ON MARCH 16, 2003, as George W. Bush and Tony Blair met to plan the invasion of Iraq, a protest movement was literally being set ablaze around them. At 7 p.m. in each time zone, millions of people across the globe lit candles and gathered in peaceful vigils in opposition to the impending war. Organized by MoveOn.org and its affiliate Win Without War, this rolling wave of protests encompassed 8,000 vigils held in 135 countries.
“There still might be two superpowers in the world,” wrote Patrick Tyler recently in The New York Times “—the US and world opinion.” If Tyler is right, no group is more responsible for mobilizing world opinion than MoveOn.org, the upstart political organization that was the electronic engine behind March's unprecedented show of international unity. MoveOn has become the most powerful activist voice in America, attracting more than 1.5 million members domestically and hundreds of thousands more around the world, and leveraging the Internet to create a new kind of organization, one with the ability and credibility to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and move tens of thousands of people to action within hours.
MoveOn is now poised to influence the U.S. presidential race more than any other advocacy group, with the exception of unions. Its responsive membership is ready to give millions of dollars to favored candidates as well as volunteer in campaigns.
MoveOn owes much of its character and nimbleness to its unusual origins. The brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, it has its roots in the odd mixture of the impeachment of Bill Clinton and entrepreneurial technology.
Boyd and Blade's company, Berkeley Systems, was famous for its flying toaster screensavers. When the couple sold the company in 1997, they had 120 employees and $30 million in annual revenue. Boyd and Blades were catapulted into national prominence when they became disgusted with the Clinton impeachment process and created a website that tapped into a huge groundswell of opinion that wanted the country, and particularly the Republicans, to, as the name suggests, move on.
MoveOn offered an easy and efficient way for citizens to contribute toward a new leadership in Congress. Hundreds of thousands eventually joined up, and MoveOn raised more than $2 million to help elect four new senators and five new House members in 2000.
In late June 2003, the organization's political action committee turned the political system on its head and set the progressive community abuzz by launching a successful online Democratic primary.
“Pundits, pollsters, and big donors shouldn't be the only voices that count at this early and important stage of the process,” said Boyd, explaining the reasoning behind the group's early foray into the 2004 presidential election.
And Boyd gave another compelling reason for jumping in early. “We are giving these campaigns a real reason to develop grassroots networks while they are working for our endorsement.”
The MoveOn.org PAC primary drew more than 317,000 voters. The New York Times called its online primary “a glimpse into the politics of the future.”
MoveOn's primary may also deserve credit for helping propel Howard Dean's campaign into the top tier of presidential candidates. Although Dean did not win MoveOn's endorsement, the organization and the upstart presidential candidate now appear to be on parallel paths, reinforcing each other's success, even as they change the ground rules of presidential politics.
Not only did Dean come out the leader in the primary (although his 44 percent total was shy of the 50 percent threshold that would have led to more campaign cash and an endorsement), but Dean campaign spokesperson Trish Engler estimated that more than a quarter of Dean's donation surge at the close of June came from MoveOn members and that, overall, fully 77 percent of Dean's funding has come from the Internet.
It seems clear that MoveOn PAC has provoked a shift in American politics, adding “Internet activist” as an important constituency for the Democratic Party along with voters in early states, labor unions, and local political clubs. Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Dean, called the online primary “an historic event in American politics. It's a primary where hundreds of thousands of people got together early on and said this is who we support right now.”
At the recent Take Back America Conference, sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) in Washington, DC, MoveOn's tiny team, led by co-founders Boyd and Blades, and international campaigns director Eli Pariser, were treated like the progressive equivalent of rock stars. Boyd was a lead speaker along with the likes of AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, CAF's Robert Borosage and Ellen Malcolm of the legendary EMILY's List. For the MoveOn people it was a whirlwind schedule with virtually every hour of the day spent in meetings with members of Congress, organizational leaders, and journalists.
Yet MoveOn's consistent message to progressive leaders, presidential candidates, and elected officials was decidedly straightforward. In Boyd's words, “The people are ready. Lead them, for crissake.”
