Mother Jones: How tech savvy were you personally before your 2004 campaign?
Howard Dean: Not very. I measure myself against a 25-year-old, and I don’t think I’m very tech savvy.
MJ: What convinced you, then, to embrace the Internet to such a large degree?
HD: The Internet embraced us. The truth is that we started out with no money, essentially, and what we had was a very powerful message, which was interestingly not just about the war; it was about empowering ordinary Americans. The first thing I learned was that the Internet is a community, not simply just a tool. It’s a community, and they embraced us. They organized these things called “meet ups” all over the country, and they did it completely outside the campaign, and we eventually linked up with them. This was really a grassroots journey.
MJ: Do you think the use of technology has been exaggerated as a factor in your campaign?
HD: Absolutely not. The Internet is the most important tool for redemocratizing the world since Gutenberg invented the printing press. There’s no way you could exaggerate the importance of the Internet, in terms of its ability to prevent the few people who seek to seize power and control everything from doing so.
MJ: How do you think things have changed since 2004 in terms of how candidates should and can engage supporters online?
HD: I think the “should” is different from the “can.” On the “can” side, the technology has improved dramatically, even in four years. YouTube is an extraordinary innovation that basically turned the U.S. Senate over to the Democrats. The interesting thing is that politics has changed because of the redemocratization of America, because if you know that you’re on the record 100 percent of the time, you have to act accordingly. The worst situation is to be boring and not say anything, which is not a winning strategy. If you’re authentic 100 percent of the time, you’re going to make mistakes, which the media will pounce upon and distort. But you’re also going to reconnect with ordinary people who make mistakes themselves every day in their lives. The Internet is forcing people to be more real and be less manipulative, which will result in an electorate that’s less cynical. So it’s a terrific innovation. The Internet is not just a tool, it is a community of human beings who are tired of what I call the “one-way campaign,” which began essentially during the Kennedy-Nixon debates, where everything is on television. Well, it’s not about communicating our message to you anymore; it’s about listening to you first before we formulate the message. And that’s how it should be used.
MJ: It certainly seems like the Democrats have done a great job of embracing technology. But do you think its impact is overhyped?
HD: I guess I wouldn’t use the term overhyped. There are enormous numbers of innovations because of the technology that the Internet has bred, and some of them are falling on their face. If the question is if there are some things that are a fad that are going to eventually go away, I’d say yeah. But there will still be some things that do change the netroots culture. But I have to say that I don’t live in that world of the Internet. I mean I’ve never seen Second Life and I probably never will.
MJ: What’s an example of something new that the DNC is doing online that you’re particularly excited about?
HD: If you go to our website, you’ll see something that’s called “Party Builder.” Party Builder was originally designed for if you wanted to work for a candidate, you could find everybody in your zip code who’s involved with that candidate and join the group. But it can be used by activists to do other things. If you wanted to clean up a stream, you could find everyone around you who’s interested in cleaning up the stream; you could arrange a meeting if you wanted to raise money for a food shelter. The reason this is so exciting to me is because, ultimately, in this generation that is coming up, which is just incredibly tech savvy, they don’t register in parties as much as they used to. They don’t consider themselves Democratic even though this new generation looks totally Democratic. And what I see is that instead of trying to get them to join a party, I see them creating their own set of priorities for their own community. If we can help them do that through the Democratic Party, they’re much more likely to arrive at the Democratic Party. So it really bridges a new way of community organizing for this generation, and it opens itself up to the Democratic Party.
MJ: If you could go back in time, would you consider making a video in response to the “Dean Scream”?
HD: Oh, absolutely. If YouTube existed at the time, we would have had something out the next day, saying, “This is what really happened.”
MJ: Do you feel that Politics 2.0 is going to be exploited for purposes of Swift-Boating candidates?
HD: It already is. All these inventions that are used for good purposes can also be used for evil purposes, and I have no doubt that the right wing will do that. But the point is that it’s such a democratic institution that the propaganda will be self-contained because people will have other sources to go to and look at. But it will be used for bad purposes, and the right wingers have already started to do that.
MJ: To what degree do you think changing technology is really a symptom or vehicle of other things that are going on in politics?
HD: I actually think technology drives the changes in politics rather than the other way around. Technology democratizes politics. Technology for ordinary people has a significant impact on the political life of the country rather than the other way around. What you’re going to see is politicians having to behave in a different way. Just the idea, for example, that the leaders from the Democratic Party and Congress are consulting with the netroots folks like MoveOn as they figure out how to end the Iraq War is an extraordinary thing. Technology has enabled that; it’s enabled people who otherwise wouldn’t have had that much of a political voice to have a really serious political voice.
MJ: Do you think there’s anything unique to the Democratic Party that gives it an advantage over the Republican Party on the web?
HD: Yes. The nature of Democrats has been more decentralized, more reliant on individuals to make their own decisions in their lives, much less top down. It’s almost impossible to run a top-down model and succeed in the Democratic Party. The Net allows this enormous synthesis to go on at the grassroots level before it ever even gets to the party level. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of people in netroots are not right wingers. For right wingers it’s all about top down: “Listen to me; here’s the line of the day, and here’s what you have to believe in order to be admitted to the club.”
MJ: If there’s a revolution in politics online, what part of the political establishment will be toppled and what part will still be kingmakers?
HD: The kingmakers will be people with powerful messages who treat people with respect, because the netroots are incredibly sensitive to people who are phonies and are just out there to manipulate. And frankly, politicians have tried it, and it hasn’t worked for them. The people who are going to disappear are the people who think you can manipulate public opinion. That’s why the Republicans are falling on their face right now. Because their own MO is to manipulate public opinion by rephrasing things in delicate ways and not be truthful about what’s really going on. It’s going to be almost impossible to make public statements that are not true and not have it eaten apart in 24 hours.