By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Howard Dean was shouting into the microphone, and nobody could hear a word he was saying. The crowd at last week’s Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., had risen to its feet and was yelling and screaming and cheering so wildly it no longer mattered what Dean was saying — it just mattered that he was there and they were there, all in the moment together. And then, suddenly, it was over: Dean waved, gave a goofy half-smile, and left the stage, like a magician who had successfully performed a trick.
For the Deaniacs, Howard is a god. Unfortunately, he’s also a god who failed. Now they must make do with an outsize Satan (George Bush) while John Kerry fills in as the doleful, substitute deity. “Kerry’s a bold, courageous leader,” they’ll tell you, with a wink and a grin. But Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is more straightforward. “We’re beating Bush in spite of Kerry, that’s the attitude,” he told me, not bothering to hide his disdain. And once Kerry is in office, he added, the progressives will start organizing demonstrations againsthim.
Perhaps because they’re so unenthusiastic about their nominee, Democrats are even more eager to hammer the Republicans than usual. Listening to some of them, you’d think that greed had been introduced to the world by Dick Cheney in the year 2000. Progressives — don’t call them “liberals” — are entering tricky territory, raging against the government’s “lies” while indulging in a fair amount of exaggeration and distortion themselves. One person assured me that Bush was deliberately losing the war in Iraq in order to prove that all government agencies, including the military, no longer function properly and need to be privatized.
Okay, so he was a nut-job. But in that case what would you call Duane Peterson of True Majority, who proudly showed off an ad in which Americans condemn the Iraq war and “the sinful abuses committed in our name,” and then informed us that it was going to be aired on the Arabic television station Al-Jazeera? Well, I could think of a few names. But if a line had been crossed, no one in the room seemed to notice. They gave him, and his sanctimonious ad, a big round of applause.
All in all, the level of enthusiasm and commitment on display at the conference must be worrying the Republicans. Democrats are not only confident about beating Bush, they think this time they have the tools to do it with. Speaking at a panel on Web activism, former Dean staffer Joe Trippi said that the “age of information” has been replaced by the “age of empowerment.” Television, with its sweeping narratives, is a top-down medium that creates voter passivity and a belief that the individual can make little or no difference politically. Now, with the Internet, all that is changing. Instead of hoarding information, as television does, the Web distributes it democratically and moves power to the base of society. This moment has arrived, Trippi added, just when the founding fathers’ great nightmare is coming to pass. Economic power has seized political power in the country: Oil companies are dictating our energy policy, pharmaceutical companies our health policy.
Trippi didn’t mention education policy, perhaps because that particular disaster area has been identified with a union rather than a corporation. But, sitting in the hotel bar, I overheard a middle-aged white woman from Alabama doing just that. “What’s goin’ on in the schools now is better than it has been for years,” she said, referring to Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy. She was at the hotel to attend a health-care convention (there were several conventions going on) and was quizzing an elegantly dressed Take Back America flak as to what this particular conference was all about.
“So, is all this gettin’ blamed on Bush?” I heard her ask finally, alluding, presumably, to the general state of things. “’Cause that’s what I’m gettin’. And it’s sad, because it’s been goin’ on for generations.”
A few hours later I attended a Take Back America barbecue on the hotel grounds, where hundreds of people sat under the trees, eating hamburgers and hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob. Next to me a man from Massachusetts, wearing a stars-and-stripes tie “because the right cannot be allowed to own patriotism,” ran through the usual litany about the “right-wing media” and the “silence” imposed on dissenting voices. I mentioned that you had only to walk into a bookstore to be confronted by a dozen anti-Bush books.
“Yes, but that’s now,” the man said. “After 9/11, no one dared to attack the government.”
“Well, why would they?” I replied. “We’d just been attacked. Anyway, didn’t Susan Sontag lay into the administration in The New Yorkera week after 9/11?”
“But she was criticized for that.”
“Well, yes. People disagreed with her.”
I don’t know how representative this guy was, but from talking to him I sensed that some people on the left may be developing a guilty conscience about the war. When I said that the press was painting an overly dark picture of what was happening in Iraq because they wanted to get rid of Bush, I was expecting an argument. Instead, he nodded.