MoveOn.org: No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart

MoveOn.org: No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart

BY Chris Nolan | Wednesday, December 22 2004

Where, oh where, is MoveOn.org headed now?

Recent history is no guide. Born as an outside-the-Beltway call to common sense during the Clinton Administration's final years, MoveOn's role in recent American politics keeps changing. First it was an anti-war organization, then a Howard Dean supporters' group -- meeting the passions and demands of its founders and members. Built upon an impassioned vow to breath new life into American politics by using a new and revolutionary communications medium, the Internet, MoveOn spent the 2004 election in the thick of the Democratic Party's ill-fated campaign to retake the White House. Staked and advised by some of the Democratic party’s shrewdest insiders, it raised and spent millions on good-ol’-fashioned negative advertising and high-priced consulting talent. Now, in the spirit of its first email petition dashed off in frustration, maybe even disgust, at politics as usual, MoveOn is crying foul at that same party. Few, even those who run its day-to-day operations, seem to have a clear idea of what's next.

For Democrats worried about raising money to defeat George W. Bush, MoveOn's Internet savvy solved a real problem: The party's long-standing need to quickly and efficiently collect cash. MoveOn was a brand new toy that came with all the "save the world" trappings that the less technologically sophisticated expect from the software and computer businesses. But for the tech-savvy, some of the organization's volunteers and supporters, what started out as an on-line political revolution turned over the course of the election into little more than upbeat marketing chatter designed to keep the customers happy and paying. Or, to put it in language any Silicon Valley vet would recognize: MoveOn’s small 'd' democratic revolution wasn't executed as described in the business plan. The product it promised -- a new way of conducting American politics – is still in beta with a long way to go.

In the 2004 election, MoveOn funded and ran an aggressive advertising campaign that kept Bush fighting hard for his re-election in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Nevada. MoveOn proved the Internet's power as a fund-raising tool to skeptical politicians and professional campaign staffers. Its ability to quickly identify hot-button issues, channel the energy and outrage surrounding them into real dollar donations and signed on-line petitions is uniformly praised as a highly efficient way to channel grass-roots energy.

But MoveOn's philosophy and tactics are coming in for more and more criticism. Its head-in-the-sand approach to the realities of political life suggests that the group's members and leadership doesn't recognize how much its approach to politics differs from the rest of the party's, let alone the country. It seems a bit too comfortable with its ability to attract alienated liberals sporting holier-than-thou attitudes, anxious to preach to the misguided and uninformed through newspaper and TV ads, like a perpetual motion machine in Chris Suellentrop's biting words.

Why this animosity? Well, MoveOn disappointed many it involved. When it came to executing on the ground, its Election Day field efforts were fraught with difficulties. The absence of a "true" on-line community—as opposed to a giant focus group where only the leaders get to stand behind the one-way mirror—is also seen as a shortcoming. As is the difficulty that almost anyone – even an outside-the-beltway Democrat like Donnie Fowler seeking election to chair the Democratic National Committee – has in carefully picking their way through intermediaries to speak directly with its leadership. (A few days ago, he called me seeking help – I wish I was making this up!)

For all its talk about openness and process, MoveOn is more like the self-conscious websites run by political candidates and officeholders, concerned more about their reputation and message discipline than in nurturing the vibrant decentralized give-and-take that is coming to characterize activist community sites like DailyKos or Democratic Underground.

None of this is to deny the organization's real and valuable part in changing how this country conducts its political affairs. Started in 1998 as an email petition expressing outrage against President Bill Clinton's impeachment with the phrase "Censure and Move On," this past year MoveOn raised – mainly through individual contributions -- an astonishing $50 million on behalf of Democratic nominee John Kerry. Its online primary in June 2003 shook up the carefully orchestrated Democratic presidential nominating process designed to reward the candidate with the most early big money, not the one with grass-roots donors. Its ability to convert online enthusiasm into offline activity—flooding Congressional switchboards; organizing hundreds of meetings in local Congressional offices; spawning thousands of antiwar vigils and house-parties—has proved that net-based groups can motivate living, breathing humans. And its huge email list of 2.9 million names, including some 500,000 donors, is the envy of every liberal-leaning group in the country.

But with Kerry defeated, the contradictions in MoveOn’s choices have grown more acute and the answers – even when solicited from its founders -- less obvious. Despite the tremendous sums they have raised and their television ad campaigns on Kerry's behalf, MoveOn's founders decry the use of money in politics and say they are uncomfortable with TV advertising. Adopting the insiders' language they so revile, they recently took credit for "buying" the Democratic Party on behalf of millions of small donors. But the message MoveOn used terms guaranteed to offend those with whom the organization worked most closely – and paid handsomely -- in the past two years: "a consulting class of professional election losers."

