Shock of the Old

The smallest crowd of Howard Dean's Sleepless Summer Tour in late August consisted of about 450 people. They'd gathered at the airport outside Boise, Idaho, on a splash of tarmac surrounded by sparkling, cloudless sky. There, where the crumpled, arid desert gave way to the pine-covered Boise Foothills, amid the mingled scents of jet fuel and dust, they waited for former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) to arrive.

When he did, Dean supporter Delmar Stone approached the microphone and introduced the presidential hopeful to the crowd by way of a jaw-dropping comparison. "The last time I was this excited about someone who could change the world was when I heard about Jesus!" Stone said. "Oh, come on!" exclaimed the man standing next to me. It was such an over-the-top thing to say, seeming to reflect more than anything what a neglected bunch the Idaho Democrats are. Few national Democratic candidates come to stump in Boise, and, when they do, the beleaguered partisans get a little overexcited.

But Stone, I learned as I listened to Dean supporters around the country, was not so unusual after all. In Austin, Texas, Melissa Sternberg told me she'd gotten so excited after she caught Dean on the Charlie Rose Show in June that she'd become "born-again Dean." On popular political blogs like Daily Kos, readers routinely discuss Dean supporters' "messianic" zeal. Backers of retired Gen. Wesley Clark accuse the Deanies of promoting a "Church of Dean." In each case, the choice of words is instructive, and probably not accidental.

The mainstream media suggest that Dean has roused the Democratic Party's base through his opposition to the Iraq War and straight-ahead criticisms of President Bush. But comments like the ones above suggest that Dean has tapped into something much deeper -- and older in American political history -- than mere Bush hatred. Irrespective of whether he ends up winning the Democratic nomination, Dean has already accomplished something valuable for liberalism: He has reconnected it to a strain of religiously inflected American history it typically ignores.

In many ways, contemporary liberalism does not reach all that far back in American history. Its emotional roots are located in 1968 -- that year of great upheaval that, for liberal baby boomers, was year one of the brave new world -- and, to a lesser extent, in 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt assembled the bricks and mortar of the welfare state. These are liberalism's historic reference points and the grounds from which its present-day rhetoric and enthusiasms spring.

Dean, though, comes out of neither of these two traditions. He is no '68er; in 1968, he was, by all accounts, a not terribly political Yale University sophomore. Some have argued that Dean's Vermont is '60s dropout heaven, and while this may be true of some in the state, it's not true of Dean himself. As governor, his fiercest fights were always with the state's insurgent left. Similarly, Dean didn't govern Vermont as a latter-day New Dealer. Indeed, his sharpest conflict this campaign season, with Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) over reforming Medicare, stems from his statements during that time -- when, Gephardt charged, Dean parroted Newt Gingrich's line on the issue. Nor is he, as some have posited, a populist; populism has midwestern and southern roots, and Dean lacks the populist's warm folksiness.

No, Dean is something altogether different. He is more a product of geography -- and his was a chosen geography, as he was born in New York City -- than ideology. The more one watches him on the stump (and watches his admirers watching him), the more it becomes apparent that he comes out of, and is reviving, a tradition of small-town, New England civic and religious fervor that is all but forgotten in American politics today. He is something the country has not seen in a very long time. He is, essentially, a northern evangelist.

The question he faces now, as the campaign enters a more serious phase, is whether he can revive that tradition all the way to the White House, or whether it's lain so dormant for so long that it -- and he -- has already reached its limits.

Down by the banks of Lake Champlain, two cottonwoods hang over the water's edge near Burlington, Vt.'s College Street. Rick Sharp, an attorney who's known Dean since 1980 -- when they fought to change the downtown waterfront from "derelict, industrial storage yards" into today's popular public park and bicycle path -- shows me a scar on one of the trees. It's from beaver bites. "Howard ended up saving that tree by putting some chain-link fence around it to prevent the beaver from chewing all the way through," says Sharp. "The tree was about half the size back then."

