I went to a fascinating and inspiring lecture last night (actually it was part of my political strategy class with David Wilhelm) by Rick Klau, one of the heavy lifters in the Dean campaign and probably one of the most credible voices in the country now on technology and political campaigning. He talked a little bit about his relationship with the Dean campaign, why and how he got involved, and where that involvement took him. More importantly, he outlined his vision of how technology worked for Dean, and how those innovations could and should be brought to other campaigns. He's written up the talk here, definitely worth a close read.
His central idea (and it will be familiar to those who followed the Dean campaign) was that today's technology doesn't lend itself to the kinds of command and control, hierarchical campaign structures that campaigns have traditionally employed. Instead, the internet is a medium that promotes conversation and has the potential to get people involved in ways they've never been able to before. There was the idea of first a weblog and then a weblog with a healthy and unrestricted comments section that could engage people and elicit real responses from the campaign. There was MeetUp.com, which allowed people to get together where they might not have known about each other before. But there was innovation in the organization of authority too: people could set up their own fundraisers, publicize their own campaign events, and get recognition from the campaign for their work.
What this did was create an atmosphere were people could engage the debate, make their voice heard, and get right into the thick of political culture, and it worked like a charm. Early on the campaign goals were people, money, and name recognition; this strategy yielded all three. And even though Dean eventually lost the primary, nobody will argue that his candidacy didn't energize the Democratic base and recast the other candidates, contributing in the most central way to what I hope will be a Kerry victory in November.
There is a case being made (even by me, in January) that all of this user-friendliness ended up working against Dean in the last moments before Iowa. Having all those Dean volunteers out there in orange hats or calling several times a day may have grated on the nerves of Iowans, may have pushed them to other candidates. There is no way of knowing, even now, whether all these thousands of volunteers exercised the necessary message discipline (this is a nice way of saying weren't crazy)or how much their presence damaged their candidate.
Rick rejected this view, actually making the opposite case. He attributes the meltdown to management mistakes at the top level of the campaign (mishandling the Gore endorsement, or going with a negative ad in the week just before the caucus) and to the candidate himself, whose delivery and message problems are by now well-documented. In his view, the problem was that in December, when things were starting to look bad, the top people changed their approach and didn't go back to the grassroots to get creative input, opinion, and buy-in. Instead, they floated along and tried to handle these problems centrally, which looked bad for a grassroots candidate like Dean and in any case wasn't what they'd shown they were good at. Rick didn't flesh out this idea too much, but my sense is that the establishment flavor imparted by Dean's frontrunner status and his high profile endorsements (esp Gore) changed the attitude of the central campaign figures, and that they didn't know how to manage a candidate in this position. So, instead of sticking with the game they'd played for months, they started to act like an establishment campaign.
I would definitely like to hear more from Rick and others on the way the campaign's approach changed toward the end, and whether the grassroots rank and file helped or hindered in the end. To me that has to be the central question of the campaign in terms of how influential this internet grassroots/buy-in model will/should be in the future. Does this organizational model work, or are there fatal inherent contradictions?
Several things greatly interest me about this, starting with the tension between the candidate and the campaign. Since only one person can actually be president and wield that power, the election is at least to some extent a referendum on the person, and if you're trying to make a campaign about participation and buy-in, there's a tension there. In the case of Howard Dean, maybe the tension was especially great. Sure, he had a great ability to generate enthusiasm and serve as a conduit for political outrage, but his public appearances were full of small blunders and he often wandered off message. Also he didn't have that talent for bringing people onboard that would have helped him incorporate and validate the views of a huge corps of volunteers. His anti-war message felt inclusive because so many people felt strongly about it and didn't have anywhere else to go, and certainly Dean's rhetoric energized them, but at least in my view he wasn't as good at articulating a positive political vision.
There's also this question: what would have happened had Dean been elected? Could he have maintained the same kind of participatory management style he used in during the campaign? My gut reaction is that there'd be no way to do this without fundamentally changing the nature of the executive. (For a senator or representative, a more participatory decisionmaking process seems much more natural, at least to me, since there isn't a specific management component to those positions. Advocacy fits in a lot better with what a senator or representative already does. Rick mentioned a couple of local races that are using a Dean-style approach, and it will be interesting to see how those campaigns are transformed when a candidate is elected. The system will have a lot going for it, in a legislative context.) A president makes huge management decisions based on information that the public doesn't or even can't have. involving people in that process, with incomplete information, and giving them the ear of the president, seems a little unbalancing. Certainly it upsets the rational ignorance with which most voters approach politics today, very possibly to the benefit of a talkative few, or in other words, special interests. I should be clear that I'm not arguing against access or transparency; these seem like good things. But the questions are complicated ones that don't answer themselves. Are we going to see a major transformation in the nature of the executive as office holders respond more and more directly to constituents?
I expect we will. The Dean model is so similar in my mind to the open-source movement and changes in information availability that are transforming other areas of our society and challenging our traditional understanding of markets. We're learning there is tremendous value in these kinds of participatory models that may not be adequately explained by rational decisionmaking and economics. These are processes that can't easily be subsumed by the market, but the benefits are potentially huge. Can they be incorporated into existing political and market structures? I don't know, but Iowa is a good place to start looking for the answer.