February 18, 2004
Most of the commentaries about Dean's lasting role in the future of Democratic politics has centered on his web-fundraising, but I think that his campaign did something much larger to the architecture of the party. Certainly it has been noted that the Dean campaign excited previously non-political groups (i.e. young people), but I don't think enough has been made of the potential long term benefits his efforts have germinated. His campaign has redefined the political for a large section of voters who were either apathetic or unattractive to the process, and this may have huge implications for future election cycles.
Yes, he was there at the right time: Bush's domestic and foreign policies easily enraged even the most mild of liberals and Dean was there to voice their anger by standing up to Bush when no other candidates would. But beyond just being a conduit for the left, Dean also taught far left liberals what it meant to be political. Yes, he would continue to lash out at Bush and the me-too Democrats, but he would also lay out a rather centrist fiscal and social agenda to make his campaign more than a just platform for minority views. And the amazing thing is that the far left ate this up: from the earthfirsters to the academics his supporters learned to compromise their own agendas enough to get into the political ring and take a stand.
Being in academics, I know how what an accomplishment this is. I've been frustrated for a long time with so many of my colleagues, who despite their intelligence in the world of academia refused to sully themselves in the world of politics. One of the brightest students in my department summarized his participation in the 2000 elections as voting for Nader "just to record his protest vote" (and not because he had any affinity with Nader's message). What a waste of a mind, and that's just one. Imagine if he took his smarts and applied them to the realm of politics, even just a little. And then multiply that by thousands of other bright people who don't want to dirty their intellect with electoral politics.
Greens and Naderites often counter back that the Democratic party doesn't represent them so why should they support the party's candidates. Even beyond the fact that a third party vote is a vote for Bush, I think third party strategies are completely wrongheaded. If everyone who felt their voice wasn't represented in the Democratic party participated in the party, then accordingly the party would shift its agenda, however so slightly. But the real problem is that this hasn't been good enough for the far left. They haven't been willing to get their hands dirty in the realm of politics, which requires that they concede that their position is not the only one on the table. Such political purity has produced an aloof left that has effectively neutered itself politically. And as they stand and watch, the Democratic party has crept to the center more and more.
It's obviously too early to tell at this point, but Dean's campaign may have shaken that constituency out of it's dogmatic slumber. Now the left is a potent force (both in terms of numbers and campaign dollars), and with Dean's speech today, he is planning to employ them through to the general election. The results could be decisive. Hopefully that effect can be one element of Dean's legacy.