The Web Rewires the Movement
MoveOn is often criticized from the left for not attempting to build permanent local structures or on-the-ground leadership. "They're great at getting new people involved, but it's not true self-organizing," says UFPJ's Dederich. The criticism is fair, but MoveOn's strength lies elsewhere, in providing a home for busy people who may not want to be part of a chapter-based organization with regular meetings. And given what MoveOn is doing--activating people on two or three different issues at a time, often for short durations as legislative targets change--it's hard to imagine a more appropriate model. By combining a nimble entrepreneurial style with a strong ethic of listening to its members--via online postings and straw polls--MoveOn has built a responsive, populist and relatively democratic virtual community.
Although MoveOn does not track member demographics, anecdotal evidence suggests that its base is disproportionately white. (Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, for example, faired poorly in the group's recent "primary.") This reflects the persevering digital divide, in which, according to a recent Pew survey, a full 24 percent of Americans are totally offline, and those who are online still tend to be younger, whiter, suburban, better-off and better educated. But defying online trends, the majority of MoveOn's active volunteers are female. And staffers says its members are diverse in other ways, with thousands in each state, ranging in age and income.
Zack Exley, a former SEIU organizer and MoveOn's organizing director, says that the group reaches deep into politically disaffected middle-class constituencies--what he calls America's "silenced majority." Unlike the traditional left, he says, "we trust people. We don't think Americans are crazy or stupid or brainwashed or apathetic. We're not trying to drag them kicking and screaming over to our view. We know that there are millions of Americans in every community and walk of life who already know that something is terribly wrong with our country and who are as angry as we are and who are mostly just looking for a meaningful way to do something about it."
According to Pariser, most MoveOn members do not define themselves as activists. Rather, MoveOn is often their first step into political action--and what brings them to take that step is usually an e-mail message. "A lot of 'Take action now' e-mails feel like they were written by a focus-group e-newsletter robot," says Madeline Stanionis, who as a senior consultant for San Francisco-based Donordigital has developed scores of online advocacy campaigns. "MoveOn e-mails feel personal and fresh. They write from their hearts." The e-mails about the global vigil came directly from Pariser. His voice was strong yet level-headed. There were no ideological digressions. He got to the point early and kept it action-oriented. It was easy to trust.
Pariser says he crafts his messages with an eye toward taking MoveOn members on a journey, by providing a narrative that connects them to an ongoing social movement. As each campaign proceeds, short e-mail updates ("50,000 of you have already signed up...here's a typical response from a schoolteacher in New Mexico...") build excitement and a sense of community. This feedback loop is an example of how the Internet, when well used, can extend the shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity one feels on the street to fellow participants across the nation and around the globe.
Returning to the MoveOn website a couple of days after the global vigil, I was able to browse through photographs and personal commentaries from vigils all over the world--Kazakhstan, Korea and Kenya, as well as the one I attended in Park Slope. All in all, some 10,000 photographs were uploaded that week. Through the Internet we had found our way into the streets, and the streets had then found their way right back onto the Internet. Our local protest was immediately reflected back to us as part of a larger story of national and global resistance.
Now that the war on Iraq--or one phase of it--is over, last winter's intense outpouring of antiwar sentiment feels like a distant episode. The peace movement is collectively catching its breath and wondering what to do next. At a June convention in Chicago, UFPJ consolidated its far-flung coalition by forging a unifying program for a new wave of movement-building. Many in the peace movement are looking to the 2004 elections, when MoveOn's fundraising and outreach muscle--the group seeks to raise tens of millions of dollars and mobilize a million volunteers--could be a factor. In a much-debated experiment in online democracy, MoveOn challenged the power of pundits and wealthy campaign donors to wield control over the presidential nomination process, by asking its 1.5 million American members to vote on which Democratic candidate the organization should endorse. Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, the top two vote-getters, have both emerged as magnets for antiwar Democrats disaffected by the party's tepid opposition to Bush's extreme agenda. But Dean, who outfundraised his competitors last quarter through a torrent of small online donations, is the only one of the pair to have caught the Internet wave. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, sees the net as the missing element that will make Dean's 2004 run a "perfect storm." (It couldn't hurt that MoveOn was a paid technical adviser to Dean's campaign, prompting charges of partiality from the Gephardt and Edwards campaigns during the MoveOn primary. Exley says other Democrats declined such assistance, but wouldn't say which ones.)