What can Texas Democrats learn from the blogs, the meetups, and the grassroots improvising?
The first Wednesday in March, a group of Howard Dean’s Austin supporters did what they’d been doing the first Wednesday of every month for more than a year. They crowded into a back room at Scholtz’s Beer Garten, a longtime political hangout near the state Capitol. Since Dean had ended his campaign three weeks earlier, the mood was bittersweet. The campaign was giving away its inventory of videos and selling its T-shirts at cost. Nevertheless, Dean for Texas coordinator Glen Maxey was declaring victory, not defeat.
“People talked a lot in the Dean campaign about taking back the party,” said the former state representative. “Well, in Texas, we didn’t need to take it back. There was no one to take it from. What we need to do is rebuild it, because we are it.”
He pointed to hundreds of new precinct chairs and at least 10 new county chairs that were filled by people from the Dean for Texas ranks, and he urged the attendees to go to their precinct caucuses so that Dean voices would be heard at the state convention. He promised to hand out “I took it back” buttons to the delegates.
Maxey believes that the techniques and people Howard Dean drew into Democratic Party politics in Texas are the key to making Texas a two-party state. He is not alone. All over Texas, grassroots activists say they’re ready to bring ideas from the Dean for America (DFA) campaign, both online and offline, into their own counties and precincts. They express sentiments similar to those of Larry Horton of New Braunfels. On the day that Dean dropped out of the presidential campaign, Horton wrote an upbeat message on the Dean for America blog, or web log:
I am running unopposed for Democratic County Chair, Comal County Texas. If not for Gov. Dean I would be sitting here complaining about Bush and doing nothing about it. Thanks Gov. and we will take back our country and our party!
As Maxey recalls, it was the June 2003 rally in Austin that made him realize that the Dean campaign had the potential to change the way politics was done in this state. At the time, he had a list of 400 local Dean sympathizers in his database. A hundred of them offered to help organize the event. More than 3,000 people showed up the day of the rally.
“Seeing that excitement made me think, I’ve got to latch onto this and rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up,” he says.
At the peak of the campaign, Maxey’s database included 35,000 people who had signed up on the Dean for Texas website. He had 2,000 ready to organize their precincts, while several hundred went to Iowa on two separate campaign trips.
Austinite Susan Morris, who has worked on Democratic campaigns for years, says that most of the Dean people she met were new to party politics.
“I was used to walking into events for Ron Kirk or Tony Sanchez and knowing everyone in the room,” she explains. “I went to [a Dean event in Austin] and was like, who are these people? There were some Sanchez and Kirk types there, but they were just hanging around the perimeter, going ‘How did they get 400 people to come to a political meeting?'”
“They” didn’t. People came to a political meeting in part because Dean pushed the right emotional buttons. His visceral, unscripted speeches just plain felt different. People came out because it was fun to be involved with a campaign that felt unstoppable. But they also showed up because the campaign’s online experiments in bringing people together worked.
The snazziest of these techniques was the campaign blog. All day, every day, the DFA blog delivered enthusiastic campaign news and ecstatically reminded bloggers how special, appreciated, and powerful they were. Anyone was free to respond to these official messages, and people responded by the hundreds. Bloggers debated campaign strategy and voted on possible campaign commercials. They posted links to press coverage of the campaign and offered their own analysis. They announced when they had contributed money (all told, Dean raised $43 million) and back-slapped recent donors. All in all, the blogs allowed them to feel as if they were part of a vibrant community that included not only their fellow bloggers, but also campaign staff and the candidate himself.
Austinite Larry Woods, a 47-year-old systems analyst, had never done anything but “vote and argue” before the Dean campaign. But once he found the blog and saw the variety of opinions, debate, and information available, he was hooked.
“I like that I can get a variety of opinions from someplace other than the talking heads on TV,” he says. His hours on the blog eventually grew into offline activism, including four freezing days spent blockwalking in Iowa.
Woods also liked the campaign’s willingness to respond to ideas from the grassroots. One of the most successful ideas was that of using the for-profit site meetup.com to organize in-person meetings of Dean supporters, called meetups. At one point, the Dean campaign had about 600 simultaneous monthly meetups around the country. In Austin, the meetups at Scholtz’s grew from a dozen people in January 2003 to hundreds, who used the time to strategize local events and write letters to undecided voters in states with early primaries.
Encouraging individual initiative helped build an esprit de corps that encouraged further volunteerism. It created a culture in which people downloaded their own signs and ran their own pro-Dean blogs. One group even shot their own commercial and raised the money to air it. A culture of participation based on a lot of small efforts rather than a few big checks seemed like a return to what democracy was “supposed” to be. Moreover, it saved money. For example, Maxey estimates that replacing the handwritten letters that supporters wrote with 160,000 glossy flyers would have cost the campaign around $100,000.
Nevertheless, the spectacular collapse of the campaign caused some to compare its high-tech innovations to the stock bubble of the late 1990s—a fabulous “dot-bomb” that looked dazzling until it popped. While the reasons for its collapse are complex, it’s true that an emphasis on online activities caused some Dean supporters to fail to distinguish between online bonding with fellow believers and the real work of reaching out in real-time to real-life voters. A February posting on the national blog, for example, suggested blogging in a public place, rather than at home, as an innovative outreach strategy. Minutes later another blogger angrily shot back, “Get off the blog and do something!”
