Five years to the day after American forces began their campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq, opponents of the war gathered in Washington. While some came with bullhorns and drums and flag-draped coffins, danced down K Street and confronted legislators on Capitol Hill, others formed a quiet vigil in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Here there were no bullhorns or drums. Instead, there were a few news cameras, a banner that read Invest in America, Not Endless War in Iraq and a clutch of several dozen members of MoveOn. Bill Hamm, a retired Air Force pilot from Texas who had come to Washington for the Take Back America conference, told me that during his military career, fellow pilots often gave him push back because of his liberal politics. But, he said, “I think that’s changing now.” Hamm told me that back in Austin, where he and his wife serve as regional coordinators for MoveOn’s local councils, his wife was organizing a 150-person vigil outside the governor’s mansion. Because of “war on terror” restrictions they were told they couldn’t bring candles. “So they’re going to use flashlights.”
This year, MoveOn turns ten. News of the organization’s advanced age tends to elicit the same startled response as word of a childhood star’s divorce. But more important, the anniversary serves to highlight just how far the organization has come. What started as a simple one-sentence petition hastily posted to the web has evolved into the most readily identifiable group in the vanguard of a revived progressivism, with a membership that exceeds 3 million. Capable of dominating a news cycle with a single ad and raising millions of dollars with a lone e-mail, MoveOn pioneered an entire approach to conducting politics through the Internet that has been replicated and spun off across the country and around the globe, an approach that, as the Obama campaign has dramatically demonstrated, has permanently transformed the landscape of American politics. And yet the roots of its success remain largely misunderstood.
This is in large part because MoveOn has been viewed through the distorting lens of a four-decade culture-war narrative, one whose labels have long outlasted the movements and dynamics that gave rise to them. In 1968, as the country approached what seemed to many at the time something like a civil war, Richard Nixon addressed the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. He described “cities enveloped in flame…sirens in the night…Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home.” Amid this tumult and chaos, Nixon presented himself as a tribune for those who weren’t in the streets, who weren’t seeking out confrontation and attention, “the forgotten Americans,” he called them, “the non-shouters.”
Forty years later, despite tectonic shifts in demographics and politics, our political map still bears the same key: a decent silent majority on one side besieged by a zealous, angry, out-of-touch left on the other. For movement conservatives and establishment centrists alike, MoveOn is just a new name for an old foe. Bill O’Reilly has called it “vicious,” “radical,” full of “fanatical left-wingers” who are blackmailing the Democratic Party. John McCain, not to be outdone, responded to the “General Betray Us” ad by telling a Republican audience this past fall that MoveOn “ought to be thrown out of this country.” Ostensibly mainstream voices like CNN’s Campbell Brown have referred to MoveOn as “American insurgents,” while Peter Beinart, in a 2004 cover essay in The New Republic, suggested that MoveOn be purged from the center left just as communists once were. Democrats have gotten in on the act as well: Hillary Clinton told donors at a private fundraiser that MoveOn had “intimidated” her supporters in the caucus states, and Barack Obama took a veiled swipe at the group in his recent speech on patriotism.
But understanding MoveOn as the direct descendant of the ’60s protesters gets the organization exactly wrong. MoveOn’s success (and, indeed, its limitations) is powered by its appeal to today’s non-shouters. Though its politics are in many ways the opposite of the Nixon silent majority’s, they share a disposition. They are people not inclined to protest but whose rising unease with the direction of the country has led to a new political consciousness. For citizens angered, upset and disappointed with their government but unsure how to channel those sentiments, MoveOn provides simple, discrete actions: sign this petition, donate money to run this ad, show up at this vigil. “Before I joined MoveOn,” says staffer Anna Galland, “I was organizing in Rhode Island doing faith-based antiwar activism. In March 2003, MoveOn had put out an action alert for a vigil against the Iraq War. There were 500 people on the steps of the Capitol, and I remember thinking, ‘I know all the activists in the state; where did all these people come from?’ I think many people have a MoveOn moment where they look around and realize that this organization has managed to tap into a much broader range of people than they might have seen at past activist events.”
Take, for example, Sandy Tracy. For twenty-eight years Tracy taught high school in a small town seventy miles west of St. Paul. She always voted Democratic, but she was never particularly politically engaged. “I’m 60,” she says, “and during the Vietnam protests I was too afraid to participate in any of those kinds of activities.” But then came the Iraq War and Kerry’s defeat, and it began to feel like the country, even the world, was spinning out of control. “I was really, really, seriously upset about the results of the election of 2004 and the track that the war was going. That was part of why I retired when I did: I just couldn’t concentrate on my job.”
