Sam Tanenhaus had an interesting op-ed in The New York Times where he states that Dean’s "radicalism" could lead to a Democratic renaiassance as the Goldwater movement led to the Reagan Revolution.
It’s a theory that seems to be relatively popular among many political scientists, but there are several key differences between the radicalism of Dean and the radicalism of Goldwater.
Dean’s radicalism is based partially on ideology, but it is driven by an absolute hatred of the Bush Administration. Unlike Goldwater, who was more idealistic, Dean’s campaign is based on a repudiation of Bush Administration policy more than any other single factor. It’s difficult for movements based so strongly on a single personality (or opposition to a single personality) to successfully morph into real long-lasting movements.
However, in defense of Dean, he is also partially riding on a larger societal trend. The subculture of the radical left has established itself strongly against a resurgent American conservative movement. Indeed, the nation is more ideologically polarized than before on both sides.
However, even with this polarization, most American voters aren’t tied strongly to either liberalism or conservatism. Survey after survey has shown that swing voters are the key to electoral success. The Reagan Revolution swept the nation in 1980 because Reagan attracted many moderates who agreed with his stance of a stronger American foreign policy. Bill Clinton captured moderates in 1992 and 1996 by his focus on the economy and his "new Democrat" message.
The current ideology of the American left is completely out of sync with the national mood. September 11 provided the American public with the horrible knowledge that foreign policy cannot be ignored. It woke up America’s latent Jacksonianism and forever altered the American political conscience.
The current "progressive" movement may bear superficial similarity to Goldwater’s conservative movement, but the ideological core of the movement does not have the widespread appeal to become a major mass movement. It is too focused against the Bush Administration, it is based on an ideology that specifically eschews military force in defense of American values, and it appeals only to a narrow segment of the voting population.
Perhaps in 20 years the Dean revolution might produce a real mass movement. However, the Dean movement seems more akin to the failures of McGovern and Mondale than it does to the Pyrrhic victory of Barry Goldwater.