The Scientific Activist

The following is a transcript of the remarks I delivered to the Texas Aggie Democrats at Texas A&M University on September 5, 2007 (and I’ve added some links). I start out talking a little bit about the work I did in the organization when I was a student there, but I eventually get into the growing role that blogs are playing in Democratic Party politics.

I stood here almost exactly four years ago in front of a group not unlike yourselves. I was a junior at A&M, a newcomer to politics, still wet behind the ears, yet I was the new President of the Texas Aggie Democrats. It was the fall of 2003, and the Democrats were just coming off some of their worst electoral defeats in modern history a year before. The party was downtrodden, demoralized, and disorganized overall, but, to make things even more difficult, my fellow officers and I were charged with rallying the party in the heart of conservative America. Little did we know, in addition to that, we were also about to be thrown into the middle of one of the most significant congressional races of the upcoming 2004 election.

I had only gotten involved with the Aggie Democrats one year before, in the fall of 2002. How I came to be involved in politics can be directly traced to the previous year’s attacks on 9/11 and the response of our government, particularly the Bush Administration, to them–but that’s a story for another day. I had come full circle from being an interested and patriotic citizen, through the dark depths of total disillusionment and apathy, back to the point where I was ready–and even felt obligated–to change things for the better.

When I showed up at that first meeting, the position of Secretary was open, and, honestly, nobody wanted to take it (there were only a dozen or so in attendance at the meeting). So, even though I thought that a sophomore biochemistry major, whose only previous experience in politics was arguing with a Republican acquaintance now and then, wasn’t really qualified, I took the job anyway. And, I never looked back.

That year was a tough year, though, 2002 was. That November we lost every single race that we campaigned for–from the governorship and the senate down to the local races. And, that’s about how the Democrats fared nationally. We probably should have given up right then. But, we didn’t. After that, it was a difficult year, and we only had a handful of people at each meeting, but we held the party together, and when I started my tenure as president in the fall of 2003, we were ready to hit the ground running.

My fellow officers and I did a few things that year that I think helped turn the organization around and lead it to victory in the years ahead. First of all, I thought long and hard about who we were, what our political philosophy should be, and what tactics we should use to accomplish our goals. My own political philosophy was–and still is–quite progressive, much in the model of the late senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone. And, although our organization was a big tent and incredibly diverse, I knew that our membership was quite progressive in general as well–at least much more so than the A&M student body at large. And, many of these members had begun to feel quite alienated on such a conservative campus at Texas A&M’s.

However, too many people (including many of my predecessors) had wanted to selfishly use the organization as a personal vehicle for venting their own liberal anger–being loud and proud–without any real concern for accomplishing concrete goals–much to the detriment of the organization as a whole. I had come to the realization, though, that an organization’s goals, and how it accomplishes them, are two very different things. We could appeal to the mainstream population, just by tweaking our tactics, without having to sacrifice any of our core values. In fact, the future of the Democratic Party would depend on such tactics. The national Democratic Party had taken the opposite approach in the 2002 elections, changing the substance of its message to something often referred to as “Republican Light”. And, let me tell you, if a voter has a choice between a Republican and a Republican, well, that voter is going to choose a Republican. The real Republican. Think instead of those like Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, or our own Congressman Chet Edwards. These officials have progressive values, but they are able to appeal to a much wider audience.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this strategy works, though, since our own Democratic values are mainstream values. Who doesn’t believe in equal dignity and respect for all Americans? Who doesn’t believe in building an economically strong United States? Who doesn’t believe in expanding access to health care and tackling the problem of the uninsured head-on?

