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 against him.
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 Yorker a 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.
I don’t think Julian Bond would have nodded. “There is a right-wing conspiracy,” thundered the NAACP chairman during a glib, showy speech on the opening day of the conference. “It controls both houses, the presidency, much of the judiciary and a significant portion of the media.” Later, another speaker said, “Our greatest fear is that the election will be stolen, not that we won’t win it.”
Ultimately, the strategy laid out by the conference appeared to be one of proliferating politicization. Michael Kieschnick, president of Working Assets, referred to himself as the head of “a social-change organization that lives inside a phone company.” Joan Blades of MoveOn.org, which claims to have more members than the Christian Coalition did at its peak, suggested that the next time anyone in the audience felt like going for a long drive, they “drive to a swing state.” And media consultant Will Robinson taught the audience exactly how to clap so as to convey just the right amount of excitement and enthusiasm for the person who represents their views.
I asked Roger Hickey, the dapper co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, the group that organized the conference, if encouraging people to arrange every aspect of their lives along ideological lines, from their choice of phone company to how they clap and where they take the car for a spin, might not create even more social divisions than we already have. Do we want a society in which every action comes with a campaign button attached? Are we really going to visit swing states and strike up apparently casual but secretly political conversations with people? (“Waitress, could I get some kerry — I mean, er, ketchup with that?”)
Hickey gave a short laugh. What we were witnessing, he said, was “unprecedented cooperation, not division,” and he rattled off some statistics to back up his claim. “Everybody’s button supports everybody else’s button.”
That’s fine for here, I persisted, but what about in the country at large?
“I think the general tone of this conference is ‘We want to listen to people,’” he replied. “It’s very open-minded. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I think today’s activists are much more interested in creating a majority than they are in splintering off into factions.”
And if there were any activists in the house who were not interested in creating a majority, well, Take Back America had set up an activist-training program for them called “Progressive Majority Campaign Training Track.” In it, they could learn exactly how to talk to the little people so as to target their political vulnerabilities in the most considerate and painless and surgical manner imaginable according to the latest scientific studies. Your body will remain untouched; only your soul will be transformed.