I attended my first “meet up” for Howard Dean last night.
For an internet savvy person like myself I wonder why it took me so long. It’s not like I haven’t been working in electronic communities for nearly 20 years now. I’ve been contributing to the Dean campaign for several months now, listening to his speeches on line, haunting his Blog for America site and basically fascinated by what he seems to have started. I’ve come to the conclusion that with Dean it’s not so much what he says as how he says it. He has personality and he has attitude. I can’t say that any of the other candidates, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich. In many ways Dean is the Democratic Party’s response to John McCain.
Still these are worrying times even for Dean Supporters as a hitherto largely unknown, recently Republican, but highly respected Wesley Clark recently threw his hat into the Democratic nomination. In fundraising Dean still has “the big mo” with 14.8 million dollars contributed in the last quarter. But in polls he is not so much slipping as is Wesley Clark has filled in the undecided column. This puts Dean in a competitive position again.
Nonetheless I’ve been excited by the Dean phenomenon. At the meeting last night at the public library in Chantilly, Virginia we learned that the average contribution to the Dean campaign was $87. This is amazing. You can guess what the average contribution to the Bush campaign amounts to: thousands and thousands of dollars. The Dean Campaign is funded by the masses. The Bush campaign is funded by Republican fat cats. Even among the Democratic candidates, most of the remainder get their money the old fashioned way: via the rubber chicken circuit.
Dean supporters are the real deal: large numbers of average Americans giving part of their hard earned money and lots of their free time to a candidate they believe in. I don’t think this has been done before in modern history. Moreover, Dean, unlike all the other candidates, can concentrate largely on campaigning instead of raising money. Soliciting contributions over the Internet makes the cost of getting contributions very small. More money can be used to build the campaign, instead of being funneled into more fundraisers.
The Dean Campaign used an existing site, meetup.com, to arrange the logistics of putting otherwise disconnected strangers together. Volunteers agree to host a Dean gathering in their home or in some public space. The Chantilly library was a good choice because about 50 people showed up; most living rooms won’t accommodate crowds of this size. There might well have been more people except the meet up software seems to have been a bit confused, and suggested that our meet up had been moved to another location in Annandale.
The lady facilitating the meeting was a lady named Geri about my age or a little older. I volunteered to help her set up and she took me up on it. The meeting was at 7 PM but I arrived at 6:30 PM. A young guy named Sam was already there and he and I started setting up chairs. Geri arrived a bit late and had us rearrange the place. She needed tables because tonight was a letter writing night.
The Dean campaign seems savvy enough to send packets to meet up organizers. She had a box of brochures, bumper stickers, buttons and lots of writing paper and envelopes, with stamps already inside the envelopes. We lined up some tables near the door and made sure attendees put their names on the attendance sheets and wore name tags. Geri dragged in a TV set and VCR. Her packet came with a short video from the Dean campaign that she used to start the meeting. It was a good video. Howard Dean’s passion clearly came through, and many of us clapped or applauded certain lines. (I particularly like this often repeated observation that he simply tells the truth, and it scares the hell out of Republicans.)
The video followed with 45 minutes or so of general discussion. We had a few people who were just curious and not committed to any particular candidate. We shared our thoughts and opinions on the man and the campaign. I shared my experience working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee back in 1987-1988 and how disenfranchised I felt when I realized our government was truly up for sale. I said I was excited by the Dean movement because it was the antidote to this mess, and I hoped the decentralized, empowered Dean people would have the energy to take back not just the White House but the Congress as well. Virtually all of us wanted to roll back the Bush years. We want our old country and old values back. In that sense perhaps we were conservatives. Most of us were progressive, but we believed in balanced budgets and for the United States to be a full and equal partner in international affairs. We discussed some frequent myths about Howard Dean, such as that he is a liberal and that he is not electable. I think we opened a few minds that night.
Some people lobbied for particular causes. One person needed people to hand out flyers. Others wanted to staff a table at a Fairfax City parade. Another wanted help reaching out to the senior community. These efforts met with mixed success; not everyone had quite the energy to attack all these causes.
The last part of the meeting was a letter writing exercise. We were asked to compose two letters, in our own words. The first letter went to Al Gore, Jesse Jackson or Bill Bradley. I made mine to Al Gore and said that he should endorse Howard Dean, and I listed my reasons. The second letter depended on your congressional district. In my case it went to Virginia Governor Mark Warner and it followed a format similar to the one I wrote to Al Gore. We addressed, sealed and stamped them ourselves and turned them into Geri.
I was expecting a younger crowd, but it was truly a mixed crowd with the exception that there was not an African American in the room. (We did have some Oriental and Hispanic Americans.) There were a number of students from George Mason University, there were a number of senior citizens or retired folk, and there were lots of middle aged people like me. The common theme though was a feeling of disenfranchisement and horror with three years of George Bush as president and a dogged determination to take our country back.
In short is was a fun time, but it was also useful and meaningful. It felt very much like democracy in action, something we often talk about in theory but fail to carry out. Despite the fact that most of us had never met before, we felt bonded and started calling each other by first names. As the meeting wound up (the library closed promptly at 9) a number wanted to go out for drinks and unwind. I hadn’t anticipated that and declined but it might be fun to do it some time in the future.
I am sure I’ll be at the next meet up and probably at subsequent ones too. It was fun, I felt empowered and I felt connected. I felt that what we were doing was not wasted effort. I felt hopeful and a bit determined to do what I can to take my country back.
If you are a progressive I encourage you to go to deanlink.deanforamerica.com and sign up for the November meet up. Check out both deanforamerica.com and blogforamerica.com. I can tell you for sure now that this movement is very real. It’s a great way to do good for your country as well as to meet new friends. Don’t feel you have to be a Dean supporter to attend. Just go and observe. I think you will be impressed.