Scratch the surface in Burlington and everyone's got a story about Dean, from the bricks he laid by hand on the waterfront back in the day to the Junior League meetings he once addressed to his presentation on faith and politics over at the First Congregational Church last year. Interestingly, many of Burlington's townsfolk say that, during his tenure in Vermont government, there was little inspiration to be found in his blunt -- even boring -- speaking style. The only thing former Burlington City Council member Paul Lafayette saw in Dean foreshadowing the candidate's current oratorical prowess was the "lung capacity" he expended cheering at hockey and soccer games. "Because of the smallness of our area, people aren't used to giving the large types of rallies," Lafayette says. "You can actually go out and meet everyone face to face." Indeed, Vermont demands a retail politics of just the sort the Iowa and New Hampshire contests also favor. And, for the first year and a half Dean was running for president, that's just the sort of politics he practiced.

But then, in May of this year, the crowds started to arrive. First it was 1,200 people in Seattle, when the campaign expected 300. Then some 3,200 showed up in Austin, Texas, in mid-June. More than 5,000 gathered for the Burlington announcement speech June 23. And the crowds just kept getting bigger: 4,000 in Philadelphia at the start of August and 15,000 in Seattle by the end of that month. Something was happening. And as the crowds grew, so did Dean's rhetoric. "Democracy itself is at stake in this election," he told a crowd of more than 2,500 under an overcast sky in Boston on Sept. 23. "You ARE this campaign," he told 5,000 cheering students in Madison, Wisc., in early October. "This campaign is about giving people a voice."

It sounds hokey, and unoriginal, and like exactly what every politician says every electoral season. Yet over the past six months, these tropes have worked a kind of magic on potential voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as donors across the country, who poured close to $15 million into Dean's coffers in the last quarter. One astute observer has credited Dean's appeal to the doctor's grasp of psychology and the contemporary rhetoric of self-empowerment that laces many of his speeches. But Dean's grasp of the American political psyche is firmer than that: Dean's bet is that somewhere -- buried in some back corner, under layers of Oprah and American Pie, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Eminem and the latest Field Poll from California -- there's a little bit of Thomas Paine in each of us.

This quality in Dean's rhetoric -- that he is appealing not just to people's partisan leanings, nor to their particular ethnic or gender identities but to their history and identity as Americans -- is what has made him compelling to so many liberal voters who feel America is no longer even trying to be a "City upon a Hill." Instead of fearing the legacy of northeastern liberalism, he has embraced it as the philosophy that founded contemporary democracy, created America, kept it whole during the 19th century and fought to expand the franchise so that African Americans and women could participate as full citizens. When the other presidential contenders have tried to reach back past the Great Society, it has often been to connect with the last northern Democratic president, John F. Kennedy. And Dean? In the Boston speech, he quickly mentioned the 1960s and the New Deal -- but he built his address around the Sons of Liberty, who had carried out the Boston Tea Party. At his formal announcement speech, he skipped past JFK and went all the way back to John Winthrop, a Puritan settler, theologian and early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, quoting these words: "We shall be as one. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together."

This return to origins is, to be sure, partly typical political calculation. "You get beat by not wrapping yourself in American history," says Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi. But part of it is also a genuine effort by the campaign to imbue Dean's argument with "a foundation in the history of the country" at a time when democratic practices seem increasingly subject to contestation from the right. "We've got to remind people of why we are the kind of country we are," says Trippi. "We've gotten so far away from some of the original principles."

Dean is, without a doubt, an odd vessel for the quasi-religious fervor he has inspired. He almost never mentions God in his stump speeches and he rarely goes to church himself. Nevertheless, his rhetoric -- like his campaign structure -- is deeply grounded in the social practices of a branch of radical Protestantism whose tenets still wield power in the structures of Vermont's government. The Pilgrims who gave America its foundational governing documents and ideas -- ideas that Dean now routinely references -- created a society based partly on the anti-authoritarian religious principles of Congregationalism, their religion (and, since the early '80s, Dean's).

