CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The memory fills Ronnie Dugger with pain, that quiet afternoon in 1974 when his father sat on the front porch of their San Antonio home, eyes brimming with tears.
He'd been a lifelong Republican, a meat-and-potatoes conservative who believed in Richard Nixon and the party that elected him. But now William Dugger felt alone--and betrayed.
"It was just after Watergate, and my father had suffered several strokes," Dugger recalls. "One day he broke down crying, saying the Republican Party had destroyed everything he believed in. It was like he'd experienced a death in the family, and he died soon after."
Nearly 20 years later, the father's grief and anger came back to haunt his son.
By 1993, friends said Ronnie Dugger--a trailblazing journalist and presidential biographer--had become a difficult guest at dinner parties whenever Bill Clinton's name came up. He berated a leader who seemed to break every promise he hadn't forgotten, and he railed against a modern Democratic Party that was abandoning the working people who built it.
"I was a holy terror," Dugger says quietly. "And it was the same rage that had devastated my father. You spend years believing in a political party, and when it disappears, when you know it isn't coming back, you either die or you change. I had to change my life."
Squinting in the gloom of a late winter afternoon, the 67-year-old man in jeans and a work shirt ignores a constantly ringing telephone to finish his point: It's not just that he's lost faith in the Democratic Party's ability to solve the nation's ills and revive the political left in America, Dugger says. He's talking about something much, much bigger.
"We need fundamental change because people are fed up with politics," he explains. "They're disgusted that the White House has been turned into a whorehouse. They're angry that big business calls the shots in this country. And they're hungry for real leadership."
Once, Dugger was content to let his provocative words speak for themselves. As the founding editor and publisher of the Texas Observer--a feisty weekly that is still read far beyond the borders of the Lone Star State--he pioneered a style of bare-knuckled political reporting that rattled the high and mighty. He was, and is, one of America's leading progressive pundits.
"Ronnie has been an enduring voice on the left, someone who has spoken out when others were afraid to," says former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. "He's given a great many disenfranchised people an outlet through his writing, and in his own way he's made history."
Yet now, Dugger has crossed the line separating words from deeds. He's stopped being a mere observer and plunged into the unfamiliar world of political organizing. Frustrated by empty polemics, he's helped form the Alliance for Democracy, a group trying to build a national populist movement at the precinct level. The group has several branches in Southern California, including West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, where organizers are preparing for a long, unorthodox climb to power and visibility.
Indeed, Dugger and his allies are weary of two-party politics and leery of third-party boomlets. They hope to assemble a broad-based coalition that might one day elect a different kind of president--someone, they say, who is truly answerable to the people.
"This is not just another movement on the left," says David Korten, author of "When Corporations Ruled the World" (Kumarian, 1995) and an alliance supporter. "A true populist rejects both big government and big business, and our natural constituency is a political center that neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole would recognize."
Working out of a cramped apartment in a Harvard dormitory, Dugger spends long hours hunched over a computer, drafting action statements. He responds to a daily flood of e-mail, speaks with members of alliance chapters across the country and, scratching his head, tries to figure out just how the hell you jump-start a movement in late 20th century America.
"This is pretty daunting stuff," says Dugger, a friendly, soft-spoken man whose Texas accent seems sharply out of place in New England. "But I know that we're not alone."
Call it do-it-yourself democracy--a phenomenon that is sprouting at the grass roots today in many guises. Whether they're creating alternate parties, forming labor unions or launching groups like the Alliance for Democracy, thousands of activists are searching for ways to take control of their lives back from the bigness that pervades modern America. Disillusioned and angry, they share an impatience with business as usual and an almost messianic desire for change. Nearly 100 million people failed to vote last year, and for many organizers this signals that America is not only cynical, it's ripe for reform.