Democracy may be an endless meeting, but on the first Wednesday in June, former Gov. Howard Dean's (D-Vt.) troops in Washington proved that if you try really hard, you can get it down to about an hour and a half. Around 80 people crammed into Visions Cinema, a movie-theater-cum-lounge on Florida Avenue NW, and spilled out into the street for that amount of time earlier this month while volunteers from DC for Dean talked up the charismatic candidate and passed the hat -- and federal donor-registration forms -- for the man who would be president.
At first the scene looked chaotic. "For the next 45 years we're going to be fucked over with the national debt," Michael Fierro was telling his friend as I walked into the room. Louritha Green, craning her neck over a line of people waiting to get into the narrow bar area of Visions, asked, "I wonder who's leading this?" Matt Hunter, also in line, had his own burning question -- "Are there sign-up sheets?" -- and was eager to tell me about the mood in the room.
It's "angry," he said.
"And gay!" added Fierro.
"Angry and gay," concluded Hunter, nodding his head with mock seriousness.
Though the participants were certainly angry about the direction the country is heading in, there were no more identifiably gay men in the crowd than you might find in the Dupont Circle venue on a regular Wednesday night, and order of a sort was soon established by a group of enthusiastic volunteers with sign-up sheets and clip-boards. By the end of the evening, the group -- one of three Dean Meetups, as the events are called, in the D.C. area -- had raised $1,380 for Dean from those at Visions alone. Dozens of new supporters, meanwhile, registered to join a series of six fundraising house parties in the city over the next month.
The evening, part of "National Dean in 2004 Meetup Day," was organized through Meetup.com, a Web site that helps people organize "local gatherings about anything, anywhere." Other communities of interest who are using the site to organize meetings of like-minded individuals include Wiccans, beagle lovers and Corvette owners. While the site itself is apolitical and non-partisan, Dean supporters have, since January, been using it to organize gatherings in support of their candidate.
As a result, on the same night the Dean Meetups took place in the Washington area, similar scenes were playing out at 259 different venues in 231 cities, with groups ranging in size from three people to more than 100 -- all meeting to plot how to get Dean elected president. Many of those groups asked each participant to make a donation to the Dean campaign, which has so far raised more that $400,000 through Meetup meetings -- at a cost to the campaign of $2,500 each month, according to Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi.
And if you think the Meetup meetings in Washington, D.C. were a little too insidery to matter much to the campaign, which is focused on building support in critical caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, think again. According to Myles Weissleder, vice president for communications of Meetup, the highest concentration of the 32,353 people registered, as of early June, to Meetup for Dean in the United States resides right here inside the Beltway. There were more than 1,429 signed up in DC for Dean shortly after the last Meetup, making Washington's Meetup for Dean registration second in size only to the chapter found in New York City -- a place that is about 10 times the size of Washington and home to more than 2,000 online Dean supporters.
Meanwhile, the early primary and caucus states, where Internet organizing might be expected to be of greater importance, had very low levels of Meetup registration. As of the last Meetup, Iowa had only 363 registered to Meetup for Dean, New Hampshire had 552 and South Carolina had 206, says Weissleder.
"Those are the three states we're in the most," exclaimed Trippi when I rattled off the paltry numbers. "We've had this experience for quite a while. As you start traveling, it's pretty difficult to get people to come to a meeting without Howard Dean at it when they can come to several of them per month with Howard Dean at them. He can be there seven days a month in Iowa and four days in New Hampshire, so people ask, 'Why am I going to go to a meeting the first Wednesday of each month when I know Sunday he's going to the picnic I'm going to?'"
Though that may well be the case, it somewhat undermines Trippi's earlier assessment in The New Republic that the Meetup organization, which was founded a year ago, would likely help Dean in the Iowa caucuses. "What do you do in a caucus? You go to a meeting," Trippi told TNR's Ryan Lizza.
Might it be that residents of the early primary and caucus states are simply not as Internet savvy as those in New York and Washington? Certainly Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who made a point of promising to expand broadband Internet access as part of his rural agenda during a campaign stop in Nevada, Iowa, seems to think so. But according to Jane Smith Patterson, executive director of the Rural Internet Access Authority in North Carolina, that's simply not the case -- thanks in part to groups like hers.
The use of broadband Internet technologies, one measure of online access, has skyrocketed in the more rural American states over the past year. According to a June 10, 2003, Federal Communications Commission report, as of Dec. 31, 2002, nearly half a million computers had broadband access in the top three early primary and caucus states. Since 1999, the number of coaxial cables, another measure of Internet access, has jumped from 15,000 to 159,000 lines in South Carolina and from around 14,000 to nearly 84,000 in Iowa. And digital-subscriber lines went from none reported in 1999 to 29,161 in South Carolina last year and 38,293 in Iowa. Factor in widespread access to dial-up modems and the single biggest determinant today of whether people are online in these states turns out to be whether or not they have a computer.
"Percentage-wise, the rural areas are catching up with the nonrural areas," says Rob Hillesland, an information specialist with the Iowa Utilities Board, which monitors Internet access in the first caucus state. The board's most recent survey showed that nearly 68 percent of both rural and urban areas in Iowa had access to broadband Internet services. "That's the first time that gap has nearly closed. They're nearly the same if you look at the numbers," he says.
The gap that hasn't closed is the one between the states where Dean for America is on the ground and the ones where the campaign can't yet afford to go. "Those places where we have an infrastructure in place, people plug directly into the campaign organization," notes Trippi. "Whereas in a state like Washington state, Meetup is our entire organization."
