A Gathering Swarm

The mobilization to defeat George W. Bush was innovative, passionate … and ultimately insufficient. But its fusion of movement and machine could yet transform the political landscape.

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The hilly swaths of highway around Scranton, Pennsylvania, run thick with Wal-Mart trucks. A lot of the cars streaming down the road are festooned with magnetized yellow ribbons. Along the tired residential streets of Scranton, the state’s sixth-largest city, American flags are more common than weeds, or even the little statues of the Virgin Mary that adorn the front lawns of weathered wood and brick houses. One hotel features a black POW-MIA flag. There’s a lot of past here, a lot of patriotism, a lot of true memory and some false.

Around the Lackawanna County Courthouse, a handsome pile of gray stone that dominates downtown, stands a forest of memorials, among them monuments to George Washington, to William McKinley, to two local soldiers who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and to John Mitchell, “Champion of Labor, Defender of Human Rights,” president of the United Mine Workers during the great coal strike of 1902, which won the miners the eight-hour day.

A century of convulsive change leaves huge demographic gouge marks. A hundred years ago Scranton was not only a steel center, but the hard-coal capital of the world. But the county had been hemorrhaging jobs long before “outsourcing” became a cliché, and it still is — 2,300 people were thrown out of work in just one month last year, according to one estimate. Scranton is now a city of old people, a place that’s lost one-sixth of its population in the last quarter-century.

But last fall, Scranton found itself transformed into a center of rejuvenation. Here, as in scores of other battlegrounds in a country that was said to have shrugged itself away from public life for good, remnants of working-class machine politics encountered the spirit of do-good volunteerism and each found the other (more or less) friendly and indispensable. Thanks to the magnetic attraction of swing states, modest Scranton was propelled into the thick of the broadest, most formidable, most fervent American political rising in decades. If, in the end, the movement failed to avert defeat, it offers at least a partial template for eventual victory.

The rising was, in an immediate sense, kindled by George W. Bush. The same Republican juggernaut that shocked (but did not awe) most of the world in the course of a disastrous war succeeded in convincing many millions of Americans, at least for a while, that politics was not a specialized enthusiasm or a peculiar hobby but a necessity — and not a necessity for somebody else but a necessity for them.

In this, Bush accomplished something remarkable: He coaxed the two divergent strands of the left, or liberalism, or progressivism, or whatever you want to call it, into the same insurgent republic and opened up the prospect of a historic resurrection. He convinced old-school Democratic wheelhorses and newly inspired activists, old pros and young amateurs, union faithful and vote mobbers, that if they did not hang together they would most assuredly hang separately.

Call these two forces the machine and the movement. Since the 1960s, the enfeebled Democratic machine and the marginal movement left had encountered each other — if at all — with acrid suspicion. They cracked apart 40 years ago, when college students who distrusted power went south to join blacks in overturning white supremacy while Chicago’s Mayor Daley, a believer in power if nothing else, led his white, working-class base in fighting against Martin Luther King, and, later, against those same students as they revolted against the war in Vietnam. Because the Democratic Party didn’t manage to amalgamate old and new politics — cut to footage of Mayor Daley’s gleeful cops smashing away at long-haired demonstrators — it was crushed by the law-and-order alliance of old Republicans and resentful segregationists.

While the Republicans proceeded to build themselves a new base consisting of messianic Christians entangled with antitax enthusiasts under the sheltering smile of Ronald Reagan, the orthodox liberal Democrats and the movement left proceeded to paint themselves into a culture of defeat. They seethed with resentment against their only victorious presidential candidates, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. They nourished
their differences more than their commonalities. In the end, some so deeply prized their purity as to gulp down the tasty Kool-Aid of Ralph Nader.

It came to pass that the Republicans (who, for all their antigovernment talk, devoutly believed in disciplined power) conquered every single national political institution in the country, and most of the states, and vast portions of the national rhetoric-dump and image bank known as the media. And so, after 2000, almost everyone left-of-center came to understand the central lesson of politics: In a deeply divided country, power accrues to those who organize to get it and hold on to it.

Think-tankers, fundraisers, get-out-the-vote door-knockers, unions, campaigners for the environment, for women’s and gay rights, and various and sundry others came to grasp that the Bush machine that had commanded America for four years represented the triumph of more than cunning, more than deception, more than money and congenial media, though it had all those in spades. It represented, on many fronts, the culmination of 40 years of the right’s well-applied effort to take power. The corollary was: There is no alternative to winning but losing, and the alternative to power is not freedom but powerlessness.