In July, MoveOn launched a major campaign calling for an independent commission to explore the false claims and poor intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction. The centerpieces of the campaign are television ads and the website Misleader.org. On the domestic front, MoveOn has fought Bush's conservative judiciary appointments.
There is an increasing sense that MoveOn has developed effective ways to help people express their political passions and turn that passion into empowerment. They get things done—they place ads not only in The New York Times but in local communities and on billboards. They facilitate effective meetings between constituents and political representatives and raise money for political candidates. Their message is: don't hoard your political capital. Fight for what you believe in, but remain humble.
In speeches at the CAF conference and at the recent Planetwork conference in San Francisco, both Boyd and Blades explained the fundamental principles that underlie the MoveOn model.
First, Boyd said, MoveOn listens to their constituency and often engages in two-way communications. “We are steeped in feedback,” he says.
Next, MoveOn functions as a leader. People crave engagement, says Boyd. “I'm asking ‘What can I do to help you exercise political influence?'” Boyd believes “most people know how they think,” but need help in engaging power.
Trust is also integral to the organization's success and credibility. Every message is a service and has an individual MoveOn leader as its author, which keeps it personal and straightforward. Members feel they are on a first-name basis with MoveOn staff.
One special key to MoveOn's success, according to Blades and Boyd, is to fight hard for what people care about. “People respond when you fight,” says Boyd.
Small but mighty
One of the enduring wonders of MoveOn is how they are able to accomplish so much with such a small staff. Besides Boyd, Blades, and Pariser there is executive director Peter Schurman, organizing director Zack Exley, and chief operating officer Carrie Olson. Though small, the MoveOn team is fiercely committed and multi-talented. Boyd likes to brag that everyone on the staff is a geek, fully capable of doing everything.
“Part of MoveOn's attraction,” Pariser observed, “is that it aims for normal people—not just activists—and engages them successfully.”
Sincere, polite, and reasonable, Eli Pariser modestly describes his work at MoveOn as incredibly gratifying: “The efforts fund themselves ... we're just trying to keep up. We ask for a specific amount of money and much more pours in.”
MoveOn's most dramatic achievement was to turn its Internet machine—focused on petitions, e-mails to policy makers, and raising and distributing campaign contributions—into face-to-face activism and grassroots media buying, the kind of activities that make politicians sit up and take notice.
Says longtime peace activist Harriet Barlow, “Eli developed the entire piece of the program that advanced MoveOn from a ‘sign this petition' entity to a face-to-face organizing group—and he did it by working 18 hours a day by himself, because he believed that people would act if there was a reasonable mechanism to help them get to their representative with a clear message.”
The face-to-face lobbying produced 130 signatures on Representative Sherrod Brown's congressional letter calling on the president to let the UN inspections work—including 30 members who voted for the Iraq resolution to go to war.
Several characteristics separate MoveOn from traditional issue organizations. First, they are not dependent on foundation money with all the attendant worries about how to behave and when the next grant will come (although they do raise some foundation money). Second, they have a political action committee that raises “hard money”—as opposed to grants and tax-deductible contributions—which enables them to be partisan, contribute to political campaigns, and exercise clout in the political process. “Everyone told us we couldn't raise hard money, but it has not been a problem,” notes Pariser.
Third, thanks to a technology savvy staff, MoveOn is very sophisticated on the web. They have the addresses of all MoveOn members and can organize them into order by zip code-plus-four, an incredible asset in political campaigns.
MoveOn intends its online primary to be the beginning of something big: a web-enabled nationwide network to defeat Bush. If its members continue to support the idea, the group may hold another primary in the fall; this time, one of the candidates just may get the coveted 50 percent.
MoveOn's ultimate goal is to build a sustainable political movement in the U.S., one that will help elect progressive politicians and hold them accountable afterward.
And no matter who wins their next primary, Wes Boyd says MoveOn intends to remain committed to its mantra of regime change at home: “No matter who we individually support during the primaries, we [will] keep working to defeat Bush once the eventual Democratic nominee is chosen.”