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Gary Younge
Beyond the ballot box

At Tom's restaurant in New Hampton, a small town in Iowa, a young, asthmatic staffer for Howard Dean's campaign slides to the floor clutching her inhaler. She wears her dedication on her sweatshirt. Under the slogan "C4C" (Commit for Change) come the words: "Blog, write, donate, organise, volunteer." Recently she has been doing most of these - or encouraging others to do them - around the clock in an effort to secure Dean the Democratic party's nomination for president. Earlier she admitted, with a mixture of weariness and pride, that she has not slept for two days. Now, while Dean is pressing flesh ahead of next week's primary, she is panting for breath.

Fortunately, there is a doctor in the house. Dean was a physician before he went into politics - after a quick diagnosis he sends her to the hospital before heading to the next campaign stop. But reinforcements are already on the way. At a Dean Meet Up in Brooklyn, organised through the internet, two strangers - Paul Fitzgerald and Kaiser Sandwipi - discuss how they are going to travel the more than 1,000 miles to Iowa next weekend to help campaign. They'll be part of The Perfect Storm - an influx of 3,500 volunteers to blanket the state ahead of the election to back Dean. Others at the Meet Up, most of whom have never been actively involved in politics before, are penning letters to registered Democrats in South Carolina, explaining why they are backing Dean and appealing for others to do the same.

Dean's bid for the Democratic nomination is more than just an electoral campaign. It has all the attributes of a movement - a bottom-up surge of like-minded, motivated people who have discovered they all have something in common and are now mobilising in order to act on it. Around the country strangers are meeting in towns and cities in their tens and twenties, donating money in $10 and $20 bills and coming away with not just posters and badges but "to do" lists. "Participation in politics is increasingly based on the chequebook, as money replaces time," argued Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Dean has managed to get people giving time and money.

Most are young (under 35), college educated and white (a problem for Dean as he heads south next month where blacks comprise 50% of the primary base). For most, the war in Iraq - which Dean opposes - was a symptom of what was wrong rather than the cause for the joining up. To dismiss them as angry is to miss the point. It is the translation of that anger into hope and empowerment that is relevant. "It's about an idea that our country can be much better and I wanted to do my part," says Nathan Gonzalez, 24, who came from California to volunteer in Iowa.

While Dean clearly benefits from all of this, he did not create it and at this point does not really control it. When his campaign manager suggested building a base of supporters through blogs, Dean asked: "What's a blog?" Nobody vets the letters volunteers send to fellow Democrats; the Meet Ups are rarely chaired by staffers. "When I called head office to ask if I could do certain activities they said: 'You can do whatever you want'," said Marystarr Hope, who organised the Brooklyn Meet Up. It is not democratic (these activists have no say in Dean's platform), but it is chaotic and pluralistic enough that it could become so quite quickly.

None the less, the fact that Dean has become the focal point for this energy matters. His winning the nomination would be roughly the equivalent of Ken Livingstone taking over the Labour party. Not that Dean has the same politics as Livingstone. But, broadly speaking, they stand a similar distance to the left of their party establishments and - recent reconciliations notwithstanding - are equally loathed by their party bosses.

Dean is not the most leftwing candidate in the race by any standard. He is pro-gun, pro-death penalty and a fiscal conservative. But he is the most leftwing candidate to prove sufficiently attractive to sufficient numbers of people to be pivotal in the process. However, in order to run against George Bush he must first run against the Democratic party leadership. And in order to win that battle he has had to galvanise and energise entirely new constituencies that were either dormant or non-existent. As such, his insurgent candidacy marks the first electoral awakening of the growing ranks of the disaffected and disenfranchised - a group not confined to America but spread over most of the western world. Over the past decade, they have protested, petitioned or just grumbled in each other's company. But the one thing they have not managed, until now, is to make a decisive difference at the ballot box. Instead, they have chosen between voting for parties they no longer believe in, or parties they know cannot win, or just not voting at all.

In the Dean campaign we are gaining a glimpse of the organisational methods that could bond the disparate and disenchanted at a local and a national level, whether in Germany against Schröder's economic reforms or in Britain against Blair's foreign policy and tuition fees. It does not answer the question as to whether activists should stay in those parties, form new ones or join others. But it does indicate how, wherever they end up, they might mobilise large numbers of people effectively at the polls.

Whether this can be translated into electoral success within the Democratic party, let alone in the presidential elections, is a moot point. It's an uphill task, although given how steep a climb Dean has endured so far, anything is possible. But what happens to Dean, at this point, is less significant than what happens to the movement. In these early stages, it is vulnerable regardless. If he wins, it risks becoming coopted; if he loses, it risks being disbanded.

We have been here before. During Jesse Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988 the Rainbow Coalition made a huge impact. He didn't win. But, as a result of his campaign, America saw the largest increase in black mayors since the civil rights movement, and black voter registration increased by over 30% in two years. But because the coalition remained an extension of Jackson's electoral ego, when he lost it eventually foundered. "The difference between Christian and Rainbow coalitions is that the Christian coalition actually exists," says one of Jackson's former aides. "He squandered the possibility to build an organisation or structure."

With a week to go before the primary, Dean activists can be forgiven for not looking beyond his immediate electoral prospects. But, whether the next president is George Bush, Wesley Clark or Dean, their most valuable asset is not their candidate but the awakened awareness of their potential, as progressive citizens and voters, to make a difference. In the words of the late African-American poet and activist June Jordan, they have learned - and are now teaching the rest of us - that "we are the ones we've been waiting for".

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