MoveOn moves up: Online citizen movement grows richer and stronger by the day

From the archive (legacy material)

Michelle Goldberg | | 1 December 2003

Bill O’Reilly wants its nonprofit status revoked. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie sees it as part of the “Democrat plan to subvert campaign finance laws.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s office plays phone pranks on its staffers. A piece in David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine worries: “It could bypass the mainstream media, sneak around campaign spending limits, and become its own powerful channel for Leftist communication, indoctrination and mobilization.”
Clearly, has arrived.
Founded in 1998 by married Silicon Valley millionaires Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, MoveOn has become the most important political advocacy group in Democratic circles — and arguably the most important in American politics. Working with Hollywood and political superstars, and with legions of frustrated people at the grassroots, it has raised more than $10 million from its 1.7 million members, many of whom can be quickly mobilized for demonstrations and other political projects. And in the last half of 2003, it seems to have hit critical mass. Lauded as the Christian Coalition of the left, it’s lately been the object of a slew of admiring profiles in Time, Details and elsewhere. It has been a significant influence on the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Now, with pro-democracy billionaire George Soros pledging financial aid to the organization, MoveOn appears to be at the hub of a new political synergy that may give the Democrats their best hope for defeating incumbent Republican George W. Bush in 2004.
All this has the right worried. MoveOn, they know, is part of a massive campaign gearing up to try to beat Bush in 2004. Soros, along with philanthropist Peter Lewis, pledged earlier this month to match every $2 donation to the MoveOn voter fund with a dollar of their own, up to $5 million. MoveOn will use the potential $15 million pot to buy airtime for anti-Bush campaign commercials during the presidential campaign. Soros has also pledged $10 million to America Coming Together, a group that, as its Web site says, plans to “conduct a massive voter contact program, mobilizing voters to defeat George W. Bush and elect progressive candidates all across America.” The Republican National Committee Web site features letters from Gillespie fretting that “third-party special interest groups will spend between 360- to- 420 million dollars [sic] for the expressed purpose of defeating the President in 2004.”
Progressives say those numbers are exaggerated to scare up contributions from the conservative base, but there’s no question that, between MoveOn, Soros and Howard Dean, a new breed of aggressive progressives are changing American politics. And while conservatives have complained, they haven’t been able to hamper these groups’ efforts. Indeed, MoveOn has mastered a kind of ideological jujitsu. Republican attacks just add to its strength.
On Nov. 21, the Republican National Committee unveiled the first ad of the Bush reelection campaign, rebuking Democrats for criticizing the president’s handling of Iraq. It begins with a clip from Bush’s last State of the Union address, in which Bush warns of the catastrophes that terrorists may sometime unleash. Then words flash across the screen: “Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists.” Conflating the war in Iraq with the war against al-Qaida, its message is clear: Bush’s opponents are soft on terror.
Within hours, MoveOn e-mailed its members, seeking $500,000 to counter the Republican spin. “When Republicans equate the war on Iraq with the war on terrorism, we’ll remind the public of the truth,” said MoveOn’s message. “When Republicans raise money from wealthy donors and corporate CEOs to attack the Democrats, we’ll raise it with hundreds of thousands of small contributions from people across America … Today, we can show the GOP what they’re up against. They’re paying $100,000 to run their ad. Together, we can raise $500,000 today to run ads that get out the truth in key battleground states.”
In five hours, they raised half a million dollars for the MoveOn voter fund.
“They get things done,” says Todd Gitlin, the veteran activist and Columbia University professor. “They raise money, they hold straw votes, they’re constantly dreaming up practical activities that have a constituency.”
Though Gitlin says MoveOn has taught progressives about the Internet’s potential, it’s gained respect and influence in the Democratic Party the old-fashioned way: by raising cash. “The big watershed for them was the proof that they could raise piles of money before the midterm elections,” says Gitlin. “They raised millions within a few days in various selective Senate races. After Paul Wellstone [the U.S. Senator from Minnesota] died, they were raising piles of money for [former Vice President Walter] Mondale. They demonstrated they could raise six-figure sums in a day or two. A few months later, they demonstrated they can be instrumental in organizing demonstrations. They were the force that organized the candlelight vigils [against the Iraq war]. That was international. They’ve straddled the discourse of mainstream politics and the discourse of outsiders. They seem to be both insiders and outsiders. That appeals to those who are both moralists and hardheaded.”