It's an insulting charge, even if it does have merit. That it's lobbed by MoveOn's 24-year-old Political Action Committee director Eli Pariser doesn't help. "In the last year, grass-roots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive," Pariser’s message continued. "Now it's our party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."

Still a High-Tech Startup?

Well, that remains to be seen. As any high-tech exec would be happy to tell you, MoveOn is at the most precious juncture in any organization's development: It's ahead of everyone else. It has a name. It has a product. But it doesn't have a long-term strategy. That doesn't seem to bother co-founder Joan Blades. "We come from the computer industry. We're used to seeing people get an idea and run with it," she said recently over a waffle breakfast at a kosher deli near her home. (Despite repeated requests via email, Blades' husband and co-founder Wes Boyd was not available for an interview. "He is hard to tie down," Blades wrote in an setting up an appointment to talk.)

For Blades' long-time friend Sylvia Paull, another Berkeley resident and herself a tech personality, MoveOn is a start-up that reflects its founders' backgrounds. "You start something for one reason. That changes. That's the way tech is," she noted.

"It's very much a start-up," Blades agreed. "It's a small, tight team." Blades acknowledged that much of MoveOn's work doesn't follow a strict by-the-book progression. That working environment clearly suits Blades, a thin woman with a wide, sensuous mouth, rimless glasses and girlishly-long hair, streaked with grey. Small, of course, is cozy and flexible and easier to control. It's another hallmark of how Boyd and Blades do business, says Paull. "They're keeping MoveOn really small," says Paull. "They both grew up in Berkeley, they like small, tight communities."

Rare is the start-up that sets out with a goal and a product and ends up doing exactly what it planned. One project leads to another, the company attracts investors with only tangential interest in the original plan, an employee has a brainstorm and cooks something up in his spare time and before you know it, the company's mission has changed as it follows profit to make money. That, in a nutshell, is how Berkeley Systems, the company Blades and Boyd sold in 1997 for more than $13 million, came to be famous. Blades and Boyd started out developing tools to help the visually impaired, but their best-known products were the "flying toaster" screen saver and a collection of games and other computer entertainments. The openness and flexibility that kept Berkeley Systems alive with new ideas is clearly part of how Blades and Boyd see their political work. "Frankly, that's all we're doing. We're experimenting," says Blades. "Some things work better than others."

But a virtue in tech can be a mixed blessing in politics, particularly when your profile – Vanity Fair photo shoots, praise from Wired magazine -- is as high as Boyd and Blades' and your rhetoric often glaringly out-of-step with your actions. "When you have an organization that's as broad as MoveOn's is – and it's as broad as their imaginations – it's going to frustrate people," says one Washington-based political insider, issuing what might be the ultimate back-handed compliment. "You don't have to develop any depth. You can be a mile wide and an inch deep."

The two MoveOn founders would probably disagree with that assessment. But there's no question that – like many successful high-tech founders – they’ve been happily surprised to see their ideas blossom and grow. In 2001, MoveOn had planned to disband its PAC and toss its email list of contributors, feeling that its work, centered around the Clinton impeachment, might well have been over. Its "We Will Remember" campaign to unseat pro-impeachment Republicans had had limited impact in the 2000 elections.

Doug Carlston, another long-time friend of Blades and Boyd who founded and sold Broderbund Software and managed MoveOn's PAC through the 2002 election, argued, successfully, that the list should be retained. For her part, Blades said, members convinced MoveOn to continue and that when the organization was formally organized and started in 2000, it had made no plans to work past the end of the 2000 election cycle—some time in 2001 when the books would be closed. Regardless of the reasons, the conversation about throwing away email addresses -- which any experienced political organizer would regard as flat-out stupid -- is a little-known example of the indecision and conflict that has plagued MoveOn as it walks between political ambition and an outsiders' dislike for politics as practiced by the pros. "They weren't thinking 'movement.' They were business people," Carlston says. "I don't even think Wes and Joan thought of it as political – maybe in the broadest sense."

Welcome to the Party

Blades still talks with perfectly believable sincerity about MoveOn's ability to function as a bi-partisan effort, a course she and Boyd said they wanted to steer from the beginning. But the organization has – knowingly or not – abandoned that path. It has simply done too much to try to help Democrats, first Howard Dean, then John Kerry, to recapture a reputation as a group that overlooks party affiliation.

