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December 9, 2003

Private Life, Public Happiness and the Howard Dean Connection

With Dean, the campaign is somewhere... out there. It is not at headquarters any more, but it talks to headquarters. This is a de-stabilizing premise, and a reporting nightmare. But Samantha Shapiro in the Times magazine this week had a notion.

That Al Gore, a conventional politician, today endorsed Howard Dean, who is running a very unconventional campaign, tells me something about those, like Gore, who had mastered the dull conventions of campaign politics.

Somehow it had all gotten away from them. Presidential campaigns had drifted out of alignment with most Americans. The ritual no longer seemed like something the country did for itself every four years, but what a professional cadre did, and sold back to the country as “politics.”

But it wasn’t, really. At least it wasn’t democratic politics at anything like capacity. Now, in 2004, we are perhaps starting to see this. There is no decisive change, yet. But it is a big discovery when things frozen in place are suddenly found to be changeable.

What attracts so many believing people to Howard Dean is that discovery— wow, we can shape this ourselves. What attracts a lot of thinking people to the unfolding Dean phenomenon is that politics can be thought about again. New patterns are there to be figured out.

Somehow the American nation remembers civic traditions eclipsed by the strange system we have for electing presidents. This system has been building strength since 1952, when television was new and the state primaries began to take nominating power out of the hands of party chiefs.

That power was distributed around— to primary voters, to the press, to the polls, to the people with money who could fund the new system, to candidates running on their own, to television, to perceptions like “frontrunner” and thought clouds like “inevitability,” and to the wizards of control who were able to orchestrate all this into a winning message.

But then something had gotten away from them— the professionals who made the ads, took the polls, and refined the message; who raised the money, built the organizations, got out the vote; who planned and reported and packaged the campaign story, or told us on television what it means. It had slipped away from them and they both knew it and refused to see it.

What Theodore White in 1960 called the “making of the President,” and Joe McGinnis in 1968 called the “selling of the President” had become the making and selling of a public narrative about politics, the outstanding feature of which was its “remoteness from the actual life of the country,” as Joan Didion wrote.

Certainly you could volunteer. You could send money, lots of it. You could watch the debates and read news reports of the campaign. You could take in the pundits at play. You could chart the horse race. You could view the ads and critique them like the pros did.

But could you participate as the rightful owners of politics, in a campaign that requested your talents, needed your energies, tapped some of your ideas, and even gave you a sense of voice? Savvy observers, and the insiders they chronicled, had taken that possibility—robust participation by ordinary Americans—out of the script, even as they spoke nonstop of “grassroots” this, and “populist” that.

Well before the chaos in Florida, the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush had reached one of its logical ends— ideological dead center, where two almost identical campaigns, reading from the same data about the same issues, shouting at the same undecided voters in the same toss up-states, tried to ride slightly different catchwords into the White House.

A control revolution, which took almost 50 years to play out, had by 2000 completed most of its work. Both campaigns were able to restrict the candidate to message-speak. At times, the two nominees sounded like tracking polls with vocal chords. Bush and Gore made themselves pitifully small for us—button pushers for the tiny portion of uncommitted voters the pros had identified as everything. But 95 percent of the country lay outside this everything. And somehow that fact too had gotten away from them.

“Well, of course!” said the professionals in journalism. “This is how the game is played. Citizens of the United States, let us to explain winning to you.” But this too was a game—inside baseball—that had gotten away from the players. It was easy for journalists to think of themselves as outsiders, (observers) but then chatter away as insiders (participants), and never face the fullness of this contradiction

Thus Didion marveled at the word games of correspondents and other professionals who “tend to speak a language common in Washington but not specifically shared by the rest of us.”

They talk about the “story,” and how it will “play.” They speak of a candidate’s performance, by which they usually mean his skill at circumventing questions, not as citizens but as professional insiders, attuned to signals pitched beyond the range of normal hearing: “I hear he did all right this afternoon,” they were saying in the press section of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on the evening Dan Quayle was or was not to be nominated for the vice-presidency. “I hear he did OK with Brinkley.”

What a strange sound. She goes on:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals… to the handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.

Suppose, then, that this narrative had gotten away from them, in the way that all things over-controlled can do. It would explain a lot about the rise of Howard Dean. It would explain the trouble the system sometimes has in understanding him. And it would explain some of the journalism about Dean.

This week, Samantha Shapiro’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine (“The Dean Connection”) got some important things right: “Part of Dean’s appeal is that he behaves in recognizably human ways.” That’s true.

