Schlepping through the suburbs of Derry, New Hampshire, on a hot Sunday afternoon, armed with water, granola bars and talking points, Pam and Patrick Devaney went to seek out progressive voters. Derry is a swing town in a swing state - a crucial battleground for the US presidential election, and the Devaneys are shy but determined novices. 'I'm not comfortable doing this, but it has to be done,' says Pam. 'Our democracy is at stake. This is the most important election in my lifetime.' Patrick says: 'I always thought someone else was out there doing the job for us. Now I wonder what we were doing in New Jersey.'
And so they knock on doors, asking people who have shown an interest in the anti-Bush campaign America Coming Together (ACT) what they believe the main issues in the election are (the war and healthcare for most), and giving them leaflets with a liberal analysis. For tax reasons ACT cannot lobby directly for Democratic candidate John Kerry, but there is no doubt it wants him to win. What happens to Kerry's campaign is important. But what happens to the Devaneys, and hundreds of thousands like them, is crucial.
Kerry spent most of his election campaign promising that nothing would change if he were elected. At one stage he said that even if he knew when he voted for war what he knows now (that there would be no UN support, no WMD, huge civilian casualties and civil war in Iraq) he would still have done the same
Only in the last month, after Bush was gaining what appeared to be an unassailable lead, did Kerry shift tack and slam the war as a colossal mistake. And only then did his challenge once again become viable. At most his election might improve some elements of US foreign policy and lessen the gap between rich and poor at home; at the very least it would mean things get worse more slowly and less dramatically. Much like Tony Blair's victory in 1997, the left's hope in the US is invested not in Kerry winning but Bush losing.
If we are truly interested in the possibility of US imperialism being checked we must look to the likes of the Devaneys: people who have been foot soldiers in the US's own civil war over the past 18 months. New Hampshire, a state that Bush won in 2000, and which is by no means radical, is full of them.
There is Mary-Jo McCarthy from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, whose husband, Ryan, is serving in Iraq as a reservist. She has joined the Band of Sisters: a campaign comprising women with partners in Iraq who are opposed to the war. 'I've never been politically involved before,' she says. 'But I felt so strongly that the most supportive thing we can do for the troops right now is vote for John Kerry.'
There is Claire O'Neill: 'We used to shout at the TV a lot, but then I felt I couldn't just sit back and let this happen. The bigger picture is too important.'
And there is the congressional candidate Granny D: the 94-year-old great-grandmother of 16 is campaigning across New Hampshire, slamming the war and big business. 'The corporations have taken over,' she said after a packed house party in the city of Laconia. 'To become a powerful man today you have to sell your soul.'
These people are not a majority, or even anywhere close to it. But, like the religious right that has had such a huge influence on the Bush administration, they are a vocal and energised sizeable minority.
The past 18 months has seen a surge in independent political activity in the US. Organisations like ACT and the grass-roots campaign MoveOn.org have provided forums for political congregation, discussion and action. After the release of Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, for example, MoveOn.org invited its web-based activists to host parties at their homes to discuss the film and how people could capitalise on the issues it raised. The nearest to where I live in New York was just three doors down. And so my wife and I trooped along with a pizza to discuss politics with around 20 strangers. Halfway through, we turned towards the computer to hear a live address by Moore, who thanked us for going to see his film and called on Kerry not to tack too far to the right. Afterwards people were asked to sign up to make phone calls the next week to register voters in Florida. My wife went along and registered one voter.
How productive all this was is not clear. But its primary importance was that it created an avenue for political debate without dictating an agenda for political action. As a bottom-up surge of like-minded motivated people, it could have gone anywhere, including nowhere at all.
Such phenomena are not new in the US, but the fact that they are gaining a (limited) electoral expression is. At the beginning of the year just such a movement, headed but not controlled by anti-war candidate Howard Dean, threatened to make Dean the Democratic Party's candidate for the election. Dean activists around the country used the internet to establish makeshift political communities. Once again, I needed only walk a few minutes from my home for the chance to meet with like-minded strangers. During a 'meet-up' in a bar in Brooklyn I heard two men who had never met before discuss how they were going to travel the more than 1,000 miles to campaign for Dean in Iowa. Others hand-wrote letters to Democrats elsewhere in the country, calling on them to back Dean. No one told them what to write: there were no Dean staffers to be seen. 'When I called head office to ask if I could do certain activities they said, "you can do whatever you want",' said Marystarr Hope, who organised the Brooklyn meet-up.
To put this all down to the web is to miss the point. The internet facilitated these grass-roots efforts, but it was the opportunity to be part of moulding your own campaign, rather than accepting one off the shelf, that made them so attractive and effective. The day before the Brooklyn meet-up I was in Iowa City. It was a week before the caucuses there, and the Dean, Kerry and Edwards campaigns were in the same building. When I approached the Dean campaign it facilitated my requests, passing me mobile phones to speak to ex-Nader voters and non-voters. When I visited the Kerry and Edwards campaigns I was told nobody was permitted to answer a question (not even a simple, 'why did you join this campaign?') without prior authorisation from head office. Dean supporters had their own voice and were encouraged to use it; the absolute opposite was true for those backing Kerry.
The Dean campaign was not democratic - activists had no say in Dean's platform - but it was pluralistic, chaotic and empowering. The question is what will happen to those activists after the election. If Bush wins will they sink into despondency? If Kerry wins will they dissolve or be co-opted? Or will they maintain an independent progressive presence regardless, striving to hold whosoever wins to account?
Claire O'Neill and the Devaneys were all once Dean supporters, as were most of the other ACT volunteers I met in Derry. The energy they had harnessed earlier in the year had not dissipated but gone in new directions. O'Neill is now standing for the state legislature and encouraging others to do so. If these people continue and succeed it will be despite Kerry. The Democratic nominee has clearly distanced himself from every element of independent political activity, including the anti-war movement and the demonstrations in New York against the Republican Party convention. Yet these are the very forces that are making Kerry's campaign viable, providing focus for the Democratic base.
Meanwhile, those who once claimed to lead these activists have essentially been co-opted and then dismissed. Dean and fellow Democratic nomination hopefuls Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton quickly fell into line after they were defeated. In retrospect they clearly gave their support too cheaply. They might have insisted that Kerry campaigned on an anti-war ticket. But their desire for 'unity' was so strong that they forced their supporters to gather round an appalling agenda.
And the fact that the MoveOn.org meeting I attended resulted in little more than an interesting conversation about a film and a few registered voters suggests that such web-constructed political communities may be too makeshift. They deal with immediate concerns well, but seem to have little direction beyond that. Given how pressing the immediate concern is - ie, getting rid of Bush - this should come as no surprise. But if you are looking for a source of hope from US politics this year, then you should forget Kerry and the polls; it's the Devaneys you need to watch.
Gary Younge is a Guardian feature writer and columnist, based in New York.