Predictably, as MoveOn has grown, the right has pounced, though conservatives have yet to figure out a way to cause the group more than mild annoyance. In October, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s office, angry at MoveOn members calling to protest DeLay’s stance on FCC regulations, started forwarding the calls to MoveOn organizer Eli Pariser’s cellphone. The same week, Bob McManus, the New York Post’s opinion-page editor, published MoveOn staffer Noah Winer’s phone number in the headline of his column and urged readers to “swarm” him. Neither stunt debilitated its target. Winer says he received a few angry phone calls, but not enough to make him change his number, while Pariser changed his voicemail message for a day, redirecting callers back to DeLay’s office.
MoveOn’s mere existence drives Fox News fulminator Bill O’Reilly into such fits of rage that he once devoted a segment of his program to attacking the group while refusing to allow its staff on air to answer his charges. On his Sept. 17 show, he said: “Now, the people wanted to come on here, but I can’t have them on because, you know, they’re going to attack Bush. I got to defend Bush.” He proceeded to rant against MoveOn’s nonprofit status, saying, “I don’t know why we’re giving tax-exempt status to propaganda outfits … When you say you’re nonpartisan, as says it is, and then you’re not, that’s a lie, is it not?” O’Reilly fails to register comparable outrage at the partisan activities of nonprofits such as the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America.
Pariser sounds almost disappointed that O’Reilly couldn’t do better. “I kind of shrug and say, ‘That’s what they have?'” he says. “O’Reilly in particular, we were sort of imagining they were going to come up with something. What he came up with, after what one has to assume was much research, was that he didn’t think our tax status was right, even though both his guests assured him that it was. So far so good.”
Far from being intimidated, MoveOn has set its sights on Fox. On Nov. 21, it announced the creation of ]”Fox Watch,” organizing thousands of volunteers to monitor the cable channel for distortion and bias.
MoveOn’s genius for drawing strength from right-wing attacks mirrors that of the Howard Dean campaign, with which the organization is often associated. Earlier this year Zack Exley, MoveOn’s organizing director (and the creator of the infamous anti-Bush site “”) took a two-and-a-half-week leave of absence to work on Dean’s Internet campaign. MoveOn says the group volunteered to help other Democrats as well, but only Dean’s people accepted the offer. Now the Dean campaign has grown to echo MoveOn in style and strategy. When MoveOn jumped on the Republicans’ attack ad to raise money, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi had the same idea. He sent out an e-mail to the 503,000 people on Dean’s mailing list, lambasting the “fear-mongering that George Bush and Karl Rove are going to use” and appealing for funds to counter the Republicans. “Our goal,” he wrote, “is to raise $360,000 by Tuesday at midnight — $5,000 for every hour they are going to lie to the American people with their ad.”
They didn’t have to wait until Tuesday — by noon on Monday, they’d reaped $395,640. And while MoveOn will use its $500,000 as part of a general campaign to expose what it sees as Bush’s deceptions, Dean’s ad takes on the Republican commercial directly. It mimics the Bush spot, showing the president giving the State of the Union address. This time, though, a narrator says, “He misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction.” Then the scene changes to Dean on the campaign trail, and the ad says, “Howard Dean is committed to fighting terrorism and protecting our national security. But Howard Dean opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He believes it’s time we had a foreign policy consistent with American values. And it’s time to restore the dignity and respect our country deserves around the world.”
John Kerry ran a similar response, with a commercial that makes use of footage of Bush in a flight suit. “George Bush’s ad says he’s being attacked for attacking the terrorists,” says the spot’s narrator. “No, Mr. President, America’s united against terror. The problem is, you declared, ‘Mission accomplished,’ but had no plan to win the peace and handed out billions of contracts to contributors like Halliburton.”
Both messages were similar, but the dynamic behind them was different: By mobilizing its supporters to fund such ads, Dean’s campaign makes them feel like they’re talking back to Bush. “This is a new kind of democracy happening right now,” says Tiffany Shlain, the founder and director of the Webby Awards, the Internet version of the Oscars. Last year, MoveOn won the Webby in the politics category. Both MoveOn and the Dean campaign, says Shlain, “are tapping into a whole new group of people who weren’t involved with politics because they didn’t feel like they had a voice. They’re making people feel like they can make a difference, and that’s real and that’s big.”
Thus it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of overlap between Dean supporters and MoveOn users. When MoveOn held an online Democratic “primary” in June, Dean won 44 percent of the vote. It wasn’t enough to garner MoveOn’s endorsement — and financial backing — but it did show that, of the nine candidates in the race, Dean was far and away the favorite of the kind of tech-savvy progressives who make up MoveOn, and it helped propel Dean to the front of the Democratic pack.