About the death of the hub and spoke system: “Dean supporters do not drive 200 miles through 10 inches of snow — as John Crabtree, 39, and Craig Fleming, 41, did to attend the November Dean meet-up in Fargo, N.D. — to see a political candidate or a representative of his staff. They drive that far to see each other.”

Or: “When people from the unofficial campaign call and ask permission to undertake an activity on behalf of Dean, they are told they don’t need permission.”

But Shapiro’s bravest moment was her closing shot. Zephyr Teachout, director of Internet Organizing for Dean, is driving around the country in an RV, visiting people in the network she had only known online. Shapiro writes:

”What’s happening is an unusual and unprecedented correspondence between the campaign and us,” [Teachout] says. It takes me a moment before I realize that when she says ”the campaign,” she doesn’t mean the people running the headquarters in Burlington. She means the people she’s going to visit in her Airstream.

It’s almost spooky. The campaign is somewhere… out there. It is not at headquarters any more, although it talks to headquarters by blog. This is a de-stabilizing premise, and for a journalist who decides she buys it, a kind of reporting nightmare.

If the Dean campaign isn’t “at” headquarters, but distributed around, then maybe it isn’t “at” where the candidate is speaking tonight, either. Or at that appearance on Hardball. Now politics has to be located all over again, and in a sense this is what Shapiro’s report is about: how do you locate the driving force in the Dean campaign when people around the county who are somehow “in” that campaign are driving 200 miles to make it happen with each other, without plan or permission from Burlington, although Burlington knows about it, sometimes?

Shapiro’s search for a locator settled on three geeks, young men who uprooted their lives to work for Dean. One, I am proud to say, is my philosopher geek nephew, Zack Rosen, 20 years old, who is the originator of DeanSpace. The social software he created is termed “the revolution” in Shapiro’s report. (It’s Napster for politics, built on open source principles, allowing people to share information across sites.) By taking the time to understand Zack and two others he works with, Shapiro tries to get to the heart of the Dean connection.

This is where things turn strange. Shapiro wrote 4,806 words about the Dean connection. By my count, she used 634 (about 15 percent of the article) in discussion of girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, imaginary girlfriends, and still plausible girlfriends among the three young people she was profiling: Zack (20), Clay Johnson (26), Gray Brooks (21). Each turns out to be pining for a different girl named Julie. (Imagine it, three Julies!) When Shapiro watches the three of them work, there is little to see. So she tries to guess what they’re really thinking about. It could be politics, software, e-mail or… Julie.

How, then, do the absolutely normal love lives of 20-something guys—each of whom, in turns out, really, really wants a girlfriend—become illumination for the more extraordinary people-to-politics connection that Shapiro is publishing 4,000 words about? Well, she is not without a writerly notion:

Watching them work from their battered easy chair, I find it impossible to tell if they are gazing at the filmy, pixilated image of a Julie or the face of a new Dean supporter or a line of code; whether the peer-to-peer communication they are struggling with is related to the 2004 election and the fragmentation of American public life, or is something more private.

There is a big idea here, and I give her credit for coming at it obliquely. Yes, the Dean campaign is overcoming some of the remoteness in the system and connecting lots of people to politics. But this only gets you half the way there, Shapiro says. The other part of Dean’s success involves, not our fragmenting public life, but something missing in people’s personal and private lives, which is causing them to look to Dean, who in turn sends out the right cues. She gets this. Dean, she writes, “seemed to emit some sort of secret call that made people, many of them previously apolitical, drop everything and devote themselves to his campaign.”

It had gotten away from them, the operators of the system. So Dean said let some of it go. Fifty years is long enough for a single style (command and control) to prevail. Part of his “secret call” has been to Americans, any age, who want to reverse the control revolutions that had brought presidential campaigns to a dead state by 2000.

Zack is one such American. Not only did he know how to reverse the controls, and distribute some of the campaign back to citizens. He knew that Dean would not know. He sensed he was needed, that he had something to contribute to politics. Twenty minutes with Howard Dean on the Web told him one thing: I may be able to get through this way. There is a chance my ideas will be heard. Then I can not only be a part of things, I can drive things that I am part of.

Howard Dean is one adult in the system who, when he doesn’t know how to connect more people to politics, will ask a 20 year-old, who might in fact know. Zack grasped that in five minutes. Is that an event in his private life? Certainly. And it has public significance. But do events with his girlfriend have public significance? No.

