IT HAS BEEN WIDELY OBSERVED that Dean for President--or, as the partisans call it, "Dean for America"--isn't so much a political campaign as a movement. But if that's true of the Deaniacs in general, it's doubly true of their virtual selves. The online Dean world isn't so much a virtual community as a cult.
There's the main site, of course, there's African Americans for Dean (not to be confused with Blacks for Dean--who said the good doctor was having trouble with minorities?), Project Deanlight, Republicans for Dean--there's even a charming site called DEANIE.org, which helps people who believe in campaign finance reform, but have already maxed out their independent expenditures, navigate a loophole and find ways to donate money to other Dean supporters who need money for campaign activities. This will be the most ethical campaign in history!
But the heart and soul of Virtual Dean is his blog, the aptly named Blog for America.
THE FIRST THING one notices about the Dean blog is its authorial voice. Even though the entries are signed by individuals, it's written largely in the second person. The effect is somewhat Orwellian, and long on the ick factor.
For example, blogger Mark Sundeen wrote in mid-December, "when we reach the point where Americans get the real scoop on the propaganda before they get fed the propaganda itself . . . that's when you'll know, once again, how much you have changed politics in this country. You are unstoppable. Contribute now to defend your campaign, and keep up the vigilance."
Earlier this week, Matthew Gross told the Deaniacs, "together, as Americans, you have built the only campaign strong enough to defeat George Bush and his corporate backers," while Clare Gannon warned that "the W. camp will try to bury you, but you don't have to let him."
The second impression from the blog is how full of indoctrination it is. Zephyr Teachout told a revival-style tale about her trip to Philadelphia:
Later we sat in the 30th street station and yelled at the ceiling so our voices would bounce back and others could hear the echoes, sharing stories that I've now heard thousands of times, but never in the same voice, stories about the why and the how of getting involved in the your hard-fought and hopeful American political revolution. [sic]
Imploring Deanites to hand out campaign literature, Gross asked readers to "please take the time to read the documents. Then, download and hand out copies of Howard Dean's Common Sense for a New Century. Ask others to join our cause. Whether responding to attack ads that perpetuate the politics of the past or leading the way to a new politics of participation, ours is the greatest grassroots campaign of the modern era--and together we are taking our country back."
And on New Year's day, Gannon was busily awarding gold stars to the best Dean followers:
So you think you're committed to this campaign? Are you committed like this? Kathleen Gallagher and Scott Morschhauser were trying to decide when to get married. Scott lives in Bettendorf, Iowa which is right on the Mississippi River and Kathleen lives in Illinois. They realized if they got married right away and Kathleen moved to Bettendorf right away, she could caucus for Dean on January 19. So they hopped on a plane to Vegas and tied the knot. . . .
Change a word here or there and the Blog for America could be a pitch for Amway or Scientology.
ONE OF THE MOST striking features of the Dean blog is the comment section, which allows readers to post their thoughts and interact with the writers and other readers in real time.
The Dean camp clearly thinks of itself as revolutionary, but browsing the comment logs, you get the idea that perhaps they mean it in the Bolshevik sense.
Frequent poster Charles Grapski wrote recently:
Our meetup went quite well in Gainesville Florida.
A good group of people--several new people which is always a good thing.
And what was great was the conversation. Extremely high level of discourse. This is what it is going to take to get our country back. . . .
The greatest strength of this campaign is its re-creation of a POLITY (a political community in the truest sense of the word).
WE really do have the POWER.
And that power has never been more needed to be implemented and applied until now. . . .
WE are Dean.
This is OUR country.
And we DEMAND it back (back to the path of democracy)
Getting the young involved in the revolution is a key. "Judith" recounted a story from National Meet-Up Day: "My favorite part of the night, though, involved the 8-year old son of a couple who came to their first meet-up. They had brought activities to keep their son busy while they participated, but after seeing the DVD, the third-grader had other ideas. He rose his hand and said, 'I really want to write a letter to Iowa. Is that OK?' So three cheers for Alex!"
Of course, like all true revolutions, the Dean project has international ambitions. Canadians are frequent contributors to the Dean message boards. "Anna" asked one of our friends from the North, ". . . have you guys out there in Canada considered connecting with HQ and promosing [sic] the following idea: citizens of foreign countries writing letters to Americans to explain their concerns about where the U.S. is headed under George W. Bush?"
It's a strategy that's never been tried before in American politics--a letter-writing campaign from citizens of a foreign country to persuade voters to dump their sitting president--but who's to say it won't work?
Yet even in the Dean comment sections, all isn't paradise. Again, like good revolutionaries, there is some pushing and shoving about who the "real Dean people" are.
When Slate suggested that some Deaniacs in New Hampshire might have played a prank on Wesley Clark, "Rose" worried that it was unbecoming of the Dean campaign. "Garry in Dallas," who indicates that his title is "Minister of Shrubbery Removal"--how clever!--concurred, saying "NO real Dean supporter would have done this on his/her own." ("Garry" further explained, "I smell a Karl Rove incident.")
