Goodbye Smoke Filled Room

Politics in America is undergoing a fundamental change. Say goodbye to smoke filled rooms and party directed elections. Say hello to true grass roots democracy.

For the most part the powers that be haven’t caught on yet. The Republicans in particular don’t get it. They raise money the old fashioned way: through fundraiser dinners where wealthy patrons write very large checks. Admittedly this is a pretty effective way of raising money, but the supply of wealthy Americans able to drop two thousand dollars at a fundraiser is a relatively small. Even with innovative techniques like “pioneers” and “rangers” that work their network of friends to bundle larger sums of money there is a limit to the amount of money even Bush can raise through this process.

The Democratic leadership isn’t much more innovative. Most presidential candidates are working the phones talking to wealthy donors and are speaking at rubber chicken fundraisers in order to fund their campaigns.

Both parties have in place national, congressional, senatorial and state campaign committees which depend on a core network of committed activists willing to tow the party line. One gets in power by working within the existing power structure and by being willing to compromise your political principles for the greater good. Effecting political change is almost an afterthought; getting and retaining power is the primary focus of political parties.

Increasingly this is not a game many of the disenfranchised grass roots want to play. They’ve seen the results, and what usually happens is that whoever gets in charge becomes disconnected from the real needs of the people, and spends time pandering to their base. As a result tax dollars are squandered toward those who keep politicians in power. I witnessed this in the 1980s working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While hundred dollar checks were appreciated, the focus was large contributions. This was done through means like “The Speaker’s Club” that allowed wealthy contributors to have face time with top congressional leaders. While this was the way the game had been played for years it was very disillusioning to actually see it in practice. I felt kind of dirty facilitating the process through information technology.

The internet has changed things. Since the cost of connecting with like minded people is dramatically lower, those with good technological and organizational skills can use the internet to find people of a similar political persuasion. Most Americans can afford an AOL account. The internet also allows for collaboration among communities that would otherwise be discouraged from coming together due to geography or time. Those with the most to gain from using these new tools were the first to leverage them. Consequently while Republican donors kept writing large checks, insurgent candidates who spoke to the common man like Howard Dean found a way to network those people. And these people found they could afford to send Howard $50 a month. It was a revelation that a whole lot of small contributions equaled or trumped the effects of $2000 contributions from the fundraiser circuit.

Last quarter Howard Dean raised nearly $15M, mostly from supporters primarily using the internet. When the Democratic National Committee tried a similar strategy by contrast it raised a couple hundred thousand dollars. This should tell the DNC something. But I’m not sure they are getting the message. The message is the Democratic Leadership is out of touch and estranged from its base. The Democratic Party is being taken over by its grass roots. I personally think this is a great thing, and I hope fervently that in the process we truly end up with a party that represents those who voted for it.

The energy I feel at the monthly Dean Meetups is palpable. These are people who are determined to win this election and take back the country. We are talking to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers and we are investing significant amounts of our time, energy and money to make it happen. We are empowering ourselves. This is the most amazing aspect of the Dean campaign: it is decentralized. We don’t wait for someone to tell us what to do. We will certainly listen to direction if Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, says we need to write letters to uncommitted voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. But others are networking with senior citizens, or are talking with veterans, or are reaching out to African Americans. We are effecting real change, and we don’t have to curry favor with some party hack in order to do it.

It remains to be seen how far this phenomenon goes. Clearly most Americans have tuned out politics and are more concerned about making a mortgage payment or having time with family. But organizations like have proven there is a committed base of people who, through small donations and by targeted phone calls and key moments can change policy. It was’s members, for example, that raised holy hell about the FCC’s change of policy on media ownership rules. This caused the Bush Administration to back down. Instead of 45% ownership of a media market that Chairman Michael Powell pushed through the FCC it looks like it will be raised slightly from 35% to 39%. Even with all branches of government controlled by the Republicans, MoveOn.Com members got it done. Bush’s veto threat apparently was toothless.

Such victories only embolden us to work harder. Howard Dean calls his campaign special interest free. It is not just words. It is a fact. If Howard Dean wins the nomination and the election he may well be the first president elected accountable to no one but the people. Rather than the faux Republican revolution we’ve been experiencing, we might well get that government of the people and by the people that we’ve claimed to have.

Let’s make it so.

One response to “Goodbye Smoke Filled Room”

  1. I’d like to believe that Howard Dean will run a White House free of influence from special interests, but that strikes me as wishful thinking. Witness Dean in Iowa now, telling the natives how much he likes ethanol subsidies. I don’t believe this is a position he came to from a careful analysis of what’s best for the country, but rather because this is a position he needs to take to win Iowa. I applaud Dean for a campaign that really mobilizes the energy of the grassroots. But I wonder if realpolitik will eventually alienate some of those fervent supporters. I suspect that Howard Dean will do just what he thinks it takes to get him in the Oval Office. If push comes to shove and he feels he will do better by pandering to some needed constituency at the risk of alienating the grassroots, I’ll bet ten to one he’ll pander. I think he likes riding the wave of populism, but that he’s not a populist at heart. This comment comes from someone who’s given $150 to the Dean campaign, by the way. Hope springs eternal in yours truly, too. Tom


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