When was the last time a frontrunner in the race for a major party nomination got his edge over other contenders by trusting in the superior grasp of twenty year-olds with zero experience? And how often do college sophomores, hacking away with their buddies over the summer, synthesize new intellectual capital that more experienced political professionals adapt to, and begin to exploit to a candidate’s strategic (not just tactical) advantage? Knowing about the three Julies doesn’t add to our understanding of that.

Until someone writes a better one, Ed Cone’s lengthy report in Baseline magazine is still the definitive work on what’s different about the Dean connection. He told me Shapiro’s account “failed to move the story forward,” which is a phrase journalists use to discuss enterprise reporting. “To my mind, moving the story forward would mean explaining how this social networking might pay off at the polls. That’s the point here, right? Instead, the article seemed to double back into the lovelorn staffer meme, which should have been a way to get to the larger lesson, not an end to itself.”

The rock critic Lester Bangs wrote perhaps his greatest piece about the end of an icon: “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Bangs said this about the first time he saw Elvis, in 1971:

He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went made with desire and worship and envy and self-projection.

That’s what Zack had: an erection of the heart. And his is a democratic heart. Maybe that’s what had gotten away from them. Now comes Al Gore, who took things to dead center in 2000, signing on for Howard Dean, who is slowly undoing the system that Gore had mastered, using another system Gore thought he had mastered— the Internet.

Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of freedom included what Hannah Arendt calls “public freedom”— the citizen’s right to share in the direction of society and the discussion of common affairs. This is why, late in life, he placed so much emphasis on dividing all the counties and parishes of the states into smaller units, which he called wards. About this famous flourish in Jefferson’s thought, Arendt says:

The basic assumption of the ward system, whether Jefferson knew it or not, was that no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy of free without participating, and having a share, in public power.

While Jefferson understood that elected representatives were necessary in a large republic, he also saw the Constitution as incomplete, for it provided no forum, or, as Arendt put it, no “public space” in which citizens could learn the art of democratic politics themselves, instead of watching advertisements about it.

With public affairs in the hands of distant representatives, the people might turn their attention exclusively to private concerns, and begin to look upon the public world as a bore or nuisance. Did this not happen to our young?

Jefferson, writes Arendt, “had at least a foreboding of how dangerous it might be to allow the people a share of public power without providing them at the same time with more public space than the ballot box and with more opportunity to make their voices heard in public than election day.” The wards were an idea he devised to “save the people from lethargy and inattention to public business.”

And maybe the weblogs of Dean (and Clark) are ways to the wards of Thomas Jefferson. Maybe what’s missing in people’s private lives is not only girlfriends and boyfriends, but something larger, “public happiness”— the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way and show the system a thing or two. Somehow the country remembers this tradition, despite long stretches where it is taken into eclipse. Recovering the claim we have on public happiness may help save the system from the “lethargy and inattention to public business” it had produced as byproduct to winning ways and ways of winning.

Campaign politics had gotten away from them, the professionals. It had become public misery on their watch. Now they have to find it again, and that may yet make for great political journalism in 2004.

The New York Times Magazine piece, “The Dean Connection,” is here. Here until Dec. 14, that is, after which the link goes dead. Sad, isn’t it?

Read more essays and article on topics like this one at BOP (The Blogging of the President) News, a site where I am co-editor.

Dan Gillmor has apt observations on Gore’s evolution and the Dean connection.

Campaign One and Campaign Two having a few problems. Click here and here to read about problems between COT (the Campaign Out There) and CAB (the Campaign at Burlington) involving the release of new software by CAB that affects users in COT— i.e. Dean supporters with skills. Seems to me exactly the kind of problem you would expect with passionate users. Still, solving it is a test of the Dean Team’s responsiveness, which is supposed to be a strength. By the way, Ping, one of the users who sees problems with the latest site improvement, was named in Shapiro’s article as particpant in the open source development of Dean-ware.

Ed Cone comments here and here on the Times magazine piece.

Chris Nolan has a critique too.

The Daily Kos has lots of comments on the Times article.

Doc Searls add analysis and disavows his “consultant’s” role, which Shapiro reported as fact. And here he reacts at length to this post. (Thanks Doc.)

Dave Winer has a challenge: “Any candidate who made an effort to understand the political issues of the Internet could make a difference. Whether they would win or not, whether they beat Dean or Bush is hardly the point. Find out what makes the Internet so great. Take a weekend off from your campaign that isn’t working anyway. Then stand up and tell us what you learned. You might be surprised to see your poll numbers start climbing.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 9, 2003 6:12 PM