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Netroots Goes Global | The Nation

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Netroots Goes Global

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OPEN members. (Photograph by Ben Wikler)

Holmes, New York, is an unlikely locale for an international summit. The little town, fifty-five miles north of New York City, has no stoplights, no supermarket and no Wikipedia entry. But earlier this year, Holmes played host to a milestone in progressive political history. On January 7–10, thirty-two of the leading online organizers from across four continents gathered in a rustic Holmes conference center for the inaugural Online Progressive Engagement Networks (OPEN) Summit. All of them hailed from MoveOn.org–style organizations, including GetUp! (Australia), Campact (Germany), 38 Degrees (Britain), Leadnow (Canada) and nascent start-ups ActionStation (New Zealand) and Jhatkaa (India).

About the Author

David Karpf
David Karpf, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, is the author of The...

The OPEN Summit was the first time this self-described “sisterhood” had met face-to-face to discuss common challenges, forge new relationships and explore future partnerships. The summit also marked the official launch of OPEN, an ongoing alliance among these groups. The organizers picked this remote locale, they said, so they could “turn off the twenty-four-hour news cycle” and spend some time “collectively dreaming and scheming about the future.”

Conversations at the summit clustered around two themes: novel technological tools and longstanding strategic problems. Summit participants divided their attention between the latest advances in online petition tools and perennial questions like “What is the nature of our power?” and “How do we deepen activist engagement and give members a stronger stake?” These aren’t questions with simple answers; they’re questions that activist leaders have to keep asking again and again. And the new movement infrastructure of OPEN will provide plenty of opportunities to do just that. 

OPEN signals a new phase in the evolution of online organizing—and in the life of the pioneering online group MoveOn.org. In the early days, MoveOn was a fluke. Then it became a force. Now, as MoveOn enters its fifteenth year, it is practically a franchise. Membership has more than doubled since 2008, and now hovers around 8 million. It has an education and advocacy arm as well as a PAC focused on the ballot box. In 2011, it launched SignOn.org, which further empowers members by allowing them to create and manage their own petition campaigns. As MoveOn continues to expand and innovate, a new wave of grassroots organizations cast in its mold are replicating its efforts in the United States and around the globe. Now these like-minded organizations are beginning to link up, articulating a shared set of goals and strategies.

As the MoveOn model goes global, OPEN groups are confronting familiar opportunities and challenges. MoveOn has developed an excellent structure for encouraging simple acts of citizen participation. It can leverage millions in small-dollar donations toward progressive candidates and causes, and it can deliver thousands of protesters to public rallies. Its rapid-fire mobilizations are perfectly suited for an age when media cycles move at the pace of Twitter. But such speed often comes at the cost of sustained momentum. When public attention moves from, say, the Snowden revelations to US intervention in Syria, what is left behind? Social movements require more than petitions; they need organizations and infrastructure. MoveOn alone can’t force Congress to pass a climate bill or gun control legislation. Some critics say the organization has nurtured a culture of “slacktivism,” charging that it offers little more than a crass marketing ploy and feel-good clicks. As OPEN participants leap into this fray, they are renewing a crucial debate about the strengths and limitations of online activism—and, more broadly, the best ways to harness and deploy progressive power.

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OPEN Director Ben Brandzel is the person most responsible for the internationalization of the MoveOn model. Brandzel joined the staff of MoveOn shortly after graduating from Brandeis University in 2003. During his four years there, he launched MoveOn Student Action, served as MoveOn’s advocacy director and helped found the internationally focused Avaaz.org. These were the years of MoveOn’s oppositional ascendance, when it was providing a digital outlet for progressive outrage against the Bush administration and pioneering a new type of rapid-response, multi-issue activism.

Soon after the Democrats took back the House in 2006, Brandzel left MoveOn for a short stint with the John Edwards presidential campaign. As the campaign unraveled, Brandzel booked a flight to Australia, where a young Internet-driven group, GetUp!, was preparing for the 2007 Australian election campaign. It was supposed to be a brief visit; Australian elections are six-week sprints, far different from the eighteen-month marathons we subject ourselves to in the United States.

In Australia, Brandzel was struck by the similarities between GetUp! and MoveOn. MoveOn was launched on September 18, 1998, as an online petition calling on Congress to “Censure Bill Clinton and Move On” from the Lewinsky scandal. MoveOn was not the first petition to go viral online. But its founders, technologists Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, hit upon a key insight: that every petition signer was, in essence, a member. “It wasn’t just about petitioning Congress,” Boyd recently said. “These people clearly wanted to do more.” Throughout the Bush years, MoveOn members took action online and offline: signing e-petitions, attending antiwar rallies, donating money for in-your-face media buys. The group was quick to respond to each new outrage, mobilizing members and then harvesting the burst of attention by growing its core list each time. (Brandzel labels this the “crisitunity” model of organizing, melding “crisis” and “opportunity.”) Membership steadily climbed, eventually surpassing 1 percent of the US population (3.2 million).

GetUp!, meanwhile, was founded in 2005 after a right-wing coalition government took control in Australia. Its founders, Jeremy Heimans and David Madden, had spent the 2004 election in the United States and briefly worked with MoveOn. One of their earlier successful campaigns pressured the government to call for the release of Australian-born Guantánamo detainee David Hicks. Between 2005 and 2008, GetUp! grew to more than 1 percent of the Australian population (230,000 members) and likewise became synonymous with the organized left. It is now the largest political organization in Australia. The Conservative coalition lost power in the 2007 election, and Prime Minister John Howard lost his seat, partly because of GetUp!’s campaigning.

“GetUp!’s success meant that we didn’t have a fluke with MoveOn; we had a model,” Brandzel said. “And GetUp! achieved MoveOn-level influence at three times the pace of MoveOn in the US.”

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