So, that’s exactly what we did. We took that message to the students of Texas A&M and the residents of Bryan/College Station. And, we were successful. Membership skyrocketed (by the next fall, we had meetings with two hundred attendees, much larger than even the College Republicans’ meetings), we had a large and favorable presence in the media, we registered thousands of students and local citizens to vote. And, most importantly, we played an integral role in getting Chet Edwards reelected to his new Congressional district. Edwards was one of ten Democrats who were targeted by the Republicans’ incredibly cynical 2003 redistricting fiasco, but when the dust settled on Election Day 2004, only he and Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett were left standing. The significance of this cannot be overstated. We helped elect Chet Edwards to a congressional district that (1) was tailor-made for a Republican, (2) includes two of the most conservative universities in the nation, and (3) (and this is the best part) includes president George Bush’s Crawford ranch.

Because of our work here, George Bush’s congressman–to this day–is a Democrat.

We also won several other key races locally that year, and we had a lot to be proud of. We didn’t win the presidency, though, but two years later we saw the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress in 2006 (including an even more decisive victory by Chet Edwards). And, 2008 isn’t looking too bad either. The Democrats are going all the way this time, and we’re not stopping until we’re in the White House.

It was an uphill battle for us to do this kind of work in College Station, Texas. Yet, this might be the most rewarding place in the nation to be a Democrat. Here, you really can make a difference. In fact, it was largely due to my work with an “opposition party” here in the heart of Texas that I ended up receiving my Rhodes Scholarship in the fall of 2004. People outside of here do appreciate what you’re doing. And, in fact, I can tell you that, as someone currently living overseas, the hopes of those around the world lie in the American Democrats. That’s quite a lot to live up to!

Making it happen, though, just takes a little bit of hard work and good old fashioned elbow grease. If the Aggie Democrats need someone to help man a table, to register people to vote, to sell some T-shirts, to campaign door to door–whatever–if you have a free moment, give them a hand. This is an excellent community to be involved in, and not only is the work rewarding, you’ll meet some great people. One of the things we did when I was president of the organization was start having socials after each meeting. Back then we were going to Ozona, but now, I think, we’ll be going to Margarita Rocks after the meeting.

Some of the other things we did that led to our success back then–besides being deliberate about our message and our tactics–were improving our media relations by staying in regular contact with The Battalion and by encouraging our members to write Mail Call letters to the editor (and, this is something I would encourage all of you to do). This is something I did starting early on in my time at A&M, and until I won the Rhodes Scholarship, people across campus recognized my name more from these Mail Calls than anything else. In fact, during the summer of 2004, when I was starting to look at graduate Ph.D. programs in structural biology and biophysics, I emailed a few faculty members from my department to seek their advice. One of them wrote me back with an email that said (with quite a few exclamation marks) “Nick Anthis? You mean the Nick Anthis, crusader of progressive causes at Texas A&M, wants to talk to me about graduate programs? Of course I’ll help out.” Although flattered, I was honestly a little disappointed that she hadn’t even known that I was in her department. But after that email we set up an appointment for what ended up being a very productive meeting.

Other efforts included becoming more involved with the local progressive community (both the Brazos County Democratic Party and the Brazos Progressives), holding more rallies and demonstrations, and encouraging members to wear their T-shirts on campus more often. I cannot emphasize enough that this wasn’t me doing all of this. We had a very effective and driven corp of officers as well as many many enthusiastic and active members to make all of this happen.

Most importantly, though, during my tenure we revamped our internet presence. We hadn’t had an updated website in years, but we found someone interested in web design who wanted to help out, and he put together the website that is still up at aggiedems.tamu.edu. (Later, we also made a Facebook group). I know that the Aggie Democrats weren’t able to find a webmaster this last year, but my understanding is that one has already been found this year and the website will be one of the organization’s main priorities.

Although revamping our web presence wasn’t my primary priority when I was President, what we did on that front was one of our more significant accomplishments, and if I could do it all over again, I would have put much more time and effort into the web. I didn’t at the time, though, because it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I (along with many others) realized just how powerful a tool the web has become and will continue to become for the Democratic Party.