Congregationalism, the dominant religion of colonial and early federal life, had by the 20th century become an obscure New England denomination about as relevant to modern life as covered bridges. Yet the legacy of the Congregationalists -- and their Unitarian descendants -- is one of the most powerful forces in the history of the American North. It was Congregationalists who landed the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Their descendants founded America's elite colleges, such as Harvard and Yale, and some of its most liberal ones, such as Oberlin and Amherst. Where the South bred agrarian populists and Baptist revivals, the North churned out Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers.

Dean's own conversion to Congregationalism was a more mundane political affair. He'd been christened as a Catholic and was raised Episcopalian. But he converted to the local Vermont religion as a consequence of his battle to make over the shoreline. "I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over the bike path," he told This Week with George Stephanopoulos in September. "We were trying to get the bike path built. They had control of a mile and a half of railroad bed, and they decided they would pursue a property-rights suit to refuse to allow the bike path to be developed." Dean eventually talked church leaders out of the lawsuit, recalls Sharp, but other railroad neighbors refused to budge and litigated the case all the way to U.S. Supreme Court.

The effort to restore the Lake Champlain shoreline was a turning point for Dean in his transformation from New Yorker to Vermonter: At the same moment, he both adopted the local faith and became involved in local politics. To this day, Dean remains devoted to the idea of local freedoms, local governing solutions and local control. He supports the assault-weapons ban, but other than that, prefers each state to draft its own gun-control laws -- a position that's earned him an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. He signed the court-ordered civil-unions law in Vermont -- indeed, one lesbian couple in the suit that led to the law belong to the same Congregationalist church as Dean -- but does not favor any federal law on marriage. He's ferociously opposed to unfunded mandates that make impositions on state governments, such as the No Child Left Behind Act.

As Dean reflects traditions of Yankee independence in governance, he also reflects it in the organization of his campaign, in which local directors have an almost unprecedented autonomy. In New Hampshire, the field operation is using a theory of "relationships-based organizing" that tries to turn every committed supporter into a field operative, says former Seacoast coordinator Myles Duffy. "The rhetoric matches the structure of the campaign," notes Mathew Gross, Dean's blogger in chief and speechwriter. "It goes back to the fundamental unit of democracy, which is the town-hall meeting." (Or, in the case of the Dean campaign, the Meetup.)

It all comes out of the Vermont political tradition centered on the small town. "Congregational government puts power in the hands of the people to determine what they want at a scale that people can relate to," says John Nutting, a Congregationalist minister in Vermont who has written a history of Dean's Burlington church. "It was prized by both the church and by the secular structures of the state of Vermont, so that in many ways a similar pattern of participation existed both in the church and the civil society. Vermont hasn't abandoned it. We're a state of very small communities."

"It's normal to be political here," adds Zephyr Teachout, Dean's director of Internet outreach and a native Vermonter. Teachout, who also worked on Dean's 1994 gubernatorial bid, says she grew up loving the "messiness of democracy" at her annual town meetings. "What we're really trying to do is encourage people to think of politics as a normal part of their life. There's been this weird separation." Through the Meetups and such online organizing tools as "Get Local," the Dean campaign is breaking a national campaign down into units small enough to feel human.

One of the weaknesses of this approach is that Dean himself sometimes gets caught up in the sort of disputes -- especially with the press -- characteristic of local governance. But the strength is that it also brings a sense of empowerment that's deeper than anything coming out of identity politics or New Age philosophies. There are legitimate questions about Dean's crossover appeal, and he may well be uniquely vulnerable, as his many Democratic critics assert, to the inevitable Republican attacks. But whatever happens to him in 2004, his remarkable 2003 should remain instructive to Democrats and liberals alike. He has built not just a candidacy but a movement, and he's done it by expanding liberalism's vocabulary, giving it fresh historical material from which to draw. It may or may not make him president. But it's what makes him important.