"If George W. Bush can run for President, so can I," came the initial shrugged sentiment in the camp of a pragmatic, plain-spoken governor of Vermont who ignited a movement that would go on to elect the first African-American President to the White House. Ari Berman does a wonderful thing in his new book Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics--he investigates how common sense usurped power in Washington.
In a speakeasy-like venue on the Lower East Side Wednesday night, at the anti-panel series The Little Idea, organized by brothers Ari and Jonathan Melber, Berman took a handful of minutes to illustrate how Howard Dean was John the Baptist to Obama, and how Rahm Emanuel contributed to the rise of the Tea Party by shunning a cabinet spot for Dean, a physician, (in the face of health care reform!) and let the grass roots machine rust.
"We weren't asked to mobilize [by the Obama White House]. And there was a huge vacuum, and the Tea Party filled it," Berman told the crowd. The Right learned from the Howard Dean playbook while the Obama White House dropped it.
If anyone has had the displeasure of doing business in the sweltering ego of Capitol Hill, they know that Washington, much like how Berman describes the Democratic Party establishment in his book, "is plagued by caution and calculation and dominated by a privileged group of megadonors and political operatives." Enter Howard Dean.
Berman's book takes you into the action, the heartbeat of the rise, fall, and rise of the man who, in an age of unchecked greed and cynicism, championed a bottom-top approach to power. The early scenes of the book, one where Dean sends bolts of excitement through his young staff (some who will make their own names in media and politics) by becoming the first presidential candidate to blog, reads like a scene out of the next The Social Network.
And remember the goofy scream that ultimately brought down his campaign? ("We're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington...") "Who could predict that Dean's wild rant would become an unexpected blueprint for his party's revival?" writes Berman, in a book that has the potential to unite progressives and the sanest of the Tea Party movement, to join together to overpower a common enemy: the corporate purchasing of public servants. (The Supreme Court's terrifying Citizens United ruling could use a grass roots remedy).
If Dean's 50 State Strategy--that went after progressives and independents in red as well as blue states, a strategy initially scoffed at by the party establishment--tells you anything, it's that Americans are more alike than we are different: we don't like being screwed over.
Unfortunately, this has been happening for decades, as the event's next speaker, this site's very own Arianna Huffington, explained in her allotted ten minutes, to discuss Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream.
Arianna joked that, like Berman and Melber, she is an "Ari too," having grown up in Greece and called by that name: "Three Aris walk into a bar..."
She shared how America still is very much a land of opportunity despite the alarmingly growing gap between the rich and the poor, facilitated by both parties in Washington. "The ones who are in control are the ones making the big donations," she said, later adding, "You don't get a sense of urgency [for the real issues] in Washington."
Her critical book outlines common enemies of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and provides detailed information for people dealing with problems in the unrecognizable America de-regulation built. Arianna shared one of the most important solutions for the countless unemployed in our hyper-capitalist country: volunteering.
While those trying to pay their next energy bill may be hard-pressed to volunteer their time, I can speak from experience that volunteering in my community landed me a coveted job as a reporter at Conde Nast. Upon first moving to New York, I volunteered to run a writing workshop in a homeless outreach center, through the New York Writers Coalition, just to be part of something. I didn't find out until after signing up that the program (at least back in 2006/7) paid a tiny stipend per workshop. Being a part of this organization, I learned about random job openings through the email list serv, and one low-paid non-profit position I seized on landed me the role of promoting Off Broadway shows, where I got to harass editors at storied publications, which eventually led to a full time gig at Conde Nast. The entire process took about a year.
Whether a high-need organization is paying you or not, having an excuse to leave your house every morning and be among the active and active-minded will expose you to opportunities and ideas that can change your life. At a time when we can't rely on our own government for a public option in health care and keeping our tap water safe, then it's up to each of us, as Arianna advocates, to be creative and begin within to know how to make the most of our time.
There is a shift coming, she said, alluding to Star Wars and the force--a spiritual sense of people creating change from within--but she rightfully warns and her book, which I also took home, is filled with the research to back it up. "We are going to be a third world country if we don't course correct," she told the audience.
Attendees included Recessionwire founder Laura Rich, comedian Caroline Waxler of LearnVest.com, Bob Fertik of Democrats.com, Rich Benjamin, the award-winning author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, Chartini founder Rachel Sklar, Crushable's Drew Grant, Organizing 2.0's Charles Lenchner, and Clothia founder Elena Silenok.
To attend future events by The Little Idea, where thought-leaders have a short amount of time to tell their drinking audience what they feel is most important, become a fan on Facebook.
Another upcoming thought-provoking event in New York this reporter recommends:
Jena Friedman's Refugee Girls Revue: a dark musical comedy where the adorable American Girl Dolls meet decades of failed American foreign policy. Playing Saturdays in October at Theater 80 on St. Marks.