Living in a conservative area, Tracy felt she was alone in her disaffection. But then in 2007 an e-mail arrived from MoveOn telling her that someone was organizing an antiwar rally near her. “I went, Oh my gosh, there’s somebody fifteen miles from me!” Within a couple of weeks she was on a bus to Washington to join a massive protest on the Mall. “I’d never done anything like that before. Along the way I found other people in MoveOn groups, peace groups, related kinds of progressive activist groups, and they weren’t telling me I should just mind my own business and not talk. And spiritually that was very uplifting to me. I just went, Aha, we’re onto something here.”
As Tracy’s experience shows, the MoveOn model of simplified and accessible activism has proved enormously successful. But as the organization enters its second decade, there’s evidence that it’s reached a point of diminishing returns. In the run-up to the Iraq War, MoveOn’s membership exploded, from 600,000 to 1.6 million, but its rate of growth has slowed considerably since then. What’s more, the organization faces a challenge in navigating the emerging political landscape. Born in opposition, first to the Republican impeachment effort, later to the Iraq War and the Bush agenda, MoveOn may soon be forced to define its relationship to a government controlled by its supposed allies in the Democratic Party–at a time when the party’s progressive base is increasingly frustrated about its failure to deliver the change it has promised.
MoveOn founders Joan Blades and Wes Boyd are non-shouters to the core. Blades used to make her living as a divorce mediator, helping couples move from heated stand-offs to win/win, and met the mild-mannered Boyd in a soccer league. The two married and threw themselves into their new software company, which scored a massive hit in the 1990s with a package of whimsical screen savers that featured, improbably, flying toasters. “As for politics,” says Blades, “I voted, and so did Wes,” but that was about it. “We were very busy with our software company.”
Then, in the late ’90s, as they watched the impeachment spectacle from their comfortable home in Berkeley, California, the couple began to feel as if the country’s leaders and the members of the media had collectively lost their minds. “We were business people,” says Blades, “so we thought about the opportunity costs of our government being obsessed with the scandal when in theory they had real work to do.” The technically savvy Boyd got the idea to put up a website with a petition form: people could fill in their name and contact information as a means of expressing their discontent with the entire impeachment circus. The petition read simply: “Congress must immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country.”
They sent an e-mail to 100 friends with a link to moveon.org. A September 24, 1998, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Net’s Role in Scandals May Alter News Media, mentioned the effort in its final paragraph, noting that the site had attracted 500 signatures in its first day of operation.
By the end of the week, that number was 100,000.
“Essentially we stepped into a vacuum of leadership, and we said something sensible,” recalls Blades. “We’re the quintessential accidental activists.” They figured the petition would be a one-time endeavor, but when they saw the reaction they knew they were onto something. “I still remember one of our early e-mails: a woman wrote in and said, You know, I’ve never done anything political. I’m a single mom. I get home and feed my son. This”–meaning signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail–“is something I can do.” This ease of use remains one of MoveOn’s hallmarks, one with particular appeal at a time when Americans work more than their counterparts in almost every other industrialized nation.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to note the complete lack of ideological zealotry in MoveOn’s founding. “It was really more about common sense versus insanity than it was about progressives versus conservatives,” says Ben Brandzel, who worked for MoveOn and now consults with other groups around the world using the same model. “Impeachment, the details of that, really has nothing to do with any political scientist’s idea about progressive or conservative,” he says.
It wasn’t until the shock of 9/11 and the run-up to Iraq that MoveOn’s “basic common sense populism [was] grafted onto a partisan divide,” according to Brandzel. The vessel for this shift was an unassuming 6-foot-3 20-year-old named Eli Pariser. As MoveOn PAC’s executive director, Pariser, now 27, is the organization’s de facto leader, and his reserved bearing is rather stunning if you’ve spent any time listening to Bill O’Reilly. In a wedding announcement in the New York Times this summer his new wife described him as “clear-eyed and hopeful.” In person, he’s so preternaturally calm one almost feels he might be some kind of reincarnated lama.
The day after 9/11, Pariser, then living in Boston, wanted to do something to help. When the local blood bank told him it was beyond capacity, he channeled his anguish and hope into an online petition he e-mailed to thirty friends. Earnest, plaintive and humane, it made the case for international leaders to use “moderation and restraint” in responding to the attacks, and called for employing “international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.”
