It’s been more than 30 years since the Free Speech Movement and the battle over People’s Park, but in the eyes of conservative pundits, Berkeley has once again become the center of the progressive universe. Just ask New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who in his Feb. 5 column deplored the ascension of Howard Dean to the position of chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and argued that it’s Berkeley’s fault.
Brooks blamed Dean’s victory on the increasing power of the “university-town elite,” who, he said, “dominate the Democratic Party not just intellectually, but financially as well.” He concluded, “The energy and the dough is in the MoveOn.org wing, which is not even a wing of the party, but the head and the wallet.” Brooks opined that if the party follows Dean, in the next election Democrats would carry Berkeley but lose the rest of the nation.
If Brooks’ column is a reliable indicator, conservatives have shifted their focus from the “media elite,” the denizens of tinsel-town who are accused of lavishing their ill-gotten money on the Democratic Party, to the “university-town elite,” those of us who live in towns such as Berkeley, Cambridge, or Ann Arbor, where we can hang out with smart people, read subversive literature, and partake of all things French. Because we happen to have birthed MoveOn.org, Berkeley is held up as the epitome of these progressive university towns. Hallelujah, we’re number one!
As usual, Brooks made a few factual errors along the way to reaching his conclusion: While it is true that folks who are well educated preferred Kerry over Bush in the last election, it is also true that lots of folks who have lesser degrees of education voted for the Democratic nominee. In fact, poor folks, who typically have a high-school degree, at best, preferred Kerry to Bush. Apparently, the ability to see the awfulness of the administration requires that you either be literate or thoroughly screwed over.
And, while it is true that university-town folks gave a lot of money to the Kerry campaign, and the associated Democratic and “527” groups, it is more accurate to report that donations were made by people from all parts of the country, regardless of means. For example, MoveOn.org—which I donate to, by the way—has 3 million names on their e-mail list; they received donations from all 50 states, from the rich as well as those who are struggling.
What conservative pundits are afraid of, what their ranting seeks to conceal, is the fact that 2004 changed the demographics of political fundraising: the Republicans were funded, as usual, by conservative fat cats, corporate PACs, and “independent” organizations such as the NRA, Chamber of Commerce, and the Christian Coalition. However, Democratic funding shifted away from corporate PACS—which, in the main, were bullied into donating only to Bush—to individual donors. In this sense, rank-and-file Democrats took control of the Party.
So when Brooks observed that, in 2004, MoveOn.org became the “head and the wallet” of the party, he’s not far off because the MoveOn.org variety of fundraising did make a huge difference to the party. Some of this is due to the success of the Internet model for reaching out and soliciting money. But, unlike the Republican Party, the Democratic fundraising process has grown beyond “show me the money.”
MoveOn.org, and the Dean campaign, asked rank-and-file Democrats for their opinions, and then listened to what they have to say. (It is probably more accurate to say that they asked, and listened to, progressives, as many of their constituents are not card-carrying Democrats.)
MoveOn.org features a process where they ask their constituents what they think, and then reflect this in what they do. This is the same process that is employed by successful Congress people, like Barbara Lee and Barney Frank, but seems to have been lost in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. (One exception would be Senator Barbara Boxer, who recently has taken very strong stands on the legitimacy of the 2004 vote, the war in Iraq, and the nomination of Condoleezza Rice, because of feedback she got from her constituents.)
In a democracy it’s a good thing to listen to the people. To David Brooks and his brothers in the conservative punditocracy, this may seem like a radical notion spread by the university-town elite, but to those of us who believe in the promise of America, who believe that grass-roots democracy, as opposed to big-money democracy, is the best and fairest form of government, this seems like common sense.
Maybe, despite his tortured logic, David Brooks has stumbled onto the truth. Maybe MoveOn.org is providing fresh inspiration to the progressive movement. Maybe the election of Howard Dean as chair of the DNC is a reflection of this insight and energy. Maybe Berkeley, as the number one university-town in America, has once again taken its rightful place as the center of the progressive universe. Maybe, just maybe, these are good tidings, for the Democratic Party, and for our country.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com