This Isn't A Political Campaign[This is a blog post I wrote in early December when I was volunteering at Dean HQ in Burlington, VT. I found unexpected people -- not all geeks, not all young, not all hotheaded -- but some serious, down-to-earth Vermonters who repeatedly told me they were so proud of their governor and so thankful for what he'd done for them, that they wanted all 50 states to get a chance to know him as the president. As I mentioned in the post below, Laurie Hammond was one of the people I met. Her story and many others I heard there were amazingly powerful.]
This is not a political campaign, I keep muttering this to myself as I spend more and more time at Howard Dean Headquarters in Burlington, VT. It's something else and I haven't yet figured it out. At Britt Blaser's
urging I've come up from Boston to volunteer and learn more about Dean and his supporters. Britt is a stealthy technologist, long on wisdom and experience, short on making drawn-out decisions, preferring to jump in fast and furious when it comes to building new tools to help connect people. A number of blogger friends of mine are doing amazing stuff at the Dean Campaign. I'm just beginning to see how Jim Moore
is also turning things around up here, making internet history.
But I see a lot of regular folks too. I get a volunteer gig helping prepare materials for the next MeetUp where other volunteers and supporters will write hand-written letters.
You see about eight old, middle-aged and young folks sitting and standing around a big rectangular table and chatting as they put two envelopes 2 stamps and 2 peices of ivory letter paper in a sleeve that explains how to write a letter to a voter. The pamphlet is short on political propaganda and long on sincere, solid Vermont good common sense with suggestions like ""personal letters are the most effective" and "use your own voice."
As we're working, we're talking about how nice it is to get a real letter in the mail. All of them admit they use email almost all the time to contact friends, but we agree there's something great about real letters from real people.
It's something about Dean HQ you might not expect because so much has been written about how savvy they are in terms of the internet and technology. That's true. but they're also smart about when to use technology and when NOT to use technology. They understand that the point is how to get up close and personal. That connection might happen in email, it might happen on their weblog, it might happen with pen and ink and it might happen with a few zillion volunteers going door-to-door. They don't seem wedded to the Web as the only method. They are flexible and resourceful in the way they use all methods -- their goal is connecting and that doesn't necessarily mean the web is always the medium of of choice.
As we talk about letters, we start to swap stories, and several tell amazingly heart-wrenching stories about how Dean has literally changed their lives as citizens of Vermont. These are NOT the stories of sunshine patriots or people who are excited about Dean now that Dean is cool. These are life-altering recountings of life-changing benefits the governor made happen in their lives as Vermonters living here during his 5 terms of the "gov". Their loyalty is unshakeable. Their zealous desire to "share" their great governor with the rest of the country and their desire to have great things happen for those other Americans not lucky enough to live in Vermont, is formidable.
I return to the thought, "this is not a political campaign." I've seen some of those. This isn't one. The way person after person explains their deep appreciation of Dean and the Dean campaign makes me understand something else is going on. Ironically, I'm visiting from my hometown of Boston, where somewhere around the 1750's the same thing happened. People started thinking about their lives in a completely different way. They started to take responsibility for a new political destiny and a new way of thinking and living.
They did that radical thing. They thought and then said to one another, "we don't have to live like this anymore."
This is Ghandhi's walk to the sea for salt. And his "You must be the change you wish to see in the world.'
Dean, as the hype about the campaign grows, the magazine covers, the record fundraising successes, has every reason to let it all go to his head. In fact, the most fascinating thing to my mind, is the way Dean is the farthest thing from grandiose.
It's hard to explain this. He writes about it in his campaign literature, but to be here is to see it up close. It's a bit of a Zen manoeuvre. If this movement is about anything, it's about each person in his network being more empowered than him. He has somehow managed -- and this is no small feat for a person who holds two of the most egotistical credentials any man can have -- doctor and politician -- to step back and let the power he could be revelling in belong to those in his organization. He understands this is NOT about him.
The Dean supporters as a group are each more empowered and awake to a new set of political choices and political responsibilities and power in their daily lives than he as one man could ever be.
And the campaign headquarters people never seem to lose sight of this being about others, not Dean. Just listen to the language of their now celebrated weblog. When they talk about hitting a fundraiser goal, they NEVER say "We raised $1 million." they say, "Look what you did! You raised $1 million!" The site is full of "You did this," and "You did that," and "You are winning ..."
And it's not a PR trick. It's not empty jargon or rah-rah political baloney. It's the essence of what is going on here -- and I still don't know what to call it -- but it's a collective, community effort based on caring about your neighbors.
Something is embedded in Dean's network here in Vermont that I didn't expect to find. They are practicing a new and old religion. They are respectful and kind to one another, smart and funny, helpful and trustworthy. Trust. They remind you you can trust your neighbor. They remind you of the happy comfort and optimism of a pre-9/11 world.
They aren't about the "new normal." They are about the old normal.
They are about taking back the America we knew. It was a good one.
They are about reminding us what a good one it was and can be again.
They are shape-changers to be sure -- every time you think you've got them pinned down, they defy description. If you think they are simply liberal Democrats, you are caught up short to realize there are some solid, conservative American values at work here. They can feel very strick and conservative, these down-to-earth Vermonters. Almost like the good Republicans I grew up around in Connecticut a long time ago.
They make you feel you can return to that simple honest pre-9/11 world of trusted neighbors. Driving up from Boston, you cover beautiful country, especially the last hour from Montpelier through to Burlington. The terrain really begins to climb. The mountains of Vermont, hold us in an embrace, but they are solid and cold, rather stern, suggesting deep straight American values of trust and reliability. You can count on them. It feels like an opportunity to reset your whole life, this strange campaign, to leave the "don't trust your neighbor" life behind and get back to a hopeful life of mutual trust.
Plain hills in winter, grey and stark, some snow-peaked, still suggest the hidden animals in their barns, waiting to be those happy black and white cows of summer grazing on bright green grass of Ben and Jerry's homeland. You can depend on the snowy sober winter eventually ushering in a bright summer and you know you can trust your neighbors to be there to help you through both.
Should we feel embarrassed longing for that America we knew and loved and the rest of the world used to think of when they thought of us?
Are we wrong to practice it -- as we stand there stuffing envelopes working together respectfully, young and old -- showing younger citizens how it felt to have good neighbors and live honestly and cooperatively. It's a practice, like yoga or some other martial art, we need to remind ourselves how to be Americans again, to keep going through the motions so the knowledge is not lost.
After working for a while, we go downtown to eat dinner and get back around 10:00PM. Britt is going back into the Dean HQ to work and I kid him that there will be nobody there this late on a Friday night. "Wanna bet?" he asks and makes me go in to count how many people are still here this late. We make the rounds -- nearly 45 people are still here.
This thing is being built on the energy of people taking back their lives and their communities. In many ways there is a feeling of post-election activity in these offices, as if learning how to live in this new return to democracy and new country of political participation is the real task at hand, not a political campaign. Convincing others it is the way to live seems obvious and simple. Why would anyone want to live any other way?
I finally happen on a word -- barn-raising. This is a barn-raising. Young and old making noise with hammers, saws, everyone pitching in, trading sweat and stories, passing on the knowledge of how to build a life, build a country. They are determined to build this thing up from the ground, from the grassroots and not go home until it is done. It may be late when they finish, but the barn will stand solidly, ready to shelter a new family and welcome old neighbors, building a strong community around them, able to withstand all storms for many years to come.