For many of us, we got our first inkling of the potential of the internet for Democrats in 2003 as we saw Howard Dean and his campaign manager Joe Trippi run a powerful internet-based grassroots campaign to try to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In the end they were not successful at their ultimate goal, but this new “netroots” strategy had propelled Howard Dean to front runner status for several months and had forever changed how we do political campaigning. This legacy is most apparent today in John Edwards’ campaign, where Joe Trippi is now serving as a senior advisor and a member of the media team. Take a look at johnedwards.com, and you’ll see what I mean.

Howard Dean’s campaign, however, was just a superficial manifestation of something else that had been brewing behind the scenes for several years: the rise to prominence of the Democratic blogosphere.

Let me stop here and ask you all a question. How many of you have a talk radio show? Go ahead. Raise your hands high.

[No hands are raised.]

Even though the rise of the Republican Party in the 80s and 90s was based largely on the proliferation of conservative talk radio, if I asked a room full of young Republicans the same question, I think we’d get a pretty similar response: not many.

Let me ask you another question, then. Who here has a blog?

[A few people raise their hands.]

Exactly.

Like it or not, what talk radio was for the Republicans back then, the blogosphere has become for the Democratic Party today, and progressive bloggers are already starting to have a tangible impact on the political dialogue in our country. Daily Kos, the premiere progressive blog–which was founded only in 2002–currently receives over half a million visitors a day. It has even spawned its own political blogging convention. This year, the second annual Yearly Kos convention hosted all of the major Democratic presidential candidates, among many other prominent speakers.

Even the major campaigns have taken up blogging as one of their primary activities. The Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama campaigns all have regularly updated blogs. The Edwards blog, though, is the most advanced, and the Edwards campaign has interacted very closely with the blogosphere throughout its campaigning. Interestingly, although Edwards officially announced his 2008 candidacy in New Orleans, he had already announced it the previous night on YouTube. But, even before that, he announced his candidacy on a phone call to about 20 bloggers.

Clearly, the campaigns are taking the blogs seriously, but so are the media and the public, as political blogs are also affecting real world events through some of their original reporting.

One example is , which from December 2006 to April 2007 drove the Bush Administration’s politically-motivated firings of nine U.S. attorneys into the national spotlight. The eventual media firestorm over this led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez last month.

Another example is the recent scandal of Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho who plead guilty last month to disorderly conduct after trying to solicit sex from a plainclothes policeman in an airport bathroom. This story was reported by the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call, but about ten months earlier, a blog called Blog Active reported that Senator Craig–known for his anti-gay agenda–had engaged in several homosexual relationships of his own. Because of all of this, Craig announced his resignation from the senate earlier this month, although he has since reconsidered and has not made a final decision.

I also broke a national story on my own blog, The Scientific Activist, and I’ll tell you a little bit about it now.

On January 29, 2006, Andy Revkin of The New York Times broke a story about climate scientist James Hansen’s claims that Bush Administration officials at NASA had attempted to silence science that was not conducive to the Administration’s ideology (particularly regarding global warming and the Big Bang theory). I commented on this story the next day on my blog, but I returned to it a week later to follow up on a more specific aspect of it. One of the central characters in the censorship scandal was a young Bush Administration appointee in the NASA press office named George Deutsch. Deutsch was reported to have graduated from Texas A&M in 2003 with a degree in journalism. I decided to research Deutsch for a blog post in which I was going to make the case that Deutsch–someone with no scientific background–was not qualified to be in control of such important scientific information. As I was calling around to do a little more background research, though, one of the people I talked to mentioned in passing that Deutsch may have not actually graduated from Texas A&M. I was informed that in the summer of 2004, he was offered a position in the Bush/Cheney War Room, and, to this person’s knowledge, he had never returned to A&M.