It’s still too early to say what online networking plus good on-the-ground campaigning can do, but Texas has an ample supply of former Dean supporters ready to combine a vigorous, camaraderie-building online environment with an equally vigorous get-out-the-vote effort. People in strongly Democratic areas, for example, might decide to “adopt” counties in West Texas and use their free weekend cell-phone minutes to phone-bank. After their experience with the Dean campaign, individual volunteers will be comfortable with downloading phone lists and scripts directly from campaign web sites without going through local organizers. Finding the right combination of online and offline campaigning may still hold the key to overcoming the significant obstacles to organizing Texas’ Democratic grassroots.
There’s a man in Hansford County, a rural county of 5,000 that borders Oklahoma, who doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a Democrat. Although he was a Dean for Texas member and is active in nonpartisan farming and water-rights issues, he says “not getting shot” is the extent of his local activity as a Democrat. He sees little chance of making any headway in his town of 3,000, “about five” of whom are fellow Democrats.
“I pick my issues,” he says. “There’s no need to beat my head against the wall.”
He explains that meeting other Democrats in his area is practically impossible, because anyone who isn’t a Republican is scared to admit it.
“Sometimes I’ll let out a subtle hint, and then they’ll give back a subtle hint, and you just figure it out. It’s kind of like a courting,” he adds.
Long-time Democratic campaigners say they hear the same thing all over the state, from isolated small towns to wealthy Republican suburbs. When they’re out blockwalking, they consistently meet Democrats who believe they are the only Democrat in the neighborhood—and who are thrilled to hear they aren’t alone—not that they’d put up a yard sign, mind you.
But Sue Weninger of Lubbock believes the techniques developed by the Dean campaign can change that. She was amazed when she hosted a “house party” for supporters to participate in a conference call with Dean, and 40 people came.
“A refrain I kept hearing was, ‘I didn’t know there were this many Democrats in Lubbock,'” she says.
Weninger wants to use house parties to unite scattered Democrats behind regionally important races. For example, she wants Democrats all over West Texas to get out the vote for veteran Congressman Charles Stenholm, whose District 19 was mangled by redistricting. And she wants to see her fellow Democrats emboldened by the knowledge that there are, say, 40 of them in Lubbock.
However, she still recognizes the possibility that without Dean, West Texas Democrats invigorated by the chance for sweeping change will fall back into apathy and disinterest, rather than transfer their passion to long-term party building.
“I tried to get a meetup going in Plainview because we got a critical mass of five people driving 40 miles to Lubbock,” she says. “But then Iowa and New Hampshire came along and people started wondering what they were doing.”
One of Dean’s constant refrains was that his campaign was about his supporters and their power to change politics, rather than simply about his candidacy. “This is about you,” he told his supporters, over and over again. While the campaign was at its peak, many claimed the real point was to build a grassroots network that would take over the party. That is, the campaign was more about changing the political process, with its big money and scripts and polish and punditry, than it was about a specific policy platform.
The emphasis on process was reflected in the sheer diversity of Texans who supported Dean—Greens, independents, and at least one anti-choice, anti-gay Christian conservative incensed by the “fascist” Patriot Act. But without Howard Dean, that diversity poses a significant challenge to those who want to build a movement from the ashes of the campaign. If Texas Dean supporters are to make good on their plans to build a network for long-term activism, they will need to find a way to keep alive the passions stirred by their candidate and avoid fragmentation.
At the March meetup at Scholtz’s, many rolled their eyes at Maxey’s insistence that everyone in the room would leave as “a John Kerry person.” Kerry, to many a Deanie, is exactly the kind of scripted business-as-usual politician they were out to dethrone.
Even if the “I have a scream” speech and others like it didn’t play well on TV, they were magic for the thousands of people in the room who were screaming right along with the former governor of Vermont. The passion that Dean aroused was an essential element in his ability to inspire volunteerism; without it, there is a real danger that campaign blogs will go unresponded, phone lists will not be downloaded, meetups will be unattended. In short, apathy as usual. Finding something to inspire similar passion will be difficult when Dean people feel bitter toward Kerry, and are too diverse to make issue-based organizing feasible.
Unless that issue is participation itself. Larry Horton believes Dean people can still make the Democratic Party respond to the grassroots, and is ready to keep “changing America” by changing his heavily Republican county. He believes he can get just as excited about filling precinct chairs and building a county executive committee as he ever was about Dean.
“Howard Dean’s campaign was founded on passionate belief in the democratic system and Democratic Party,” he says. “This is what I’m trying to bring into Comal County.”
Thus, when Glen Maxey urges Dean supporters to represent “our” issues at the state convention, he is simultaneously being disingenuous and dead-on right. On the one hand, there is no “Dean platform” to stand for. On the other hand, showing up—participating—is the Dean platform. It doesn’t take a single charismatic leader to bring an end to boring, big-money, business-as-usual politics, or to make Texas a two-party state. It takes a whole lot of people demanding something different.
Rachel Proctor May is a writer in Austin.