Boyd says MoveOn still hasn’t decided whether to hold another primary or endorse a candidate. “The timing of the first primary we did in June was very good,” he says. “We were in the middle of the money primary,” the period in which insiders sort candidates by their fundraising prowess. The money primary, Boyd says, “is a filter that candidates go through before real people are even brought into the equation. The reason we had the primary was the simple analysis that real people should be involved in the selection of the Democratic and Republican nominees. A lot of this stuff is determined before the very first caucus. We wanted to change that, and I think we did.”
For all the attention it has received, MoveOn works because it maintains a healthy distance from the centers of power, even as its own power multiplies. Though they know how to use celebrities to further their agenda, Boyd and Blades shun self-promotion; they’ve repeatedly refused reporters’ requests to interview them at home and observe their daily life.
“The hardest thing to get across to the political establishment is that this is not just another set of tools you use to manipulate constituencies and tap them for money,” says Boyd. “This has to be seen as a way to engage constituencies and engage in a two-way conversation.”
That’s been obscured by all the attention the group has gotten lately for its high-profile backers. Besides the Soros donation — part of the anti-Bush campaign the billionaire calls “the central focus of my life” — Al Gore has given two major speeches to MoveOn members, including one on Nov. 8 in which he excoriated the PATRIOT Act with more passion than he ever showed as a candidate. Actor Jack Black, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, director Michael Mann and a host of other stars have volunteered to judge MoveOn’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” ad contest, which challenges members to create a commercial exposing Bush’s failures and deceptions. MoveOn will buy commercial airtime to show the winning spot during the week of Bush’s State of the Union address in late January.
The association with Gore is telling. Though its tactics might be insurgent, MoveOn’s political orientation isn’t far from the center of the Democratic Party. The group sees itself as representative of the new silent majority, average Americans abused by right-wing ideologues who claim a monopoly on national definition. Its support suggests just how many people in America have felt voiceless and yearned for some way to make themselves heard.
“MoveOn has been tagged in mainstream media as a liberal activist group, when in fact the positions they’ve articulated have tended to fall more in the center,” says Jonah Seiger, a visiting fellow with the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Their birth was a moderate position on the Clinton impeachment — censure the president and move on. It wasn’t ‘This is all bullshit and we shouldn’t do anything,’ and it wasn’t ‘Let’s tar and feather him.’ Their position on the war was also a middle-of-the-road position — give inspectors time. It wasn’t ‘Let’s not be there,’ and it wasn’t ‘Let’s go right to war.'”
Indeed, for all its fearlessness in taking on the right, MoveOn works to avoid controversy among progressives. “I’m personally very concerned about what’s going on in the Middle East,” says Pariser, speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “That’s something that MoveOn probably won’t directly address for the next year, and I’m perfectly happy to say that’s not MoveOn’s place. We intentionally look for issues that are not divisive.” Thus you won’t find anything on MoveOn’s site about abortion, or about guns. “Not that those aren’t important issues,” Pariser says, “but when there’s so many battles to fight, why pick the ones that divide the base?”
“One of the things MoveOn has done that is really interesting: They’ve been able to engender a radical support for a practical solution,” Seiger says.
That is partly because Boyd and Blades, whose company Berkeley Systems was best known for creating flying toasters screensavers, think like businesspeople rather than ideologues. In fact, they never planned to get into politics at all. Boyd says that if it hadn’t been for the impeachment, “we wouldn’t have gotten involved in politics. But at a certain point, you can’t look away. You wonder about what was lost and what we could lose if we don’t step forward.”
Their sense that American politics had run off the rails began during the impeachment, but was driven home after the 2000 election. During the recount, the right mustered mobs, but Democrats were oddly quiescent. Gitlin, the Columbia professor, held a count-the-vote rally the Monday after the election at Manhattan’s Federal Building. At its peak, there were 300 people.
MoveOn was among those that failed to act. “We totally blew it,” Boyd says now. The reason wasn’t a lack of passion — it was a kind of disbelief that American democracy could go so awry.
“There was tremendous energy within our base, but we didn’t engage because I thought for sure that the system would work, that the wheels would turn and a fair result would be found, and I was wrong,” he says. “And we now know that the system, to be fair, has to be people screaming on both sides.”
Yet MoveOn aspires to more than just partisan shrieking. The organizers insist that the movement is, at its core, centrist, and that MoveOn speaks for the untapped majority of Americans. Of course the group has defined itself by opposition to Republican Party initiatives like the Clinton impeachment and the war, but its ideology is arguably closer to the mainstream than Bush’s is.
