October 2nd, 2006

Voted for Dean

Dean's "You Have the Power," and Rage

There were three things that I found that in current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean's book You Have the Power that, between them, made it so interesting and worthwhile reading that I'm tempted to buy a case of them to give out as Christmas presents this year. I talked about one of them, the "50 state strategy," the other day. The other two relate to Dr. Dean himself, and particularly the man's reputation as "the angry candidate."

The first is Dean's story of how he became the candidate representing college kids, Left Blogistan, and the slender remaining Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It's the beginning of that story, the part that I didn't know, that fascinated me. You can read most of the first chapter in the online excerpt at Amazon.com, but I feel like I have to quote the whole first page of chapter 1 verbatim, and a little of page 2:
"I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK!"

The words just rose from my gut. And when they hit the room on that sunny March day in 2003, everything seemed to stop. The California Democrats, who only minutes earlier had been milling around, talking among themselves, and half listening as presidential candidate after candidate made a play for their attention, paused. Everyone seemed to take a deep breath. And then the whole convention exploded.

"WE WANT OUR COUNTRY BACK!"

"I don't want to be divided any more,"
I said. "I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers any more. I want America to look like America."

People were weeping quietly. Some were openly sobbing. Others were screaming. Standing on their chairs and stamping their feet. Outside in the corridors, people were spontaneously writing checks and throwing them at my staff. They lined up, they mobbed us as we tried to make our way through the lobby. Some came away crying again, my aides later told me, because they'd been able to touch my suit. My old $125 JCPenny suit. ... What was happening in that room had very little to do with me. I'd been the catalyst for an eruption of feeling that was much deeper, more powerful, and, I would learn, more powerful than I'd ever imagined. It was a low-burning fire of resentment and rage. All it needed was a simple spark in order to explode.
For me, the spark was looking back over the preceding two and a half decades in my June, 2004 retrospective about the death of Ronald Reagan; you can see the rage simmering in part 3 of that retrospective, "Remember Reagan (conclusion): Reaganomics." For some of you, that anger started earlier. For some of you, it was later. For Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's news analysis show "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," it was a couple of weeks ago, when President Bush and his surrogates went so far as to say that it was not only wrong to disagree with the President, or even to question him, it was treasonous and "unacceptable to think" it was okay to do so. For some of you, it was as recent as this last week, when we saw that the end result of the Republican Revolution was an America so far gone into the trappings of dictatorship, have granted such unprecedentedly dictatorial power to the President that we may no longer be able to reverse course, that we may be as trapped as the Romans were aftering granting the same powers to general Pompey in order to conquer the terrorists of their day.

We have a picture in our mind of what America looks like, and we cannot reconcile what we are seeing with that picture. As Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz wrote in their short story "Shadowplay" in Brought to Light, the heart-breaking graphic novel documentary about the revelations of CIA misconduct that came out during the Christic Insititute's own investigation of Iran/Contra, "This isn't America. This is America's shadow."

Is that anger counter-productive? I could make a case to the contrary by citing a recent example. The same anger, by the other side, is how we got into this mess. It is that exact same anger, directed at the Progressives, that fueled the propaganda machine and the political machine that became known (after its first successes) as the Reagan Revolution. I've mentioned before that there was a brief bipartisan consensus among the upper class and the upper middle class, in the first couple of years after World War II, on a utopian vision of an America that would look exactly like Pleasantville. But those who would have been oppressed by that unrealistic fantasy refused to roll over and accept it. And hundreds of years of US tradition, culture, and law were on their side, not on the side of the falsely-named "Return to Normalcy" campaign of 1946-1948. The result was a march to victory on behalf of women, minorities, the environment, and the working class. The result was also a proof that (contrary to what Republicans like Calvin Coolidge and Charles Wilson and Ronald Reagan told us), it's what's good for those constituencies, not what's good for Fortune 500 companies, that makes America more prosperous (even for the Fortune 500) and that makes America stronger and safer.

None of which mattered to some people, because they couldn't reconcile a world of uppity college students, feminists, negros, and factory workers who "don't know their place" with their vision of America. No matter how powerful and prosperous America became under Progressive Democrats, it didn't match their vision of what America "means," of what America was "for" -- namely, for the benefit an exclusive clique of very white and very wealthy Protestants that they felt were the source of everything good in America. And that's why, for so long, there was this cliché that Democrats were the funny party and Republicans were the angry party, and why even in victory so many Republicans and their spokesmen seem bitterly angry. They got into the habit. But that anger served them well; it gave them the energy to keep slogging away at making their case until they won. So I'm not going to begrudge the Howard Deans and Keith Olbermanns of the world their anger. Maybe we'll need that anger if we're ever going to get back to an America that looks like America, that stands up for American values.
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