No other media outlet had reported this, as Deutsch’s resume claimed that he had graduated in 2003, and journalists did not have reason to suspect otherwise. I researched this further and was eventually able to confirm with an employ at the The Association of Former Students that Deutsch had not completed his degree at Texas A&M. I immediately published this information on my blog on the evening of February 6. Word spread quickly, despite my blog being relatively new and not having a large readership at that time. Within just a few hours of posting, I was contacted by Andy Revkin of The New York Times, who informed him that he was looking into this story. In just over 24 hours, Revkin’s next article on the NASA censorship scandal was published on NYTimes.com. But, by this point the title was already “A Young Bush Appointee Resigns His Post at NASA.” Deutsch has resigned due to this revelation on a blog, before any mainstream media organization had even covered the allegations. Word spreads quickly on the blogosphere.

As a political appointee, nobody at NASA could have forced George Deutsch to resign just for towing the Bush Administration line–even if he was censoring scientists. However, because he had now engaged in obvious wrongdoing–falsifying his resume–he had to resign immediately. In his wake, NASA made several institutional changes to prevent such censorship from happening in the future. This also helped bring to light just how much science was suffering under the Bush Administration. If I hadn’t discovered that he falsified his resume, though, Deutsch would likely still be there today. As a scientist, a Texas A&M graduate, and someone interested in the intersection of science and politics, I was well situated to break this story. It would be unlikely to find many professional journalists with this particular set of characteristics. However, this was not necessary, since the blogging revolution has enabled anyone with a bit of spare time to be a citizen journalist.

It wasn’t difficult to start my own blog, and it’s something I’d suggest everyone here to at least look into. Here are a couple of pointers:

  • You can set up a blog for free on sites such as Blogger and WordPress. These sites offer easy to use templates, so that you don’t need to know any HTML (I certainly didn’t when I started), although you’ll learn some quickly.
  • Try to find a blogging niche. Mine is reporting on stories at the intersection of science and politics (making me “the scientific activist”). Each of you probably has a unique set of interests and expertise that would make for an interesting blog.
  • Blogging is all about networking. Once you’ve started your blog and have some original material up, help the bigger blogs find you by linking to them and by emailing other bloggers when you’ve posted something that you think they might be interested in. By doing so, you’ll hopefully get some links back. And some traffic.
  • And, blog often. Period.
  • If you are interested in more of the mechanics of blogging, come talk to me afterward.

In fact, what I would like to see one day would be a network of blogs hosted by the Aggie Democrats. This would be something similar to the Burnt Orange Report, which was set up by members of the UT Democrats and has become a well-known high-traffic political blog. Once again, if anyone is interested in this idea, let me know. I would be happy to help make this happen.

The Democratic Party has a long populist history, and in light of that, the rise of the progressive blogosphere is not surprising. Blogging is not just for the elites, but it’s for everyone with internet access. This is not just symbolic, but it is a direct consequence of our values. The blogosphere is loud, and it’s noisy, but for the first time in the history of society, we’re seeing the true democratization of information. And, since political power lies in the hands of those who control the flow of information, nothing could be more empowering. I still firmly believe that if presented with all of the information and allowed to make up their minds objectively, people will side with the Democrats every time, and the blogosphere is a great example of that.

The blogosphere is sure to play a key role in helping elect a Democrat to the presidency in 2008. But, once we have a Democrat in office, we the blogosphere, we the party activists, we… the people… will not be quiet. We want health care for all. We want to end the war in Iraq. We want to end our dependence on oil… foreign and domestic. We want to once again be a part of our vibrant global community and exert the type of moral leadership that we know ourselves capable of. We want to see an end to the politics of division and cynicism. We want hope. And, most importantly, we want someone who will listen to us… the people. Electing Democrats to the Presidency, the House, and the Senate in 2008 will be the first step, and you are going to make that happen. Good luck!

Comments

  1. #1 Mr. Gunn
    September 10, 2007

    I found that speech to be pretty inspiring. I hope your audience did too. In the spirit of the last part of your talk, I’d like to share one experience I had debating a a science blogger from the other side of the spectrum.