Column: The power to make change comes from the ground up

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 31, 2005

Over the past 30 years, republicans have become the majority party in America by building a terrific grassroots organization. If we are to take our country back for ordinary working Americans, democrats will have to match or exceed the republicans’ ability to motivate voters.

A grassroots organization really has to be based on two-way communication. In our presidential campaign we started with no money, no base, but a great number of enthusiastic grassroots activists.

We ceded decision-making power to local folks and let them run things in their areas as they saw fit. This turns out to have been our single most important innovation, and it is the only one that wasn’t copied by any of the other campaigns, either democratic or republican.

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Everything else, the small-donor programs, the house parties, the interactive Web sites and organizing was used by others. The reason that the most important piece wasn’t copied is because it requires real change in thinking by people who run for office and their consultants, not just adopting new techniques or technology.

Letting go of central control is what gives voters real power. When I used the phrase, “you have the power” during the campaign, I meant that by working together, Americans could overcome the forces of the right wing and reassume their constitutional role in running the country.

What I didn’t understand was that “you have the power” was more than that. It didn’t apply only to people’s ability to change America, it also applied concretely to their ability to make everyday decisions about how they would cause that change.

In our campaign, Americans without any previous political experience made decisions about when to leaflet, what to say in the leaflet, where to leaflet and how to organize.

They organized and ran hundreds of organizations such as African-Americans for Dean, Latinos for Dean, Punx for Dean, Irish Americans for Dean, etc., which sprang not from a central “outreach” desk in Burlington, but spontaneously all over the country, finding each other on the Web, and creating a national organization from local ones.

The idea of a decentralized campaign terrifies most politicians who have gotten used to putting out ideas and letting others respond. We discovered that the path to power, oddly enough, is to trust others with it.

The true mark of a modern campaign will be to listen to Americans and let them shape campaigns instead of simply allowing them to respond.

Our campaign was far from perfect, and we did not win. But our organization today is almost 600,000 strong that we know of, and there are more people in the organization today than there were on the day I dropped out of the presidential race. People still meet monthly in about 500 locations across America to talk about how to bring reform, and then they act on their plan locally.

I wish I could tell you that this was all because of my leadership and charisma; that is not so. The reform movement lives because it isn’t mine.

Our people know that they have the power in their own communities, linked across the country, to elect reform-minded people. They did exactly that on six months notice all across the country in places like Utah, Alabama, and Idaho, not just New York and Ohio.

If democrats use this model, we will effectively leapfrog the republicans, who despite their discipline and organization, are still a top-down, control and command organization.

(Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont and the founder of Democracy for America.) E-mail Howard Dean at