“I think there are cranks on all sides,” says Boyd. “The cranks are running the show on one side. People who 10 years ago, 15 years ago would have been laughed off Capitol Hill have, through having a very strong, consistent voice in an environment in which there’s a vacuum of integrity, have gained ownership of one team. But it’s a very fragile alignment. If you look at Americans’ issue positions, they don’t align with the Bush administration. My view is that Americans are very centrist. When you go out and talk to people, I share views with a lot of people across the country.”
That center has been obscured by television, which thrives on rancor and outrage. But Boyd believes the Internet is beginning to counteract some of television’s distortions. “The American people are smart, talented, resourceful, all of those good things,” he says. “Right now with technology, we can tap into that resourcefulness; we can help play a catalytic role in helping to get these people to step forward. That’s what you’re seeing with MoveOn. That’s what you’re seeing with the Dean campaign and other campaigns.”
Of course, MoveOn runs plenty of campaigns that don’t ask anything more of users than sending e-mail or making donations, but the group also engages people in deeper ways. One obvious example is the “Bush in 30 Seconds” campaign, which allows MoveOn to freely draw on the creative energy of thousands while giving average Americans a chance to enter a process previously open only to campaign professionals.
“We’re NOT looking for the same old slick political ads from Washington media consultants,” says the contest Web site. “Instead, we’re looking for really creative ads that will engage and enlighten viewers and help them understand the truth about George Bush.”
Contestants e-mail their spots as digital files. They’ll be posted on MoveOn’s site, where users will vote on them. Judges will make their final decision from among the top-rated entries.
MoveOn is also moving into the kind of face-to-face community building pioneered by and the Dean campaign. It’s encouraging its members to hold thousands of house parties across the country on Dec. 7 to screen Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War.” The film, becoming a key liberal account of the administration’s duplicity, is sold or given away with membership dues on progressive Web sites, including John Podesta’s Center for American Progress and AlterNet. Guests at these parties will be able to join a conference call with the director and submit questions for him online. “This’ll be fun, but it’s also strategic,” says an e-mail from MoveOn to its members. “Coming together, we’ll strengthen the MoveOn community. This is also a great way to get the word out — you can invite friends and co-workers who aren’t yet part of MoveOn.”
In business, this kind of thing is called viral marketing, and MoveOn embraces business approaches to sell its ideas. For months, the group has been taking out ads in major newspapers that feature details of Bush’s misdeeds with the headline “Misleader,” and the group runs, a Web site devoted to chronicling the administration’s misdeeds. The idea, says Boyd, was to “brand” the president as a “misleader,” attacking head-on the public perception of Bush’s integrity.
Given its scope and the nearly infinite number of projects it could undertake, there’s very little division inside MoveOn or sniping outside it. Partly, this is because its membership has such a large role in setting the group’s agenda. In June, MoveOn asked its members to interview each other about what values and issues were important to them. About 20,000 participated, interviewing each other by phone, producing 10,000 pages of feedback. MoveOn then hired a linguist to parse the data and figure out which concerns were most widely shared by the membership. The top three were security and Iraq, energy and the environment, and freedom and civil liberties. Boyd says they didn’t put them in any order: Iraq was most cited as a top issue, but freedom was most often cited period, and that’s where MoveOn has focused its resources. Even the slogan on MoveOn’s new T-shirts, “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” was chosen democratically: Members submitted more than 700 suggestions, with a vote determining the winner.
It’s also no accident that all seven paid MoveOn employees work from home. Boyd and Blades deliberately chose not to have an office, to avoid the cliques that come with any real-world work environment. “You can’t have two cultures, an in-person culture and a distributed one,” Boyd says, because power will automatically cluster among those working together in the real world. MoveOn thrives in part because it keeps power dispersed.
The organization operates organically, says Pariser. The seven staff members are in constant e-mail contact, and when one of them gets an idea — say, to use the Republican ad as a fundraising tool — they’re able to get the go-ahead from the others and launch the project within hours, if not minutes. “It’s a really nice system,” says Pariser. “We all have a lot of authority, but we all check in with one another a lot, and it just sort of works.”
According to Boyd, MoveOn’s current harmony stems largely from a common foe. Bush has done far more than anyone else could to make MoveOn’s base indivisible.
“I wouldn’t give too much credit to the process,” Boyd says. “I think it’s easier to have a clear opponent that unifies all progressives. There’s much less nattering going on among progressives right now than I think has historically been the case. My guess is that if there was a new president, the first thing we’d have to deal with is factionalization.”
MoveOn’s members hope to someday have such problems.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
About the writer
Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.