Dean Campaign Manifesto Discussion

The imaginary retroactive manifesto for the Dean campaign sparked an intelligent and wide ranging discussion that is growing quickly. I also got a few responses via email I want to highlight here.

Steven Johnson, with whom I’ve had great conversations at about two year intervals since 1995, put his finger on a question about the Dean campaign that has been on my mind for several days. What is the role of the leader? In his book, Emergence, Steven talks about the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, writing that “there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you’r trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you’re better off becoming a distributed network yourself.”

In his email, Steven questions how much the success of the Dean campaign has to do with Howard Dean.

“First, there’s no denying that the world needs leaders: not just because we need them sometimes to make executive decisions for us, but also because we have a hard time identifying with a swarm, for reasons both biological and cultural. The most powerful and progressive political system to date — democracy — is a beautiful mix of bottom-up and top-down, at least on paper. We choose our leaders from below, but then they get to decide things from above.

“The problem is in practice, the bottom-up component to democracy tends to be driven by top-down forces: major corporate donations, mass advertising, etc. So the Dean campaign is absolutely right in its attempts to get a better balance here between the two forces.

“Now, in the book I talked about how one of the remarkable things about the anti-WTO protests is that they didn’t seem to have leaders, and that the iconography was different: swarms in the streets, not speakers in front of the Lincoln memorial, etc. I would argue that — however appealing Dean is personally as a candidate, and I happen to think he’s very appealing — the primary story driving the explosion of interest in the campaign was its organizational structure: here’s this little-known small-state candidate, and somehow they’re raising all this money using the Net, and holding all these self-organizing meetups all over the country. (Oh, and incidentally, he’s a good speaker.) That to me runs parallel to the Seattle protests: it’s the swarm that drives the story, not the Queen Ant.”

Steven says this very well, and he is not the only person I’ve heard it from. Even some of the people close to campaign acknowledge that it was the process, not the policies or the personality of Dean that drew them to the campaign.

David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, sent me an email taking up and arguing with Steven’s original point, in yesterday’s post, that the campaign could be taking advantage of collaborative tools to develops its policies, not merely its tactics, from the grassroots.

“For me, Steve Johnson’s criticism is central. Why would you need a leader if you’re going to let the message emerge? But I suspect the problem with that approach is that you need a leader (at least so far) to enable a group to form. (Groups do form around issues – abolitionists, e.g. – but there the trickling up of ideas makes less sense since the idea is already in place ex hypothesis.) I suppose you could be a leader without ideas, and Ahnuld is pretty much an example of that, but outside of celebrity, what would be a qualification for leadership and what would cause the swarm to swarm around you?

“I want to agree with Steve’s criticism because I want to be as thoroughly grassroots populist as I can (just because it feels so good), but I’m having trouble with it. Sure, every campaign always wants fresh ideas to come up from the grassroots. But that’s not what SJ’s talking about. He wants position papers written on a wiki. I don’t. I want comments on papers written by the campaign. Maybe I’m just too old-fashioned.

“I do think SJ’s missing part of the dynamic: ideas from the grassroots don’t have to go back up to Central HQ to be adopted; the Dean campaign instead gives you the tools to instantiate your ideas without involving HQ. That’s even more grassrooty and emergent than his wiki idea.

“Anyway, I think SJ opens a fruitful kettle of fish (wait…can I go for the triple mixed metaphor?) that ought to be run up the flagpole (yes!).”

I’ll be offline most of tomorrow as I go to interview Dean for Wired. I welcome your suggestions for questions for him – I’ll be reading comments tonight and early before I leave.

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