So, in 2004, a vast and ragged regeneration movement met a Democratic Party straining to be reborn, and the two forces, instead of looking askance at each other and wondering how best to beat each other into dust, decided to buddy up, not only to reinvent politics — no small task in itself — but, really, to redeem America (although this movement’s language, unlike the other side’s, was rarely comfortable with that sort of religious lingo). And if you needed any proof of the fusionist nature of the new mobilization, here was John Kerry, a near-caricature of the privileged movement guy of the ’60s, “reporting for duty” to represent a Democratic Party hell-bent on victory.

In the end, the Republicans mobilized bigger brigades with their own combination of movement and machine. Now the huge question is whether the oppositional mobilization is ready to thrive and endure — whether the “practical idealism” that Al Gore helplessly invoked in 2000 is ready to become liberalism’s main spirit. Don’t trust anyone who’s too confident of an answer yet. Yet this much can be said: The defeat of 2004 will someday be seen as either the high-water mark of a liberal upsurge, or the beginning of its triumphal recovery.

I started visiting Scranton on weekends in September. My wife had gone there on a day trip from New York, to volunteer for John Kerry, and decided to stay and do whatever needed to be done, which pretty soon meant that she was helping to run the Lackawanna County Democrats’ office for six weeks.

Addressing the canvassers who shipped in each weekend as the mobilization revved up, the Kerry campaign’s 24-year-old regional field coordinator, Dave White, liked to say: “This year the road to the White House leads through northeast Pennsylvania.” (Longtime local politico Margi Cowley preferred the earthier metaphor: “You are at ground zero in the ground war.”) They weren’t blowing smoke, though there were plenty of other places that could also claim that special status. Full of conservative working-class Catholics and an antiabortion hotbed for years, Scranton is the kind of town that brings up gastronomic clichés: salt-of-the-earth, meat-and-potatoes. It has a neighborhood bakery where you can order a birthday cake decorated in an Army camouflage pattern. It’s also got a lesbian bar, a Catholic college, and a fair assortment of metallically adorned young faces. It’s a town where an 85-year-old man said to me on the phone, “Are you telling me to vote for Jane Fonda?” and where a high school student walked into Democratic headquarters one day to get Kerry-Edwards supplies — he’d just started a Democratic club.

In Scranton, people who had never put up lawn signs or worked in a political campaign streamed in and called nonstop asking for Kerry-Edwards signs and pledging their time to canvass, phone, register new voters, arrange for rides to the polls, fire up on-again-off-again Democrats, enter phone results into statewide data banks — whatever. Union members were visiting every union household in town. Kerry-Edwards canvassers grazed past volunteers from America Coming Together, MoveOn, and other groups. By the hundreds, out-of-towners poured in from New England and New York City. One man drove four hours down from the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, canvassed for five hours, then drove home that night. Forget all the blah-blah about whether these people just hated George W. Bush or loved John Kerry enough to share the proverbial beer with him, let alone take a bullet for him. This was more than a campaign. This was a cause. It was, in its own way, a salvation movement in behalf of Enlightenment.

What struck me most in conversations with several dozen volunteers, carpetbaggers and locals alike, was the almost uniform answer they gave when I asked if they had ever worked on a national political campaign: No. A few had pitched in for local campaigns, that’s all. One had worked for George McGovern in 1972. Most had simply rooted for political causes — if that.

The volunteers came in all shapes, sizes, ages, and cultural dispositions. Say what you will about the culture war, locals named Mary Beth and Tony had no trouble working with a visiting canvasser from New York named Pagan. Scranton Democrats, many of whom are resolutely antiabortion, were willing to live with a pro-choice candidate because they recognized without much trouble that he stood for egalitarian values they shared — and the outsiders felt no need to wear their pro-choice positions on their sleeves. No canvassers from anywhere had any objection to going door to door with little yellow ribbons pinned to their jackets. At pre-canvassing briefings, New Yorkers gasped as loudly as Scrantonians upon being told of the volunteer who had knocked on the door of a woman whose son was stationed in Iraq and told her that he was fighting for oil. That single warning was enough — there were no sequels.

Volunteers fell into distinct issue camps. Locals tended to care most about jobs seeping away; visitors were more preoccupied with Iraq. But during canvassing expeditions, they all stuck to the discipline — don’t get involved in heavy discussions on the block, just figure out which way people are leaning and move on. There were stories of predictable office tensions between party pros and outsiders, but the only bad vibe I witnessed had to do with a Kerry campaign P.R. specialist from Los Angeles who swooped in with snakeskin boots and an insulting hauteur — but she offended the outsiders as much as the locals.

