Chris Bowers gets wistful:
Personally, beyond the fundraising insanity and strange ossification that began in the Dean campaign near the end of September 2003, the best experiences I had in this election cycle came from Dean Meetups from May to September of 2003. This is also the time period when Dean went from being more or less an asterisk to become the frontrunner.
These were the great days, the creative days, the formative days. All of these activities, very few of which were connected to fundraising, brought us all personally into the campaign. We all felt like we were making a difference, and certainly not just when a bat went up on the website. Fundraising was just one of many activities we were involved in. Best of all, because these events were organized around social Meetups, they all involved meeting new people and making new friends. We were not just involved in the campaign, we were forming a new, local progressive activist organization. It was the height of excitement.
Ah yes, I remember those good ole days of the early meetups. The excitement was incredible as our numbers appeared to double from month to month (40 in one meetup in March, 100 in April, 3 meetups of 40+ each in May, 5 meetups in June, and so on until by September we had reached 9(!!) meetups in the Portland area alone). But, I also noticed the drop off in excitement level as the campaign headed into the Fall. I hadn't thought about it before, but I think this started right around the time the headlines about Dean became more and more about how much money he was raising and less and less about the grassroots organizing effort. Our local efforts were not dominated by the money campaign, but the money increasingly became the theme of the whole campaign.
I think Chris is on to something here. Both Dean and Kerry started to stumble when they became disconnected from the grassroots. Dean was carried forward to Iowa by the rock-star momentum of his campaign. Kerry was carried to election day by the institutional strength of the Democratic party (happy to take the money we gave them, but not really all that interested in what we had to say about the campaign itself).
The question becomes this: Can the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that elevated Dean to national prominence ever be sustained over the long term?
I would use Oregon as proof that it can be done. Despite the drop off in enthusiasm I noted above, we still maintained a strong local organization that generally initiated its own grassroots efforts separate from both the Dean and Kerry campaigns. I would argue, in fact, that the continued work of the local Deanizens went a long way towards Kerry's 5 point boost in Oregon over Gore's 2000 performance.
Perhaps the lesson from the Oregon campaign is that grassroots campaigns can only be sustained from the grassroots (an answer so obvious that that is why we lose sight of it).
The national campaign can provide materials and guidance. But the energy that is needed to carry the campaign across the finish line can only come from the bottom up. This can happen only if those on the bottom feel like they have the power to control their destiny. The national campaign can concern itself with message and money. But it is the local people who have to carry the weight of organization and outreach. Barring the kind of top-down control structure Karl Rove has instituted in the Republican party, a model that is distinctly antithetical to the Democratic spirit, the only sustainable organizational structure that will work for the Democrats is the bottom-up approach we developed through the meetup structure.
Some of the local Deaners have been talking about the idea of bottling up whatever it was we had here and exporting it to other parts of the country. We will be holding brainstorming sessions in the coming weeks to figure out just how to do that.
It should be fun.