News & Politics

Facing the Pain

Howard Dean discusses what he learned from his grassroots campaign - and how, no matter how painful it is, change must happen in the Democratic Party.
This interview is excerpted from the forthcoming book by AlterNet, "Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics." It will be available in March, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Howard Dean wants to remake the Democratic Party. Perhaps he already has, to some degree. The physician, former governor of Vermont and 2004 presidential candidate made waves during last year's primary season when he rewrote the book on how to run for president, using the Internet for unprecedented grassroots funding and effective two-way communication with his supporters.

After the election Dean formed Democracy for America, with the objective of helping concerned citizens run for office, with some success. Now he's one of a half a dozen "candidates" vying to take over the reins of the Democratic National Committee and the party apparatus – in an election by approximately 440 party types on February 10th.

In his quest to lead the Democratic National Committee, Dean is still shaking things up – by applying his bottom-up approach to the very top-down DNC. It seems clear that with Dean at the helm of the DNC, local party officials may well have more resources and tools to do battle with the Republicans.

AlterNet talked with Howard Dean in December.

Don Hazen: What can we learn from what the conservatives have done organizing the Republican Party?

Howard Dean: The conservatives have very efficient coordination among the think tanks, the training institutes, their media messages and their grassroots efforts. We don't do that. Rob Stein has been showing an important PowerPoint [presentation] demonstrating how the Republicans' model is so effective. It is very convincing. We have a lot of the infrastructure we need, but we don't coordinate. And despite some successes by America Coming Together (ACT), we are way behind the Republicans in the field. We had the best field organizing I remember seeing in this election. We had thousands in the streets in Ohio, but the Republicans had 14,000 homegrown people in the party doing the work there.

Yes, the Republicans have effective grassroots – churches, legion halls, gun clubs, chambers of commerce. What do you see on the Democratic side that can challenge the conservatives at the base?

We can do the same as they do with unions, with more moderate churches and efforts like our Democracy for America, where we engaged people to run for office. We only raised about $5-$6 million this time, but we can do much more, and a bunch of our people who have never run for office before won.

People learned from a lot of the innovations from our campaign – we did the Internet, we blazed the trail for grassroots fundraising, but the most important innovation in our campaign ... we learned to use ideas from bottom up – wasn't tried in the Kerry campaign. We truly learned from the grassroots of our campaign.

Can you give me an example of how that happened?

Well, the MeetUps themselves [local gatherings organized on the Internet]. We didn't plan them, they planned us. My key staff person Kate O'Connor noticed this thing on the Web as a way to get people together. But it was done by people in the field. There were meetings in 850 different locations once a month ... focused on how to get me elected. Some of them are still doing it today. On the day after the election there were a number of MeetUps. The Kerry people went. They needed a place to go and talk ... they had just got clobbered in the election. In a sense, the MeetUp model could do some of the things that the right-wing church provides – a place where people can go that has community, and common views and values. And by the way, the MeetUps aren't progressive, they are reformist.

What's the distinction?

Well, what brings people together is not ideology. There are progressive as well as moderates, McCain Republicans, Greens, and even some evangelicals. They are united because they all feel the need for change. The evangelicals are attracted because they see the hypocrisy of the pro-life people who are pro-life only until the child is born. They don't accept some of the teachings. They are against gay-bashing. We have a powerful moral attraction, because we care about the lesser among us ... our movement empowers those people who have been left out, the young people who have been left out. We are all fighting the fact that religious bigotry is back in favor, encouraged by the president. Our organizations encourage a lot of different kinds of people. We show respect for differences.

What about unions and the ideas Andy Stern is pushing to revitalize the labor movement? The SEIU was a big supporter of yours.

Well, some unions are different than others ... the union movement has many of the same problems we've been talking about. You have to go with renewal. Andy Stern understands that we have to have change. He is a good friend and he is key. But I want to give John Sweeney a lot of credit. Sweeney began the outreach to immigrants and low-wage workers. The labor movement needs economic and social justice.

What about the job as head of the DNC – how is it going?

Well, that is a complicated background dance, behind the scenes with the some of same phenomenon we're talking about here – the need for change. There is enormous angst in Democratic Party, among those who are running it, whose grip is slipping and the push toward decentralization.

Do you think that the national DNC should control the state parties like they do in the RNC?

No, I don't. In order to make good on the new empowerment, we have to genuinely give power to the states and grassroots. That's what we did in our campaign. I believe in order to have power, you have to give up power. I know that sounds Zen-like, but it is true. In order to get it back, in order for us to win, we have to empower the grassroots.

Ultimately outsiders have to take over the party and that is very painful for the insiders ... insiders can't make this work out. Power needs to come from the grassroots. The current Democratic Party is the old mode. You know, they say people go to see the psychiatrist when the pain of doing the same thing becomes more than the pain of changing. It is time to face the pain of change.

What was the single lesson you took away from the 2004 election?

Oddly enough, it is hope. We ran a better campaign in the field than I have ever seen. There is genuine difference out there and we have to prosper by moving outside, by empowering people in the community ... and I know – in giving up power some people are going to screw up, but that is part of the process. We really do have to believe. We are not automatons like the Republicans are. We don't get the orders on high.
Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.