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What Howard Dean Sees in the Future of People-Powered Politics

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, June 20 2013

Former Vermont Governor and Democratic Presidential Candidate Howard Dean. Photo: Steve Bott / Flickr

Never mind fear of growing government surveillance or anger at a dysfunctional Congress, progressive Democrats.

Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential hopeful and architect of the "50-state strategy", told a roomful of progressives Wednesday night that the left has plenty of reason for optimism.

"It’s very easy to get discouraged about all the things that are going wrong," he admitted, speaking at a party held in advance of Netroots Nation this week.

But he implored people to look at how much has changed in the past decade.

"In 2001 when George Bush took office, there was one state with marriage equality. Ten years later, we have nine states, and today we have 12. The country isn’t run by the political class, the country is run by you," he told a noisy crowd of a couple of hundred progressive bloggers and activists who had gathered at the Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose at a Netroots Nation 2013 kick-off party organized by the Courage Campaign.

Dean's famously people-powered campaign established that basic premise, and despite its eventual collapse in Iowa, it was during that campaign that Democrats began to build the technologically aided, mobilization-focused infrastructure that would propel the party to key victories in 2008 and 2012. Even today, many key players in the Democratic Party, including the core technology companies NGP VAN and Blue State Digital, trace their roots to that campaign.

Dean still has his fans. One of them walked up to him after his remarks and called him "Mr. President."

But his voice and familiar, optimistic framing of people-powered politics on the 10-year anniversary of his presidential campaign was overwhelmed by the loud murmur of the cocktail party chatter, which failed to die down even after he started his address. The result was that his short speech sounded viscerally more like a loud background drone that faded and blended into the noise rather than the focused, empowering pep talk that he obviously meant it to be.

Dean said that his 2004 campaign theme, "you have the power," is "more true now" than it was back in 2003 when he first launched his groundbreaking presidential bid. His campaign pioneered the idea of online fundraising with unusual ploys. The most well-known of those was a fundraising appeal in which he spoke with supporters via webcam over a ham sandwich, which ended up raising more for his campaign than Vice President Dick Cheney was able to do at an exclusive $2,000-a-head fund-raising lunch.

The former governor of Vermont cited the ongoing growth of Internet-and-people-driven progressive activism, pointing to advocacy groups like the Courage Campaign and his own group, Democracy for America, as another reason for his optimism.

Parag Mehta, who was the Dean campaign's deputy political director, and who is now at the Department of Labor as a communications director, is carrying on with another aspect of Dean's legacy by participating in a strategy session this Thursday that focusses on reviving Dean's once-controversial 50-state strategy. 270 Strategies and Obama 2012's Field Director Jeremy Bird will also be part of that discussion.

"The most important thing about that campaign was that it empowered an entire new generation," Dean said. "The current president of the United States became president because of the extraordinary efforts four years earlier by a bunch of people who were 20 years old. I get a lot of credit that I don’t deserve for figuring out the Internet revolution’s impact on politics. I didn’t figure it out. I was just smart enough to listen to all these 20-year-olds."

While he relished the innovations of his campaign and their legacy, Dean didn't indicate much of a desire to run again.

"In the American system, it’s not very often you go back a generation. Obama is part of a new generation," he said, when asked whether he'd consider running for president again. "I don’t know why it wouldn’t be someone else of this generation rather than going back to my generation.”

Wednesday evening's party is the beginning of a four-day get-together that has morphed over the years from a disparate gathering of outsider citizen-bloggers in Las Vegas to a form of a political convention that now is attended by more than 3,000 people and involves more than 80 panels and 40 training sessions on everything from how to be a better networker to strategizing on how to wage long-term campaigns to flip state legislatures from red to blue. While Dean was brimming with optimism, the traditional netroots have more to be concerned about, such as disagreements with the president over NSA surveillance and the Keystone XL pipeline or the more structural concern about the newest arrival to the Democratic milieu, the president's donor-financed but avowedly grassroots post-campaign organization, Organizing for Action.

Politicians slated to attend this year include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.); Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents San Jose; former Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank; Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.); and other local California Democrats. Honda challenger Ro Khanna, Obama's former deputy assistant commerce secretary and a technology lawyer, will also be at Netroots Nation, although he won't be on stage likae Honda will with his Democratic colleagues. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) Stockton City Council Member Michael Tubbs, New Jersey State Senator Barbara Buono and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) also plan on attending.

Netroots Nation organizers chose San Jose this year because they thought last year's protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act and its House counterpart demonstrated the potential power of the tech community as allies in important policy fights.

"In San Jose, we have a great organizing opportunity," said Netroots Nation's Executive Director Raven Brooks in an e-mail note. "A year ago, we saw unprecedented activism from the tech community over SOPA and PIPA. This is a community that's largely been absent from activism despite assaults on a free and open Internet. Progressives need to work with tech leaders to stand strong on issues like privacy."

I'll be exploring these very subjects in a panel session Saturday afternoon with Code for America's International Co-ordinator Catherine Bracy, technology strategist and former Netroots Nation CEO Gina Cooper, Jonathan Nelson, founder of Hackers and Founders, and Kristine Gloria, communications director for the tech startup advisory group PolitiHacks.