Is Howard Dean Barry Goldwater?

Dean is doing surprisingly well at fundraising. One interesting aspect, still not fully appreciated by the mainstream media, is his pioneering use of social software, primarily Weblogs and MeetUp, as campaign tools. For those of us who have been waiting for the Net to transform politics since at least 1996, this may be the first sign of a sea-change.

The deeper question about Dean is whether he will be the candidate that kills the Democrats in the short-term but positions them for a sustainable majority down the road. A la Goldwater for the Republicans. Goldwater’s 1964 campaign galvanized conservatives, and set in motion the creation of infrastructure, such as think tanks and talk radio, that formed the basis of a powerful mass movement. Reagan’s election in 1980 and Gingrich’s Congressional triumph in 1994 put the conservative ideology in control of American government. Movement conservatism doesn’t represent the majority of Americans, which is why Bill Clinton was elected and Al Gore won the popular vote. Yet it dominates our discourse and shapes our policies, much like the Leninist intelligentsia did in the Soviet Union (admittedly, without the nasty bits). That’s why "liberal" Bill Clinton proposed a far less interventionist health care plan than "conservative" Richard Nixon… and was almost run out of office for it.

So, what should non-conservatives like me do? (Beyond finding a name other than "liberal" or "progressive" for the Third Way that represents the true American majority?) Contest the election, of course, though Bush’s vast financial superiority will be tough to overcome. The real effort, however, should be focused on building a sustainable majority over time. Projects like the American Majority Institute seem to be going in the right direction. Democrats should harness the energy that Dean is generating, though the party leadership will no doubt continue to treat him as a spoiler.

The good news is that Goldwater’s defeat paved the way for a quarter-century of conservative dominance of the American political scene. The old economy industries like oil may have more money to give to Republicans today, but technology is the future. The bad news is that it took sixteen years from Goldwater to Reagan. I’m young enough to see the year 2020 as meaningful. But I sure don’t want to wait that long.