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Howard Dean's legacy may be a better way forward for democratic activity

By Lance Knobel and Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 2 March 2004

Before Howard Dean becomes a footnote in American political history, it’s worth reflecting on how he changed politics – both in the current election, and possibly for years to come.

In the short term, Dean changed the dynamic of the Democratic primaries. Before his insurgent primary campaign began to thrive, the other Democratic challengers seemed afraid of confronting self-described war president George W Bush. Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq fuelled his early success but his anti-Bush rhetoric went far beyond his anti-war stance.

Both John Kerry and John Edwards have adopted much of Dean’s anti-Bush message, notably on tax cuts and opposition to the running of post-war Iraq. The one-time Dean jibe – that he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic party – now lacks real bite.


The more important effect on the Democrats was to convince them that Bush could be beaten in November. Dean successfully tapped into the deep passion and anger against the radical right-wing agenda of the Bush administration. Turnouts for the early Democratic caucuses and primaries were at record levels because voters believed in the importance of the 2004 presidential choice.

The more acknowledged impact of Dean has been his demonstration of the power of the Internet for campaign politics. Dean’s outsider message got him some notice but it was through his use of new network tools that he developed into a leading candidate.

Dean supporters organised through, the weblog at and the specially developed campaigning tools on the Dean website. Although Dean was ultimately unsuccessful in turning network and rally enthusiasm into flesh-and-blood voters, he came from nowhere to be the leading money raiser in the field, and to galvanise young activists who had turned away from conventional politics.

What made these Internet-based tools so effective is that the Dean campaign worked with the grain of the network, rather than against it. The Burlington, Vermont headquarters of the campaign had no control over the hundreds of pro-Dean websites or the thousands of comments posted on the official Dean weblog. Deaniacs who wanted to set up a Meet-Up were encouraged to go ahead, without any kind of green light from the centre.

Activists were engaged, not just fodder for strategies devised by headquarters (which may have been a mixed blessing in terms of getting out the vote). The trust shown by Dean in his supporters, the belief that the campaign was out there, rather than just in his team, marks a profound shift in the tightly controlled and scripted politics expected in presidential campaigns.

Dean’s foray into the chaotic world of Internet-based campaigning has implications, not only for US Presidential politics but for campaigns built around individual constituencies – the style of elections one sees in the UK, Canada and Australia, for example.


Political parties in all of those countries have struggled, with a few exceptions, to engage anyone who is not part of a dwindling party faithful. General election political campaigns in Westminster-style democracies are seen – correctly – as being scripted around the leader with local constituency campaigns being merely a reflection of that macro-effort. To illustrate, each day central campaign HQ will email to each local campaign the “lines” and themes to be used. Media releases are generated from campaign HQ and local candidate has just to fill in the space marked “insert candidates’ name and constituency here”.

In short, there is little individualising of local campaigns in general elections. Local campaign teams are always stretched for human resources and finances because the appeal of helping the local candidate is simply not there.

Dean’s model would turn such a campaigning scenario on its head. A local candidate’s profile and identity would become more relevant to electors and the capacity for groups and individuals within a constituency to mould and localise the party’s policy would be enhanced.

There is also the prospect of Internet-based Party branches emerging. This is something talked about by the British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party but there has been little evidence that such rhetoric is being translated into action. What Howard Dean’s campaign strategy demonstrates is that for many people the Internet is their preferred tool of advocacy or participation in the democratic process. Translating that activism into votes among the larger public is a crucial issue, one which Dean flunked.

There is no magic in people physically meeting at inconvenient times just so the party branch secretary can read the minutes of the last meeting. Internet branches of political parties are inherently flexible in their agendas and their meeting mode – in other words, they would reflect how so many people now go about their daily business or routine.

We will be unable to judge the final effect of the Dean campaign for a long time (think of Zhou Enlai and the French revolution). It’s notable that the famously conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal recently mused that Dean could prove to be the Barry Goldwater of the Democrats. Goldwater was thrashed in the 1964 election by Lyndon Johnson. But he set the stage for a network of conservative thinkers, fundraisers and activists to seize control of the Republican party. The failed Dean campaign may well herald a similar renaissance for progressive politics within the Democratic party.

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About the Authors

Lance Knobel is a London-based writer and strategy consultant.

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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