The Future of Political Parties: Former D.N.C. Chairman Howard Dean Visits

Do political parties have a future in the United States? Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.), explored this question with students on Monday evening.

Dean posed the question in a discussion entitled, “Is There a Future For Political Parties in the United States?” in the Freeman Room of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at 5:00 p.m. In the talk, Dean also examined the institutions that dictate current American politics.

“Both parties need to change drastically and become much more flexible. Both parties need to be less ideological and more fact-based, particularly the Republicans. And I think the government institutions need to, and will be, reformed. Congress doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, and the court system isn’t working terribly well either, and those things need to be fixed,” said Dean.

In addition to being a former chairman of the D.N.C., Dean was a six-time governor of Vermont and a 2004 presidential candidate.

Both students and teachers came to hear Dean speak. Olivia Lai ’20 explained that she was interested to hear Dean’s thoughts on the staying power of political parties, given her belief that her generation has been less invested in basing political views on partisan identities.

“I do agree with what he said — that our generation has been much less interested in institutions than [young people] were before — so I was interested to see what he had to say on the existence of political parties and how we as a generation should deal with them, work with them, and how to be involved with political parties going forward,” said Lai.

Dean addressed the perception that young people tend to resist political institutions more so than previous generations, but concluded that institutions are still needed to uphold American politics, even though they might change.

In his talk, Dean said, “The institutions of your generation will look a lot more like you than the current D.N.C. All these kids who are voting for us, I don’t think they are Democrats. And I also don’t think they think they are Democrats. They don’t have much use for political parties of either kind, because they are institutions that are clunky and speaking about abandoning mission. I think what is going to happen is that the parties will have to socialize and reach out to you, but in the meantime, we have to get you in a place where you are comfortable with some sort of an institution.”

Tanvi Kanchinadam ’19 considers herself an example of the type of person Dean asserts that political parties must now cater and reach out to. She was motivated to attend by a desire to learn more about Dean’s experience as a former member of the D.N.C.

Kanchinadam said, “He is a former member of the D.N.C., and as someone who has been relatively politically active throughout these past few years, I’ve seen the pitfalls of these major political institutions. I wanted to see the perspective of someone who had formerly led it, and his opinions on what it is now, as well as what he thinks about the future of our political parties in general.”

“As somebody who isn’t a huge proponent of establishment politics in general, I think his reasoning of why we need political institutions was really helpful in reevaluating who I am in terms of how I am defined. Am I defined by our generation, or do I need to learn from older people to solidify my own political opinion?” Kanchinadam continued.

Throughout his talk, Dean stressed the importance of young people in American politics, advocating for parties to reach out to voters of a younger generation.

“In a time when the United States desperately needs renewal, I think young people are the moral conscience that is so badly needed. My generation was, too, when we were that age, but young people’s organizing abilities are so extraordinary now because of the internet, and they are pushing the United States into a desperately needed change,” he said.

Dean also urged young people to take action on their opinions. If young voters want to get started in politics, according to him, they should be willing to start anywhere. He described the gigs that comprised his early political involvement.

Dean said, “I worked on Jimmy Carter’s political campaign as an envelope licker. Just get involved in a campaign, whether it’s local or otherwise. I was so low down on the totem pole that it was a local campaign, but as a result, I got to know everybody who was in the Democratic Party who was worth knowing, because we were all in the same boat.”

Much of the discussion was focused on how the younger generation will have an impact on American politics. Dean said that he thinks that more members of the younger generation need to run for office, but that he does not want anyone under the age of 50 to become president.

He said, “I think people my age need to be upended. We don’t get any more respect because we’re old. That’s done. We get respect if we’re right, and you only have to listen to us if we’re right, and you get to prove us wrong.”

Lai said, “I actually really liked his stance on having old people stepping down and letting young people come in, because I do agree that there is a lot of stagnation in political parties right now. If you look at it, all of the people at the top are old. I really agree that they should be there for support, but we as a generation need to go in and be able to overturn the institutions, so that it can work towards what we want.”

Dean concluded his talk with an optimistic message, stating that even though he thinks young people might be discouraged right now, he thinks that anger and insistence will spark change. He cited his own experience with political disillusionment in making this assertion.

“My job right now is to give you hope. Your job is to be angry and to insist on doing something. We can’t change the world without young people being angry and insistent and impatient. But you’re going to get discouraged,” said Dean.

Dean continued, “I remember how incredibly discouraged I was in 1968. If you would have told us in 1968 that 40 years later we would have a black president, we would have told you that you were out of your mind. For you, 40 years is twice your lifetime. For me, it’s less than two-thirds of my lifetime. So what I have seen is that patient progress is incredibly fast.”