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Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics Hardcover – September 28, 2010
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“The resurgence of the Democratic Party in the past two election cycles is one of the most important—and least understood—political stories of the new century. Ari Berman tells that tale with reportorial verve, a keen eye, a sharp pen, and a wealth of fresh insight. If you want to understand the grassroots revival of progressivism in America, and also the new challenges and aching disappointments that have come along with it, this is the book to read.” —John Heilemann, national political columnist for New York magazine and coauthor of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of Lifetime
“Ari Berman has written a political narrative so revelatory and exhilarating it kept me up nights reading. Herding Donkeys is some of the freshest and incisive political reporting out there, and Berman, who has the keen eye of a novelist, is one heck of a storyteller.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America
“Herding Donkeys is essential to understanding how the Democratic Party came back from the dead in 2006 and 2008. But it’s especially good at explaining what happened to all of Barack Obama’s grassroots energy. This is a hopeful but also sobering tale, told with strong inside reporting.” —Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One
“Herding Donkeys is political reporting at its finest. In his spirited debut, Ari Berman takes readers inside the back rooms and living rooms where politics actually happens, but his novel vantage point doesn’t prevent him from rendering the tough but fair judgments every great political reporter needs to make. This is a ripping account of the Democratic Party through an intense period of historic transformation.” —Michael Tomasky, author of Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign
“An intriguing behind-the-scenes look at how the Obama campaign built on the grassroots movement that had catapulted Dean to prominence . . . Engaging and balanced—a stand-out book.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“With a keen appreciation of political strategy as well as an eye for telling anecdote and amusing detail, Ari Berman tells the amazing story of the Democratic party’s revival. Berman’s reporting vindicates the fifty-state strategy of Howard Dean and the determined organizing of Barack Obama—and shows why grassroots activism is still the most potent force for change in America.” —Joe Conason, author of Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth
“Ari Berman tells the rollicking and rousing story of the fight for the soul of the Democratic party that has reshaped American politics. Full of riveting revelations, vivid reporting, and a cast of colorful characters, Herding Donkeys captures the exhilaration of the grassroots insurgency that Howard Dean launched—and Obama seized—to realign our political map. At a time of disillusionment with establishment politics, this book is solace for the soul. It is a timely reminder that the grit of tenacious organizers and antiestablishment politicians in red, blue, and purple states alike offers Hope 2.0.” —Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher, The Nation
About the Author
ARI BERMAN is a political correspondent for The Nation and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, and he is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and National Public Radio. He lives in New York City.
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Dean, an outsiders insider, is juxtaposed against Rahm Emmanual who plays the part of an insiders insider. The two are the Democrats' yin and yang. This book is told from Deans perspective as well as the organizers who learned campaigning and new internet tools with Dean and never stopped until Democrats took Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Occasionally the chronology in the book is confusing as characters such as Dean then Obama organizer Jeremy Bird bounces from New Hampshire to South Carolina to Ohio to Washington. Herding Donkeys captures much of the zeitgeist of a time that has passed and hints at what has become of the forces that propelled Obama in 2008. It's an look at what political organizers do in places like Colorado Springs and Florence, SC before the big money and big media take hold of a movement and many of the brash young organizers move to Washington to replenish the ranks of the dreaded establishment.
Berman's achievement is that he has written a new kind of campaign book. The old prototype of the genre, Theodore White's The Making of a President 1960, began with a well defined political calendar and process. Herding Donkeys shows how the campaign has become both permanent and decentralized. This is a book about the ebbs and flow of continious grass roots organizing. It's not about elite decision making and the insider echo-chamber of pompious pundits. People do have power, even in forgotten places like Greeley, Colorado but only when they are part of a movement as well as a campaign.
You may recall that Howard Dean was one of the also-ran candidates early in the 2004 primaries. His candidacy fizzled, but not his rather radical 50-state strategy for rebuilding the party which had been divided and conquered by the Bush campaign. His point was that grass roots action was the strength of the Democratic party, and therefore the party needed to abandon the top-down mentality of those who wanted to pull the strings from Washington.
Not long after he gave up on his bid for the White House, he was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The party, for good or ill, has not been the same since. Most specifically, the Dean strategy was adapted and adopted by the Obama campaign in 2008, while Hillary Clinton clung to the insider party machine. We all know how that turned out.
Unfortunately, the machine reasserted control once Obama won, and most specifically in the person of Rahm Emmanuel. Rahm hated Howard Dean, and the feeling was (probably still is) mutual. Emmanuel is an insider's insider, and Dean is the rebellious outsider. Obama went from outsider to insider in November of 2008, and developed under Emmanuel's advice. Advice that backfired on him more than once.
What emerged from the grass roots success of 2008 included Organizing for America, the organization I have been working with in the lead-up to the 2012 campaign. And Ari Berman sees OFA as the best hope we have for a real reform of how politics is done. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel so good I'm going to add half a star to my rating. There.
This is an insider's book, and would probably bore a person who is not particularly interested in Democratic politics. But I suspect it's very instructive to Republicans, as it also maps the path of the Tea Party activists on the other side. If you're interested in politics, especially if you live outside the US and would like to understand why we are so very strange, read this book.
From the beginning, the book captures your attention, as Berman goes thru the red states: Texas, Indiana, Colorado, North Carolina and meets the people who want change and work hard to accomplish it. From the back roads, to the inner cities, to the middle class mansions, all walks of life come together to turn this election in their favor.
I thoroughly enjoyed the way Ari gave the political facts a novel-like flavor. It was engaging from the beginning. You felt you were in those living rooms, making signs, putting up posters, calling your friends. He gives vivid descriptions of the organizers and their sometimes unconventional environments. After each chapter, I was totally looking forward to the next state and the people I would meet there.
Also, Berman gives clear and articulate insights as to why Obama's popularity with the grass roots movement has hit some rough patches.
There is humor, insight, political savvy in this book. I recommend it for anyone who cares about their country, their government, and how making a change is possible.