“By Monday there were thousands of e-mails in my Inbox,” he told me recently. “The server was crashing. It was this moment where the e-mail had hit a chord and was being repeated out through the address books.” Within the first two weeks, 515,000 people signed the petition, and before long he’d connected with Blades and Boyd, merged his list with MoveOn’s and joined the organization as a full-time staff member.
Starting in summer 2002, much of the antiwar movement flowed through Pariser, and as the drumbeat for war with Iraq grew louder MoveOn’s ranks swelled. “There was kind of a strength-in-numbers thing,” Pariser recalls. “That’s when the surge of people who had been quiet through the first year and a half of the Bush Administration started to realize, This is serious; I need to be involved.”
At its apex the stop-the-war-before-it-starts movement was the largest popular uprising on the left in decades. The coalition that organized the protests around the country drew millions into the streets, including everyone from anarchists, Maoists and pacifists to nuns, soccer moms and disaffected Republicans. MoveOn tended to anchor the latter part of the spectrum, as part of the moderate Win Without War coalition. Whereas other groups called out “No blood for oil!” MoveOn’s most successful petition was titled “Let the Inspections Work.”
Even as the Bush Administration has radicalized so many, and pushed MoveOn toward a more aggressively partisan stance, that original pragmatic sensibility remains woven into the organization’s DNA. “Wes and Joan didn’t come out of the left,” notes Zack Exley, who worked as a union organizer before joining MoveOn in 2002 (and later worked for the Kerry campaign). “Eli hadn’t had time to be on the left.” For Exley, the freshness of their approach was a revelation. “It was the most exciting kind of atmosphere because they weren’t negative or defeated or cynical…they didn’t have their ideas set. They kind of had this boundless faith in what their members were capable of doing.”
MoveOn staffers echo Exley’s characterization, stressing that whatever MoveOn’s ideological sensibility (“pragmatically progressive,” one offered), it’s a product not of its staff’s outlook but of the views of its members. “Some groups have a really strong ideological substrate,” says organizing director Justin Ruben. “We tend to not be that way…. We believe strongly in the wisdom of crowds, giving people the ability to make choices together. They’ll make good choices.”
In theory that’s all well and good; in practice, it’s no small task to figure out just what kind of choices 3.2 million people are interested in making. In his new book Here Comes Everybody, Internet theorist Clay Shirky illustrates how dramatically the Internet has lowered the cost of collective action and coordination across barriers of time and space. MoveOn’s approach to activism–mass e-mails, instant internal polling, distributed fundraising–takes advantage of this development. Before MoveOn pioneered the online petition, just the simple act of gathering 100,000 signatures would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor. Now MoveOn sends out e-mail petitions several times a month. Or consider this: to manage its lobbying efforts and programs for its more than 4 million members, the NRA has a staff exceeding 500 and a $15 million, 390,000-square-foot office building in Virginia. MoveOn has a staff of… twenty-three. And no headquarters. Twice a week, a dozen of MoveOn’s staffers call in from around the country for a strategy session. The organization is so committed to the ethos of the virtual office, it has an internal policy that even when staffers are living in the same city they’re prohibited from sharing office space.
“What makes it possible,” says Ruben, “is that every action taken ends up in our database. It’s all in one place and the data set is enormous, which if you’re a geek is awesome.” When MoveOn sends out mass e-mails, staffers often first test multiple separate subject lines within small sample groups, choosing the subject that’s most effective at getting people to act on the e-mail’s “ask.” Each week they run a tracking poll, surveying a random subsample of members to identify which issues they’re following and where their passions lie.
The speed and efficiency of Internet communication allows the organization tremendous flexibility in responding to breaking developments. “Because we are member driven, we ‘Chase the Energy,'” Brandzel writes in a manifesto called “The 8 Fold Path,” which lays out the MoveOn approach. “Energy flows with news cycles, and the opportunity to make a difference.” In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, MoveOn was able to use its member database to set up a website where evacuees could be matched with members who had extra rooms in their houses to share. The site was up just seventy-two hours after the hurricane made landfall in New Orleans, and ended up providing housing to more than 30,000 evacuees, a response far quicker than FEMA’s.
MoveOn-ers are quick to point out that technology is just the means, not the end. “The Internet’s just a tool,” says Brandzel. “I mean, would you call a church a paper-based organization because the Bible is printed on paper?” Just as the Reformation required both discontent with the Catholic Church’s corruption and Gutenberg’s printing press, MoveOn’s rise required both the swelling backlash against post-Gingrich radicalism and the explosive growth of the Internet, particularly among the ranks of the professional classes with Internet access.
