is not too dissimilar in this way. There's a regressive and repressive far right government in power, that has control of the media, and is not allowing or encouraging any dissent. Online is a free medium still, and I think you're going to see similar activity in this province, around real grassroots organizing supported by technology. I don't think it shows that we should forget about grassroots social networking. It shows that it's a new and emerging area that is important to pay attention to."

Can Canadian political parties and NGOs adapt to a new way of operating? Mogus observes that large organizations are reluctant to change. "We see this all the time with big companies or more traditional institutions. They want to do what MoveOn did, they want to do what Howard Dean did, but they're not prepared to actually change the way they operate or they treat people or they engage people. These things are not about the tools. It's about how you connect and engage people that works for them."

COPE gets it, Gordo doesn't

Mogus says that a few Canadian politicians show signs of having learned about the new style of communication, such as Vancouver's COPE and the federal NDP, which now has a small presence on "I would say that COPE in the Vancouver city election had it, and still do. It's the NDP's advantage to lose, because [Premier Gordon] Campbell will not get it. Command and control systems do not work with social networking technology. They are oil and water."

"What interests me the most about this whole story, is the fact that in Canada, we're not doing it," says Legualt. "We have an election coming in two months.... We don't have a whole lot of time to get organized. We certainly don't have the lead time that the people with Dr. Dean have had to put tools to use and help organize.

"My challenge to Canadian political parties is, what are you going to do in order to learn about the triumph of organization the Dean campaign has had and some of the mistakes they've made? How are we going to translate what our neighbours to the south have done to the Canadian political system?"

"There go the people. I must follow them." That quote is usually attributed to Alexander-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the leader of the French Revolution of 1848.

Likewise, Dr. Howard Dean's campaign recognized the latent political force in the citizens alienated from the usual process and capitalized on that. In doing so, he went around the usual channels of government and media power, demonstrating that there is an alternative to politics as usual.

Although Howard Dean will be consigned to the realm of the Dvorak keyboard, the electric car and other things that "should have won," he made that much of a contribution to democracy.

Peter Tupper first wrote about the Dean campaign, politics and the Internet for The Tyee last year.  [Tyee]

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