The New York Times Magazine, in its cover story, makes an awkward, leering, occasionally illuminating, mostly misguided attempt to understand the grassroots movement that (deserved or not) has built around Howard Dean. What’s most stunning is the incredulity and confusion with which the Times confronts the prospect that politics could be built around – and create – communities, and that it could arise from and inform personal narratives in ways other than serving as a tool for the performance of privilege. Much of the article is full of accounts of bad break-ups meant to make these folks look pathetic and descriptions of personal eccentricities meant to make them look perverse:
He stripped to his underwear, lay on the floor in a fetal position and remained there for days, occasionally sipping from an old carton of orange juice. ”I was completely obliterated,” he says. ”I didn’t know something like that could actually cause physical pain.” Johnson’s friends kept calling, trying to think of something that would get him out of the house. Finally they hit on one: Howard Dean.
This paragraph, however, is perhaps more absurd:
It felt as much like a support group as a political rally. As they did at Clay Johnson’s meet-up in Atlanta, everyone went around the circle describing what drew them to Dean, usually in very personal language. Bob and Eileen Ehlers haltingly explained the problems their children, in their 20’s, have with health insurance, while Tony Evans nodded sympathetically.
That the most reputable newspaper in the US sees people choosing to get involved in campaigns based on personal experience and personal struggles as pathological is sad. That this is seen as a bleeding heart newspaper is just absurd.
There’s also Howard Dean as siren:
Long before Howard Dean was considered a plausible candidate for president, he seemed to emit some sort of secret call that made people, many of them previously apolitical, drop everything and devote themselves to his campaign.
Yet the Times also acknowledges that whatever this strategy is, it seems to be working:
By organizing its national network of Yogis, Howards, Dykes and Disney Employees for Dean, the campaign built an alternative to institutions like the D.L.C. Dean has raised $25 million, mostly through small checks — the average donation is $77 — and those checks have placed Dean at the top of the Democratic fund-raising pack. Dean’s opponents have begun to mimic the trappings of his campaign. Many of the Democratic candidates now have blogs. Even President Bush has one, though comments from the public — an essential element of Dean’s blog — are not allowed.
The article’s close suggests a glimmering, even at the New York Times Magazine, of understanding of what a grassroots campaign could be:
”What’s happening is an unusual and unprecedented correspondence between the campaign and us,” she says. It takes me a moment before I realize that when she says ”the campaign,” she doesn’t mean the people running the headquarters in Burlington. She means the people she’s going to visit in her Airstream.
I doubt I’m the only one who’s skeptical of quotes from supporters like
”But the strongest thing was that I could tell he is a good man,” Brooks says gravely. ”And if a good man were president, it would change everything in ways we can’t even imagine.”
But more important to me than whether Howard Dean is a good man is whether he’s a good organizer – and so far, he’s outpaced every one else by a long shot. Reading this piece reminded me of a recent essay in which Sam Smith wrote:
Come with me for a moment to the time of when politics was so much a part of New York City that Tammany Hall had to rent Madison Square Gardens for its meetings of committeemen – all 32,000 of them. . In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to its workers some years back, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.
We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.
…politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude. So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home. Yet like so much in our national life, we are only going through the motions, paying ritualistic obeisance to a faith we no longer follow. In fact, we have lost our way home. We must not only make politics a part of our culture but make our culture a part of our politics.
I share much of Sam Smith’s – and others’ – skepticism both about what Dean’s record portends for working people and about the depth of his commitment to a new new American politics that would include much of the strengths of the old one. But at least he’s a good enough organizer, and an innovative enough politician, to merit incredulous, confused pieces in the New York Times Magazine.