Somewhat frustratingly, MoveOn does not keep demographic information about its members, which makes it difficult to know for sure whether the sample of members I spoke with, mostly white and middle class, is representative. But it is clear that they aren’t radicals. After the 2004 election, MoveOn attempted to use Internet forums, e-mails and polls to build a platform of sorts, called the Positive Agenda. The results were squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic Party: universal healthcare, clean renewable energy and the restoration of the Constitution and civil liberties. “The idea that MoveOn is like some foaming-at-the-mouth, swinging-from-the-trees liberal interest group is kind of a joke,” says influential blogger Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com.
“People ask us all the time, you know, Make your members do this or think this,” says Pariser. “We just have to politely say, We can’t. Even if we wanted to, people click the link or they do the thing that we ask them to if they think it’s a useful thing to do. There’s no chain of command.
“It’s essentially a service organization that helps people who are busy advocate in politics. We’re providing something that’s valuable to people and using technology to amplify the quality of the service you can get. It’s not unlike Netflix or Flickr.”
It’s a revealing analogy. In many ways MoveOn’s relationship to its members looks a lot like a business’s relationship to its customers. If a product isn’t selling, they take it off the shelves. For activists rooted in an earlier generation of social movements, which tended to prize long, disputatious meetings and the unwieldy process of forming bottom-up consensus, this approach is at best alien, at worst insidious. Customers, after all, aren’t part of the creation of the product: they’re not running the meetings where new packaging is designed; their input is limited to the final result and expressed through the transaction of purchase. And the role of customer imposes no obligations. You are free to buy or not buy, or in MoveOn’s case, sign the petition or not sign the petition. Oscar Wilde once complained that the trouble with socialism was that it took “too many evenings.” MoveOn holds out the promise of progressive change without the evenings.
Marshall Ganz–who organized with the farm workers, recently ran training workshops for Obama’s field staff and now studies and teaches organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School–says much of what MoveOn does is marketing, not organizing. “The genius of the Internet is more the way it can create a marketplace than create organization,” he says. “It’s important to distinguish between sharing information and forming relationships. Forming a relationship, we make a commitment to work together. Participation in democratic organizations is not just an individual act. It’s an act of affiliation with others.” If you were to map the arrows of relationship between MoveOn’s staff and its members, Ganz points out, nearly all the arrows would run between the members and the staff: you receive an e-mail, you respond, you give money, etc.–but relatively few go from member to member.
“They’re gonna send letters to Congress and the President,” says Ganz. “And man, we generate a lot of fucking letters. That’s great. So what sort of capacity have we created in the process? Have we developed a new leadership? Probably not. Have members learned more about relating to each other? Not so much.”
Ganz’s criticism is mild compared with that of John Stauber, who founded the Center for Media and Democracy and has written scathingly of MoveOn. According to Stauber, MoveOn has become “primarily a money-raising and marketing arm of the Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. They clearly haven’t shown any interest in building an organization that would empower the millions of people whose e-mail addresses they have…. The so-called MoveOn membership is really just a group of people who are used for fundraising purposes.”
Stauber is among a small handful of people on the left willing to express such harsh criticisms on the record. Privately, more progressive activists will make familiar complaints about grievances and frictions that have developed from working together. “In the early days they were great partners and had an interest in building up other progressive organizations,” one prominent progressive who’s worked with MoveOn told me. “That seems to have changed.”
Perhaps the most damning criticism leveled at MoveOn is that by creating a clear and easy outlet for people’s frustration and angst, the organization delivers people a false sense of accomplishment. In other words, MoveOn can be tremendously successful without being effective. Consider the vaunted petition, MoveOn’s bread and butter. In 1998 a petition with 100,000 signatures would make any politician sit up and take notice, but over time the value has been degraded as more organizations have learned how to leverage the Internet. Clay Shirky calls this the “cost/value paradox” and says it can spell big trouble for MoveOn. As the transaction cost for a specific piece of activism declines, so does its value, since politicians know it doesn’t require much effort. One former Democratic Senate staffer told me that when her boss was presented the weekly mail summary, the staff made sure that if an issue had landed on the top of the list as a result of a MoveOn mass e-mailing, it was marked with an asterisk. “They’ve been selling: Millions of E-mails Sold, the old McDonald’s line,” says Shirky. “They’re now realizing that in a way they’re empty calories.”