To political reporters, the Meetup phenomenon seems brand-new. And to the extent that the Internet is involved, it is. But if you've ever spent any time in the political precincts of the left -- where issue-advocacy, community-service and identity-based groups have flourished while support for the Democratic Party has withered -- you can see that the Meetup phenomenon is in fact drawing on and replicating the social dynamics of nonprofit and movement-based organizations that have, over the past three decades, become the dominant means of civic participation by people on the left.
To the extent that any presidential candidate will be able to tap into the power of the Internet, I will hazard a prediction: None will be able to mobilize the kind of support that Dean has generated (and will continue to generate over the coming six months). The Internet, as a technology, is perfectly suited to the people who make up the "Democratic wing" of the Democratic Party and its Green and independent sympathizers. While such businesses as Amazon.com and eBay may have made Americans more comfortable with online donations and helped Dean become the first presidential candidate ever to raise more than $1 million online, in the end it is the group MoveOn.org that more accurately gives a picture of the energy fueling Dean's online rise. Founded in 1998 via an e-mail sent to about 300 people by screen-saver millionaire Wes Boyd, the group today has 1.4 million people registered. Last fall and winter, it mobilized millions of people in thousands of anti-Iraq War protests throughout the world; it also sparked a massive online letter-writing campaign to Congress.
"Even we were shocked by the power of this," Boyd told The Washington Post earlier this month. "We were bowled over."
What MoveOn and Meetup have tapped into is a growing fury within a segment of the population that feels utterly unrepresented by any political official and thoroughly disenfranchised by the role of money in politics. The technology merely gave those previously isolated individuals a mechanism for uniting and organizing.
"We built [Meetup] for knitters and poodle owners. We didn't know what the hell it was going to be used for," says William Finkel, Meetup's outreach manager. "The jet fuel behind this thing and propelling it is not just our server code but the people."
Through Meetup, Dean is giving his supporters a means for feeling at home with something novel: partisan, electoral activity. And they get to use Meetup -- and the Howard Dean campaign -- as a means of empowering themselves and believing that their voices matter again. "We want this to be your group as much as it is ours," 29-year-old DC for Dean visibility-committee chairwoman Kirstin Fearnley shouted, standing on a chair at Visions. "There's no hierarchy here."
As Trippi noted, the Meetups are giving rise to the early stirrings of state campaigns. The Meetups in Washington have recently led to the formation of DC for Dean, about 30 people who plan to organize and raise money offline for Dean. "We all just started," says Jessica Robin, a 37-year-old NASA contractor who works at the Goddard Space Flight Center and has just gone from never having written a check for any politician to being the volunteer finance chairwoman of DC for Dean. "We're all, like, totally new."
Indeed, the fundraising haul from Meetups for Dean far exceeds the official tally, says Trippi, as Dean supporters have used the meetings to organize a whole network of small-scale, offline fundraising events. "What happens on an actual [Meetup] night is a good thing, but it's what people do the rest of the month" that really matters, says Trippi.
In some ways, these small-scale fundraisers and coffee klatches act like vote buying in reverse. "If you give $10, you're going to think about Gov. Dean and you're going to vote for Gov. Dean," says Robbins. "We need money, but we want to raise awareness, too."
All of this is helped along by a message not just of Democratic renewal but of democratic renewal. In 2000, Al Gore ran on "the people versus the powerful" formulation. But it was, in many ways, a shallow contrivance, a fake, instrumental populism that turned "the people" into backdrops and anecdotes and audiences. Within the participatory democracies of the Meetup meetings, Dean is giving the phrase real meaning.
"The energy of the Dean Meetups is a driving force in our campaign," Dean e-mailed the Meetup members last Tuesday night in advance of his June 23 official campaign kickoff. "This is a chance to bring together everything you have been doing and show the national press the extraordinary depth of this grassroots movement."
While most politicians artfully offer skilled representation, Dean brilliantly offers people a chance to represent themselves. "You have the power, not me," he told the annual convention of Campaign for America's Future June 5. "You have the power to take back this country."
Dean delivers his message in the home language of American politics -- the spirited, individualistic, independent Yankee creed that created us as a nation and as a people. It's ideological, yet it's not promoting the ideology of left or right but of America and democracy itself.
It's no wonder that when describing their conversion into Dean supporters, many of those I spoke with at the Meetup in Washington -- as well those I've met at candidate forums in Iowa and South Carolina -- sound as though they're talking about love at first sight rather than arriving at a conscious political decision. "I watched him speaking on C-SPAN for two minutes in January and I said, 'This is my guy,'" says Stanton Denman, a former Pentagon employee, in Washington. "I watched him for five minutes and I said, 'I want to work for him.'"
It was Dean's manner, too, that first drew Henry Bofinger, a 37-year-old management consultant, into the Dean camp. "I felt that if anyone is able to stare down this administration and call a duck a duck, it's him," Bofinger says. "And then when I learned about his policy positions, I liked him even more."
Indeed, Dean's supporters often seem to like him not because of his positions but without any knowledge of them, or despite them. "They need some refinement," notes Kevin Varney, a former economic adviser to Bill Clinton who's now director of the New Threats Initiative of Business Executives for National Security and who attended the Meetup in Washington. "He needs to be more thoughtful on foreign policy."
But Varney's willing to agree to disagree, because of what Dean is doing that no other candidate is. Through the Meetups, Dean is creating community, stimulating political discourse, building the rough outlines of a movement and expanding the public sphere -- all while creating a mechanism to position himself to compete in at least the first few primaries. It's great strategy. Even more importantly, it's great politics.
"Some campaigns are afraid of their supporters," says Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup. "Howard Dean and Joe Trippi are not afraid of the people."
Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.
Copyright 2003 American Prospect