A couple of you reminded me of this piece in the online AMERICAN PROSPECT
. Go read the whole thing, particularly if you are one of the commentors from yesterday who thinks that religion and politics have nothing to do with each other. When I attended my first Dean event, it felt an awful lot like one of the Baptist tent revivals I remember from childhood. And I always enjoy Garance-Franke Ruta's writing. Oh, and I'll try to bring you some news of the big anti-war demonstration here in Washington today later on.
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.