Talk to MoveOn staff members and they’ll say that any method of organizing has its limitations. The organizing model that requires long meetings and vigorous debate can lead to organizations being driven by, in MoveOn spokeswoman Ilyse Hogue’s words, “the loudest person in the room,” something that cuts against MoveOn’s non-shouter ethos. They’ll also point out that their approach has led to concrete victories: they spearheaded an effort that blocked the FCC’s attempts to allow media cross-ownership in local markets; they were an instrumental part of the campaign to beat back Social Security privatization; and the “caught red-handed” ads they ran in targeted Congressional races in ’06 had a real effect in softening support for a number of Republican incumbents. What’s more, the model works well enough that people around the world are eager to adopt it. In Australia, a MoveOn-type group called GetUp!, which was advised by Brandzel, played a key role in the recent electoral victory of the country’s center-left Labor Party. Last year James Rucker, a former MoveOn staffer, started ColorofChange.org, a MoveOn-style organization focused on African-American political mobilization that now boasts 100,000 members; Avaaz.org, a global justice MoveOn spinoff, has a worldwide membership of more than 3 million members.
All that said, there’s also a stalking awareness in the organization that the model that has served it so well these past ten years may be approaching its limit. The organization still can raise money from its members to run ads on TV (like the “Not Alex” anti-McCain ad it recently unveiled), but because of the constant erosion of any e-mail list, MoveOn has to add something like 200,000 members a year just to tread water. This need to constantly refresh the membership base explains, at least in part, MoveOn’s heavy focus on media exposure and its knack for courting publicity, even controversy. “There’s such a huge media component to everything MoveOn does,” says a progressive activist who’s worked on campaigns with MoveOn. “They have a philosophy that says, Get media; that will get you members.”
Meanwhile, technology moves fast and MoveOn’s primary medium, e-mail, threatens to become outmoded as young people migrate to text messages, social networking sites and IM. In response, MoveOn has branched out to conduct Facebook activism, successfully running a campaign within Facebook to force the site to alter a feature that broadcast private purchasing decisions.
Most significant, MoveOn has massively expanded its focus on developing an offline presence, one grounded in the face-to-face interactions that Ganz invoked. “We had a project for a while called Click Back America, but I think you can’t actually click back America,” says Justin Ruben. “The things that people do in the real world, away from their computer, also matter…. Our power comes almost entirely from collective action. You can only do so much through the computer.”
MoveOn began developing the capacity of offline action in 2004, attempting to build from scratch in a little more than ten weeks a member-based field program in support of John Kerry in swing states. The idea was that MoveOn members would act as precinct captains and canvass their neighbors. Though rushed and somewhat ad hoc, this first foray into concerted offline activity gave birth to Operation Democracy–since renamed MoveOn Councils–the locus of MoveOn’s local, physical presence and the conduit for everything from phone banking to house parties to war vigils. Anna Galland, who heads up the councils for MoveOn (and who is, full disclosure, a college friend), says they’re ambitiously scaling up. “We’re up to 250 local councils, with councils in every state.” Members meet in their local councils, and council leaders report to volunteer regional coordinators. “People come from all sorts of backgrounds,” says Galland, and get trained in everything from how to run a meeting to leadership development. “We’re not just looking for volunteers; we’re trying to build a culture of organizing,” she says.
For those who came to MoveOn through the simple activism of signing a petition, forwarding an e-mail or donating money, the council provides an opportunity to take the more involved step of actually congregating with other progressives. Crossing this gulf, for millions of people, is no small step. Sandy Tracy, the retired Minnesota high school teacher, now serves as a regional coordinator. She recalls the anxiety she felt before hosting her first house party. “I had fifteen people who signed up to come to that first event,” she says. “I felt a little awkward, and I’m going, Oh my gosh! I’ve got all these people at my house; what are we going to talk about?”
The councils were born of a desire to help elect Kerry, and now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, nearly all of MoveOn’s focus has shifted to getting him elected. In many ways, the Obama campaign is built on much the same aspirations, ethos and constituency as MoveOn, which is why it wasn’t particularly shocking that when the group polled its members in February, 70 percent voted to endorse Obama over Clinton.
Some, though, were surprised. “I was slack-jawed,” says one netroots activist, noting that Obama had failed to vote on the Senate resolution that chastised the group for its General Betray Us ad. “They were at the mercy of their membership, who really were enthusiastic about Obama. But this was the guy who threw them under the bus, and they basically said, Beat me! Treat me like shit!”
