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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008
Buckley and Levich

The Grassroots Effect

By Tim Paulson ’83

Imagine citizens rising up in waves to enforce their political will at critical moments, then going home to their normal lives. Like Cincinnatus—or Whac-a-Mole. It should be easy to imagine because, in a significant way, it is already happening. And it’s been happening for awhile.

I got swept into grassroots—and activist—politics in February of 2003, when I started writing campaign literature for Howard Dean in New York City. I didn’t think a liberal from New England had a chance of winning, but I thought if he did well it might nudge the party platform at least a little leftwards. We had not yet invaded Iraq; there was still a war to prevent. When Dean hired a real campaign staff, I joined his grassroots organization and began leading meetups in the West Village. Later, I trained new recruits and canvassed for Dean up in New Hampshire.

For the next few months, he got traction, but then he screamed, the media pounced, and by March it was all over.

The night after Dean went out, his New York-based grassroots leadership crammed into my apartment in the East Village. We formed the New Democratic Majority (NDM)—an all-purpose grassroots political organization designed to provide both strategic leadership and campaign training beyond a presidential campaign. Since we weren’t allied with Dean, we could sop up all the surplus activists—stray Kuccinichites and Edwardians who no longer had a home. Overnight we became an army of 15,000 united behind a single purpose: to get progressive demo–crats elected, and elected democrats progressive.

To our surprise, New York politicos took us seriously. As a self-described “insurgent” state senator told us, 20 activists at the right subway stop can turn any election in the City. And that was our experience. Four NDM members and an elephant suit helped win a crucial senate race in the Bronx. Upstate candidate Eric Massa made NDM’s political team his “kitchen cabinet,” and got within 5,000 votes of victory.

But nothing came easily. Losing the 2004 election after working full out for so long felt like a mugging. NDM and other grassroots groups kept at it. Our mission was to help ordinary citizens get their hands on the levers of power. The specter of Bush gave us an angry and energized base for the 2006 election battle. In the internet we had the perfect tool for organizing and fundraising. Today, the techniques we learned working for Dean and others are standard operating procedure for any serious campaign.

No one group can claim credit for the grassroots revolution that grew out of the 2004 presidential campaign. But NDM did help keep Dean’s New York grassroots alive until his own organization—Democracy For America (DFA)—could find its sea legs. Now DFA carries on Dean’s legacy with thousands of members across America. And it is a powerful legacy. Dean raised $30 million through the internet. The web-based meetups brought people away from their TVs and computers and into bars and coffee shops and living rooms. We shared our outrage, our excitement, and our ideas. We were the beta version of today’s grassroots movements; we made the early mistakes and learned the early lessons. As NDM’s political director and the head of our training wing—the Activist Academy—I got to meet a lot of national candidates. One of them was a mesmerizing senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. He spoke in a jammed Chelsea nightclub, and it was electrifying.

No exhortations or pandering to the ’roots; just sensible, progressive policy. On his way out he paid a surprise visit to the VIP room (someone had snuck us in). He asked who I was with, and I told him: “New Democratic Majority.” “I’ve heard of you,” he said. How could a state senator from Illinois know about NDM?

“Yah, right,” I said. Keeping it real. A dark cloud passed over Obama’s face. His smile vanished. The experience was like a Rorschach blot. At first I read brittleness in it: No one doubts my word. But later, when I learned of his own early activism, I read something very different in his sharp reaction: You are the grassroots. You have to take yourself seriously.

As I write this I have no idea how the election will turn out. What I do know is no matter what the outcome, we need a grassroots movement to make change real. Barack Obama, raising 10 times what Dean did, brilliantly deployed the internet weapon we helped build. And, like Dean, he did it substantially from the kind of small donations that take power from PACs and corporations and put it into the hands of ordinary citizens. No matter who the President Elect may be, that battle isn’t over.

Tim Paulson ’83 is a freelance writer in New York City. He is the author of the children’s books Days of Sorrow, Years of Glory: 1831–1850 and How to Fly a 747.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008