A lot actually, Howard Dean represents the most serious threat to elite politics since at least the 1960s. During Governor Dean’s tenure as DNC chair, the Democrats won two back-to-back “wave elections” — which has never happened before in American history — and America’s first multi-racial President was elected in a landslide. Yet, for the last five years Governor Dean has been a lightening rod for criticism among both the “serious” people in the media and the “serious” people in his own party.
So why doesn’t the establishment like Howard Dean? It’s simple really; Howard Dean represents a significant threat to 21st century elite politics.
Dean’s family made their fortune as old school brokerage owners and executives. Dean grew up in East Hampton on Long Island and on Park Avenue. Yet he turned his back on a financial career, went to medical school and became a family doctor in Vermont along with his wife Judith Steinberg. He’s the Park Avenue version of the hippy who went up country. Yet his life and his career flourished. He was elected to the Vermont legislature after getting involved in local politics as part of a coalition looking to get a bike path built along Lake Champlain. He was elected Lt. Governor in 1986 and reelected Governor 5 times (becoming the second longest serving Vermont Governor in Vermont history) after stepping into the role after the death of Governor Richard Snelling. He created the first mass political movement using Internet technologies. And he transformed party politics by transferring power to the state and local parties.
In a thirty-year period dominated by an insane reverse wealth transfer, and in which the excesses of the financial elite threaten to crater the capitalist system without massive risk socialization by the federal government, Dean has stood out at as a critic of D.C. centered politics and elite domination of the federal government. Think about it; a person who began their career in politics fighting to get a bike path built is at the gates of the highest levels of government. A presidential candidate who stuffs his suit pockets with chocolate chip cookies, a guy who directs his staffer to go left rather than right at a house party so he can get another shot at the M&M bowl. A real person, a small d democrat, who viscerally understands the American elite because he was once part of it, rises to national leadership and pushes power back into the grassroots and the state parties.
The personal threat that Dean poses to elite rule is compounded by his rise through Vermont politics. Vermont doesn’t just talk about bipartisanship and use it as a cover for sample sales of the country’s assets by elite politicians and financiers; they practice it in their electoral politics. In the last twenty years Vermonters have elected a classic Yankee Republican (Jim Jeffords), a scrappy Brooklyn born socialist (Bernie Sanders) and a scion of Park Avenue wealth turned family doctor (Howard Dean) as their statewide representatives.
These new Green Mountain Boys have a people and community orientation that comes out of Vermont’s tradition of direct democracy through the town meeting. Howard Dean’s fifty state strategy is in essence an extension of the practice of direct democracy to party politics and electoral organizing. And it scares the hell out of the D.C. regulars and the corporate elites. It takes us beyond the culture of the expert — the serious foreign policy expert from the northeast corridor, the Yale graduate organizing on behalf of janitors, Wall Street bankers trying to fix a system they broke — to organizations and coalitions of ordinary people choosing leaders and solving problems on their own. It harnesses the new communication technologies to spread power and enable real conversations between those on the ground and those back in a state capital, D.C., or elsewhere.
For the D.C. and corporate elites, this model of direct democratic movement politics is very dangerous indeed.
David Sirota had a very penetrating insight into the marginalization of progressives in matters of economic and foreign policy during the Obama transition:
What I mean to say is that we live in a culture that now organizes around celebrity – and Obama knew it, and knew that lots of left organizations aren’t really ideological – they are, if anything, organized around the Democratic Party and Bush hatred. So he basically figured out that if he could become a celebrity – and a Democratic Bush-hating one – he could swallow up a huge part of the “progressive infrastructure” and organize it around him (and all the hateful “if you question Obama, you hate Obama” comments that will inevitably be at the bottom of this diary actually confirm this!). And we shouldn’t blame him for being a “celebrity” – it’s not an epithet. And we shouldn’t blame him for seizing his moment. Not at all.
This, by the way, is very different from the Reagan model. Reagan was a telegenic, for sure – but he was a product of a movement. In the age of celebrity worship – the age where we literally organize AROUND celebrity – Obama is a movement unto himself.
This continues to be a problem for progressive politics in the United States. We continue to lack a real movement or institutional structure. Unfortunately in many communities, progressive politics and institutions stand outside the fabric of everyday life. There are exceptions of course, but it is rare to find in suburban, exurban and rural communities organizations or institutions that can easily serve as a rallying point for progressive candidates, politics and ideas.
Howard Dean actually addressed this issue by transferring power and budgets to the state and local parties. The end result was back-to-back wave elections, wins in unexpected places like Mississippi and the revitalization of some state parties.
The famous question “What do we do now” is taking on an increasing urgency for progressives as folks like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers are appointed to Treasury and to Senior White House posts and the architects of the democratic resurgence are cast into the wilderness. If the auto industry is allowed to collapse after this last Citigroup bailout, this Democratic resurgence architected by Howard Dean will be quite short lived.
The challenge over the next 12-18 months is to build new networks of state and local power that don’t rely on the Democratic National Committee or other D.C. based institutions. Howard Dean showed us the way and used the DNC to further state and local politics. We now need to take his model and build independent institutions and funding sources that forward the vision of direct democracy.
The establishment hates Howard Dean. We can turn the tables by showing them that we do indeed have the power.
Cross posted at OpenLeft