Last July I walked into my first meetup for Howard Dean. I had been aware of the long-shot candidate from Vermont for a few months and had little faith that the business-as-usual crowd of Gephardt and Kerry et al had what it takes to get the job done. The last time there was an open field of Democrats vying for the nod, a little-known governor from Arkansas rose to the top. Yeah, I think Bill Clinton was his name. Remember him? Oh, the good old days.
What really moved me to go to that meetup was not my cadre of left-leaning, mostly Northern transplant, Durham-Chapel Hill friends I rely on for political sanity. No, it was an email telling me about the meetup from a non-political friend from Holly Springs. Holly Springs? I don’t even know where that is. If Howard Dean could inspire the guy who usually tuned out when the discussion went political, I needed to find out more.
So in an overflowing room at Joe and Jo’s in downtown Durham it became clear to me something different was going on. Something (as the campaign would later say in its ads) was happening. People were getting involved–in July, a full year and a half before the election! They were planning all kinds of “outreach” events, collecting signatures for the North Carolina ballot, organizing fund-raising events and hand-writing letters to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Hand-written letters! Maybe the good old days weren’t so far off. Maybe there was hope. I had heard the term grassroots thrown around a lot to describe various political actions, but this wasn’t just talk. This was happening right here and in hundreds of places across the country.
Fueling this movement was the combination of outrage at the current administration coupled with a very deep admiration for a serious candidate who actually seemed to be an honest, decent, competent and level-headed individual who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind–whether it made him popular or not. Finally, we not only had something to work against, but someone to work for. Maybe every presidential election wasn’t destined to be a distillation down to the lesser of two evils. Maybe there was still hope for grassroots democracy in an age of media supremacy.
So before Howard Dean rose in the polls, the press started to take notice of his record-breaking and unorthodox fund raising (read: getting most of his money from ordinary folks) and his unprecedented crowds in the thousands. I quickly got involved, helping with meetups, collecting signatures, and traveling to South Carolina to see and meet the good doctor himself. I hosted my own house party fundraiser. I actually found myself regularly giving money to a political candidate. The thought of me ever giving money to a politician had never crossed my mind before. And I wasn’t the only one doing this for the first time. We were all new to this, but we were all inspired.
Oh, the wide-eyed, idealistic enthusiasm of it all.
Were we just naive, or overly hopeful? Did we really think it was going to be this easy to “take our country back” as the good doctor would say? Is the power really in the people’s hands as we so much wanted to believe?
Looking back at the grassroots groundswell that raised Dean from a long-shot to the frontrunner, it becomes apparent that until the media noticed (because of the influx of money and his big crowds), no one but a few hundred thousand people knew who he was. So before we ever got to “the scream” and the media mayhem that all but derailed the Dean campaign, it was in fact the media attention that really got him in the national spotlight and up in the polls in the first place.
So who are all these people in these polls that go up and down like a roller coaster at Coney Island? Not to sound elitist, but they are, for the most part, not you and not me. Chances are, if you have read this far in this kind of paper (or any paper for that matter) you are already outside of the mainstream. Most people in this great country of ours don’t have the time, or don’t care enough to spend the time to really make informed choices in political matters. So when people hear over and over that Howard Dean screamed like an angry lunatic after the Iowa caucuses and that John Kerry is the only one who can beat Bush, this makes an immediate impression on them. It’s an impression that all the grassroots organizing, all the door-to-door canvassing, all the phone-banking, all the visibility and roadside signs can’t undo. I was there in South Carolina (where Dean once led in the polls) on primary day trying to undo the damage. No campaign was more visible, none had more volunteers on the ground and, unfortunately, none (save Lieberman and Kucinich) did worse. It was like shooting arrows at a B-52.
The truth is, the truth really doesn’t matter.
Elections in this modern era of mass media are not won or lost on issues. They are won or lost on perception. And the perception of Howard Dean as an unstable angry man is now etched in the mind of the American voter even though Dean didn’t scream that night, nor was he angry. He was simply cheering the thousands of volunteers who went to Iowa on their own time and dime to help him. He was guilty of being real and earnest in wanting to cheer them up after a bitter defeat. He was guilty of not using the opportunity to speak to the camera, to the millions of voters who were watching on TV instead of his enthusiastic, cheering supporters in the room. An error in judgment to be sure, but not an error that should derail a campaign.
Incidentally, when I was in Burlington volunteering at the Dean headquarters, who was there right next to me watching the Iowa debate but none other than Judy Dean, Howard’s wife. You see, the ironic thing here is they don’t even have cable. I knew there was yet another reason why I liked this guy (and maybe this is another reason why the media doesn’t).
Even before the infamous “scream,” Dean was not only being unfairly and overzealously scrutinized by the media, he was being maliciously attacked by his own Democratic party. Ads were run in Iowa by an unknown group (only recently revealed to be Gephardt and Kerry supporters) that menacingly showed Osama bin Laden while telling voters Dean would be soft on terrorism. One might expect an ad like this from Republicans, but from unnamed Democrats! It is well known that the establishment in the Democratic Party was uneasy about Dean (was it the fact that he called the party to task for not opposing the most right wing administration in memory, or that he actually said the media is concentrated in the hands of too few?). So the truth was trampled and the media was used to plant seeds of doubt about Dean. Information wasn’t being dispersed, perceptions were being molded. And guess what? In an America of short attention spans and sound bites, it actually worked. Quite well.
Democracy fails us when those who best manipulate our perception regardless of the truth are awarded with power. Democracy fails us when the power to shape our perceptions through media are in the hands of precious few individuals and corporations. Democracy fails us when most people don’t vote. Democracy fails us when thousands of individual efforts are dwarfed by a single media event. Democracy fails us when a few with power and money are free to manipulate the process with impunity. Democracy fails us when we start making distinctions between misinformation and lies. Democracy fails us when the truth doesn’t matter.
I am learning that democracy in America is becoming obsolete at best and dangerous at worst. Maybe our society and, indeed, our democracy, are not the pinnacles of social structure we would like them to be. Maybe, hopefully, we are still on a path of growth and change. Maybe there is still a better way. Lets hope.
Peter Armenia is a photographer, writer and obviously a political novice, who stubbornly continues to display his Howard Dean yard sign in front of his Durham home.