But another Deaniac had little patience for "Rose": "The incident you describe was an example of the kind of thing needed to win a campaign--if you don't like it, maybe you should find another campaign to work for. This is a knife fight now, Rose, and we don't need the faint of heart."
Ultimately, "Rose" wasn't airbrushed out of the picture because Charlie Grapski vouched for her, offering, "Don't worry--real Dean people know you are not a troll. I would not be surprised if that was a troll who made those comments to you."
This last point--the issue of "trolls"--is of particular concern to the Blog for America community. People who express contrarian or questioning viewpoints are quickly labeled trolls (as in, if you don't feed the troll, he'll disappear) and much sport is made wondering for whom these operatives work. The knee-jerk response seems to always blame the Lieberman campaign, but cooler heads normally prevail. As "Sitka" recently summed it up, "The trolls all work for Bush."
IF NOTHING ELSE, these comment logs provide an interesting window into the mind of a Dean activist.
Following the December capture of Saddam Hussein, Best of the Web reported some troubling posts:
* "Carrie B": I can't believe this. I'm crying here. I feel that we now don't have a chance in this election.
* "Leslie in SF": I think it is shameful that the ACLU has not commented on the obvious mistreatment Hussein has suffered at the hands of the American military.
* "Muslims4Dean": If the Death toll mounts--good. It will teach the American people not to support Nazi Republicans who invase [sic] Muslim lands.
* "Johnny Smith": Muslims4Bush [sic]--don't think we can put it that way. We don't want Americans to die. But if Bush will not bring our boys home--then they're going to have to die so that Howard Dean can win.
But these are just anonymous rants, and, troubling as they may be, they don't necessarily indicate anything worse than what one finds on a daily basis in the San Francisco Chronicle's letters page. Charlie Grapski, whom we've met already, is a different matter.
One of Grapski's recent posts went like this:
Well--welcome to MY world. Because I am ANGRIER, ANGRIER, ANGRIER Charlie.
George Bush had damn well get out of my way--because I am taking MY country back from that thieving, immoral, moronic usurper.
Grapski is not an anonymous, random poster. He is "an instructor of Political Science at the University of Florida" who's finishing his doctorate ("My area of work is DEMOCRACY: What it is, why it's important, why what we have isn't it, and how we can get it."). And he has his very own page on the Dean for America site.
ALL POLITICIANS have their scary, wild-eyed supporters--think Jack Black in "Bob Roberts"--and the Bushies are no exception. For instance, in one widely circulated email from a few months back, a mid-level Bush appointee leaving her job sent a farewell missive including the following passage to a mass email list:
On President George H.W. Bush's first day in office he found a hand-written note in the Oval Office desk from President Reagan which said "don't let the turkeys get you down." After living in and out of DC over the last 10 years I've learned that this is not as easy as it sounds. Nonetheless, it's a very true statement and clearly one that President George W. Bush lives by. I pray that each of you will do the same. After all, God is a lot bigger than turkeys :-)
It's been an honor and a privilege to serve the President of the United States (not to mention a childhood dream of mine). I leave knowing that America is not only in very capable hands but courageous, God-fearing ones. May God continue to bless this great President and this great country!
Even Lincoln would blush at this sort of treatment; it's bizarre and disconcerting.
Yet Bush's blog (yes, he has one too) is surprisingly normal. It's written in the style of the third-person press release. It is reliably--and after the Blog for America, comfortably--boring.
Unlike the Blog for America, which rarely mentions any news or current events, preferring to talk only about the microcosm of the Dean campaign, the Bush blog frequently posts items about stories in the news. (For example, the adopting of Afghanistan's new constitution or local schools receiving federal money.)
These entries are posted by the eponymous "GeorgeWBush.com" and have as much personality as a paperweight. But at least you get the sense that no one at Bush HQ is going to ask you to move to a politically expedient state or have your 8-year-old write chain letters.
Perhaps most telling, however, is the Bush blog's lack of a comment section. There's no place for readers to jabber and connect. More importantly, there's no place for Bushies to cultivate a mob mentality (there are plenty of other right-wing sites where this goes on). The Bush blog says what the Bush blog says, and that's that. Take it or leave it. You're a citizen, make up your own mind, and cast your vote.
The world wide Dean community probably sneers at this quaint, atomic notion. They seem much more interested in the particle theory of politics, where voters bump up against one another and create an excited state.
At the end of the day, the Blog for America is really all about you, which is good, because it changes the terms of voting for Howard Dean. As Grapski puts it, "WE are DEAN." Instead of voting for national security or health care or policies or ideologies, a vote for Howard Dean is a vote for your community, your friends, your message-board buddies, your Meet-Up group--for yourself.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.