So what went wrong? This year’s mobilization — some of it within the Democratic Party, much of it outside — was huge, unprecedented … and inadequate. It succeeded in linking machine organization with movement verve … but there wasn’t enough of it. It turned out numbers that may well have been decisive in Wisconsin and New Hampshire — and numbers that fell plainly short in Florida and Ohio.

What is the future of this sort of hybrid politics? If the rising of 2004 was the best that the American left-of-center could put up against George Bush’s radical provocation, what to conclude from the eventual defeat? That September 11 unleashed an invincible force in favor of Bush? That it was a near-miraculous feat to make such a race even close? That the gay marriage initiatives that the right got on the ballot and passed in 11 states boosted their mobilization more than any equivalent ploy, had there been any, could have helped the left? That the left doesn’t think about wedge issues the way Republicans do, but it’s time to start? That the right’s lock on the old Confederacy, the prairie, and the mountains is insuperable unless the Democrats nominate a candidate with a twang?

This is not the place for the necessary rethink. But it is a sure thing that the sort of hybrid spirit of movement and machine that materialized in 2004 will be at the core of whatever recovery and revival may be to come. So it was for the conservative movement after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. The one-man advantage they ended that election with was the irreplaceable speechmaker Reagan, who, after winning the California governorship in 1966, proceeded to spend much of the next 14 years running for president while legions of movement-builders took care of the infrastructure that would eventually lift him to the White House.

In the tangle and promise ahead, much will depend on activist networks like MoveOn and America Coming Together, but also on lesser-known movement-party hybrids like Wellstone Action. A national effort to train political candidates, teach activists how to campaign, and turn out the vote, Wellstone Action is driven by the fierce desire to harness movement spirit to organizational force. Its director of education and advocacy, Pam Costain, knew Paul Wellstone for 30 years, starting as his student at Carleton College. She spoke to me of “the Wellstone triangle: base-building, electoral politics, and public policy. You have to work at the intersection.” Wellstone Action trained 7,000 citizen-activists in 21 states in 2004.

This year’s mobilization was galvanized by a rare convergence of two huge circumstances: a grand emergency combined with a live chance that focused interventions might just avail. Before Election Day, on one of those effervescent days when the stream of volunteers was steady and strong and a Kerry presidency did not seem hallucinatory, I asked a number of Scranton visitors whether they could imagine turning out to lobby, say, for health care legislation stuck in a recalcitrant Congress, or for some other liberal objective. A few said yes, but many more said, realistically, no. And that was under an optimal assumption.

Now, to make matters more challenging, the Democrats and the remnants of the rising must try to dig themselves out of a slough of despondence and compose themselves to come before America in two years and again in four — while also girding themselves to resist the depredations that the right can be expected to plow ahead with over the coming years. They must defend Democratic seats in the Senate in 2006, do battle on judicial appointments, and put forth a strategy to get out of Iraq. At the same time, this movement-machine must get used to defining itself as a moral force, so that the right to health care is a value, the right to a living wage is a value, the preservation of clean air and the regulation of climate change are values, the rights of couples are values. They need to find candidates who, when they talk about community and mutual reliance, do not sound as though they are speaking a foreign tongue.

To say that this is hard is only to state the obvious. But at least we will not be starting from scratch. There was a rising. It was defeated, but it was not a figment of a utopian’s imagination. It was a popular upwelling. An actual movement is not only a sum of names, mobilizations, celebrity riffs. It is the sum of acts undertaken by persons who, one at a time, feel called in a thousand little ways to do something.

One Saturday night in October, a Scranton man named Joe Viola called Democratic headquarters to say that he was incensed. At evening Mass at St. Anthony’s Church in the suburb of Dunmore, he said, the deacon had told the parishioners — not once but three times — not to vote for John Kerry. Viola said he and others were seething, for the Catholic Church in this very antiabortion corner of Pennsylvania had never resorted to such declamations before. The next day, Viola called back to say that he had contacted the pastor, telling him the deacon’s exhortation was not only morally wrong but could cost the church its tax exemption. The deacon went to Viola’s place of work, said he wanted to do penance, and asked Viola what he should do. Viola said: Get up next Sunday and say you were wrong to do that.

Some fine day, Democrats may figure out how to get on the right side of the value divide — how to define America as a place of the common good and not a playground of the strong. They will get used to putting themselves forward as patriots, not outsiders. They will concentrate their minds on rising to 51 percent and beyond, and they will be rigorous about making the effort to maximize their own strength and minimize their opponents’.

Should they get to that point, they will recall that for a few moments during the hopeful and bitter year of 2004, they tasted a spirit that not only touched them deeply but made them feel, for a while, giddy — a culture of winning.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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