Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Dean: the real conservative?

There are two fascinating articles online that discuss the deeper meanings of the Dean campaign. The first is an American Prospect article by Garance Franke-Ruta ("Shock of the Old") and the second is a Village Voice article by Kareem Fahim ("The Army of Dean"). If you have time to read only one I would recommend the Franke-Ruta article.

There have been plenty of column inches written about how different the Dean campaign is, but I think Franke-Ruta's is the most original and intriguing take on it that I have ever read. He puts forward the thesis that Dean's campaign harkens back to an old tradition in American democracy: the New England Liberalism of the 18th and 19th century. There are two many good points in his article to highlight just one, but just to give you a sample:

This quality in Dean's rhetoric -- that he is appealing not just to people's partisan leanings, nor to their particular ethnic or gender identities but to their history and identity as Americans -- is what has made him compelling to so many liberal voters who feel America is no longer even trying to be a "City upon a Hill." Instead of fearing the legacy of northeastern liberalism, he has embraced it as the philosophy that founded contemporary democracy, created America, kept it whole during the 19th century and fought to expand the franchise so that African Americans and women could participate as full citizens. When the other presidential contenders have tried to reach back past the Great Society, it has often been to connect with the last northern Democratic president, John F. Kennedy. And Dean? In the Boston speech, he quickly mentioned the 1960s and the New Deal -- but he built his address around the Sons of Liberty, who had carried out the Boston Tea Party. At his formal announcement speech, he skipped past JFK and went all the way back to John Winthrop, a Puritan settler, theologian and early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, quoting these words: "We shall be as one. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together."

This return to origins is, to be sure, partly typical political calculation. "You get beat by not wrapping yourself in American history," says Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi. But part of it is also a genuine effort by the campaign to imbue Dean's argument with "a foundation in the history of the country" at a time when democratic practices seem increasingly subject to contestation from the right. "We've got to remind people of why we are the kind of country we are," says Trippi. "We've gotten so far away from some of the original principles."

Dean is spear-heading an effort to reclaim that heritage and assert that the South isn't the only part of America that counts. The idea of America started in New England after all. As Franke-Ruta points out, the Meetup phenomena is similar in many ways to the New England town hall.

I've been mulling an idea in my mind that Dean is the real conservative in this race because he wants to bring us back to a tradition of participatory Democracy that has become increasingly out of favor in our modern society. What could be more conservative than to say that the original model for American Democracy is still the best?

The title of Dean's announcement speech was "The Great American Restoration". Some have interpreted his campaign as simply a reversal of the radical agenda of the Bushies. I think Dean is looking back much further than that.

Update: I almost forgot. While I was reading Franke-Ruta's article I was struck by something that I hadn't given much thought to: Dean's religiosity. I had heard that he was a Congregationalist, but I hadn't heard much else about his faith tradition beyond its name. Dean rarely ever invokes God in his speeches. This is something I have always found refreshing, but I've sometimes wondered if it might be held against him in some more religious regions of the country.

Franke-Ruta's article makes me wonder whether the minimalist approach to religiosity might actually be a defining characteristic of Dean's faith. But that does not mean that Dean isn't a deeply religious man. Franke-Ruta comments on the religious zeal of Dean's appearances despite the pronounced lack of any mention of God. He even goes so far as to call Dean a "northern evangelist". Dean preaches the faith by invoking God's spirit more than his name.

Does anyone else have enough experience with Congregationalism to comment on this?


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