The subtext here is the larger issue of MoveOn’s relationship to a Democratic Party that many feel has co-opted it. “They built up a huge membership because of the war,” says CodePink founder Medea Benjamin, “and the press looked at them as the voice of the antiwar movement, and then they betrayed the movement…. They were more concerned with being on the same page with the Democratic leadership than with the rest of the antiwar leadership.”
Particularly egregious to Benjamin and others was the failure of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. Co-founded in January 2007 by MoveOn and run by its then-Washington director, Tom Matzzie, the coalition spent $12 million attempting to force Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Its efforts helped push Congressional Democrats to pass a supplemental bill that tied funding to a withdrawal timeline. But after the President vetoed the bill, AAEI focused on running ads against Republicans who’d backed the White House rather than trying to force the Democratic Congressional leadership to cut off funds.
“MoveOn went all out to get a Democratic Congress elected,” says Benjamin. “We now have more troops in Iraq, more funding than the Bush Administration even asked for and a guarantee that the war will continue into the next administration.”
If CodePink thinks MoveOn is too cozy with the Democrats, Democratic staffers on the Hill have a hard time telling MoveOn and CodePink apart. Several staffers I talked with felt animus toward MoveOn for organizing actions against their bosses. But when they described these actions–sit-ins in their Hill offices, for instance–it became clear they were confusing MoveOn with CodePink and other more confrontational antiwar groups. The resentment is also a result of MoveOn’s clumsy Betray Us ad, which became such a high-profile distraction that it allowed conservatives to deflect attention from the war debate. And MoveOn’s presence on the Hill, where the battle over escalation was fought, is not particularly strong; in Democratic Congressional offices, it’s viewed more as an annoyance than a force. “I’ve never been in a room where someone says, Let’s all check with MoveOn,” said the former staffer.
“Of course, I wish the result had been different,” says Nita Chaudhary, MoveOn’s chief antiwar organizer, of their efforts to prevent the escalation. “But we tried very hard.” Chaudhary points out that MoveOn has spent time and effort going after Democrats. Local groups routinely meet with their Representatives to lobby them on the war, and “we ran ads against Democrats–we did this whole backbone campaign with Democrats, trying to get them to stand up against a blank check on the war.” But she concedes that the organization made a tactical decision that the best way to bring the war to heel would be through elections, first electing a Democratic majority and now trying to elect Obama along with an “anti-Iraq War majority” in Congress.
To MoveOn’s critics in the antiwar movement, the tactical choice to focus most of its energy on defeating Republicans confirmed a nagging sense that, for all its talk about being led by its members, the organization is really run by its staff. Dave Swanson of Democrats.com recalls that in March 2007, “a lot of the real peace organizations were pushing the Barbara Lee amendment” (which would have provided funding only for a withdrawal of forces) “to the point where MoveOn was feeling the pressure. So do they send out a survey, Do you favor the Barbara Lee or the [Democratic] leadership’s bill?” (which would have attached timelines but continued funding). “No. Instead, they offered a choice of the leadership’s bill or the President’s agenda. It was essentially a Stalinist poll. They know damn well what their membership would have said if offered an honest survey.”
In response to criticism of that poll, Pariser argued that MoveOn’s members were sophisticated enough to understand that the Pelosi bill was the best possible option. But the episode highlighted the difficulty of the situation MoveOn increasingly finds itself in. Over ten years the organization has developed a reliably confrontational posture toward the Republicans in power. It’s a necessary feature of an organization that needs to raise money constantly, a rational reaction to the GOP’s debased leadership and the expression of a deep and genuine sentiment among its silent majority members, who have simply had enough. But the frustrations of the past two years with a Democratic Congress struggling to deliver any of the things MoveOn members want have served as a teachable moment. In interviews with nearly two dozen of MoveOn’s regional coordinators, when I asked what they saw as MoveOn’s role in a future Democrat-dominated Washington, they gave without exception the same answer: hold the politicians accountable. “One of their mottoes that really resonates with me is that democracy is not a spectator sport,” says Sandy Tracy, the retired schoolteacher. “Average people have elected their officials and sent them off and let them be. We’re now paying the price for that.”
Should the Democrats retake the White House and add to their Congressional majorities this fall, they would do well to take note of Tracy and the millions like her. Come next spring, if they haven’t started withdrawing troops, you just might see Sandy Tracy in the streets with a bullhorn.