Nevertheless, Blades persists in thinking it's possible to reach political foes. "MoveOn members want to talk across party lines," she said during breakfast. "I believe most people share the same values: Nobody likes war. The deficit is bad for all of us. We all need a good environment." She's right. Those are all laudable goals for any society. But they are – and Blades can't seem to see this – the political goals of a liberal Democrat. They are issues that are important to people who understand economics, who are concerned – maybe even consumed -- with America's role in the world, particularly in Europe, and who would happily put jobs below environmental preservation because they live in communities where that choice is not necessary. Logging, oil exploration and real estate development aren't ways of life for them or their neighbors.

It's hard not to avoid the suspicion that the political naivety of its founders led MoveOn to the staunchly partisan stance it has taken. Blades is a charming and smart woman whose dedication to her cause – activism and civic involvement – is heartfelt and touching. But she and Boyd are somewhat removed from the give and take of politics in odd ways. "They don't do print," Paull says of her friends' news consumption. Nor do they watch very much TV (their set is kept in the fireplace behind a grate). That probably explains Blades' idealistic view of what her organization has done. She seems to take little notice of the hard, cold political realities involved in this last election and even less notice of the crucial backroom role MoveOn played in the larger Democratic war-game.

The organization that now calls consultants "professional election losers" paid the Denver-based Media Strategies and Research almost $14 million in 2003 and much of 2004 for ad buys and other services, according to information collected by the Center for Public Integrity, which has culled through spending records for much, but not all, of this year. California political strategist and ad-man Bill Zimmerman did well, too, cashing more than $1.7 million in MoveOn checks. Washington DC public relations impresario David Fenton's services have so far cost the organization $869,152. Blades mentions Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg in passing, noting that for a time, MoveOn couldn’t communicate with him or his firm, Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner Research (which received $1.9 million for its services from the organization) because the firm had gone to work for the Kerry campaign.

But how this happen? How did the frustrated outsiders upset with partisan warfare hook up with some of the party's better-known hired guns? Zimmerman, the political strategist, says Blades and Boyd made a tactical decision, choosing to work with the party establishment to help defeat Bush, setting aside, temporarily, their longer-term idealism. Carlston agrees. "There's a difference between what you do during a campaign during an election season and what you do during the interregnum," he says.

Zimmerman began working with Blades and Boyd in early 2003, as they and their members focused on the coming war in Iraq. The two MoveOn co-founders approached his firm hoping to create television ads airing their members' objections to the war. Toward summer, as MoveOn members demonstrated their willingness to donate money, it occurred to them that the organization's use of the Internet had even greater potential.

After it had been working with Zimmerman for several months, MoveOn was approached by the party's power players. They wanted to make sure Democrats could maintain a television air war between Super Tuesday – the day when the Democratic nominee would be known – and the beginning of the general campaign season, sometime after the convention. The idea was to make sure that the 2004 Democratic nominee didn't suffer the same fate that Republican Bob Dole faced against President Clinton in 1996: Being the candidate without the cash.

"We started to realize we might be in a situation where vast resources might be organized and put into play," says Zimmerman. MoveOn had found a way to turn the Internet into a cash register. "The Democrats who hate Bush, hate Bush," says a long-time Democratic consultant. "There's a rich liberal class now. They started giving money." And MoveOn clearly had their number. "No one knew how good the Internet would be," said the consultant, who lauds the organization’s ads, fundraising and timing. "MoveOn hit a nerve on the impeachment for a tech-savvy, elite liberal crowd," and they cashed in, again and again, as the election neared.

The timing of the Democratic Party's quiet but ruthlessly effective conversion of MoveOn from outside critic to inside operator is interesting. Zimmerman says he talked with Blades and Boyd about shoring up party efforts to criticize Bush, particularly in swing states, in the summer of 2003. That's when – according to several Democrats familiar with the party strategy as it was planned and executed -- MoveOn received $2.5 million donations each from financier George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis. This was after the organization had held its "on-line primary" – a poll that Gov. Howard Dean, then a dark horse candidate, won handily. Second choice for MoveOn's 300,000-plus voters? Dennis Kucinich. John Kerry came in third, collecting just less than a third of the votes Dean received.

Blades say MoveOn offered its services – on-line organizing and fund-raising -- to all the Democratic candidates, but only Dean was savvy enough to take advantage of their offer. But his "victory" – and the cash infusion that accompanied it -- surely rattled the Democratic Party establishment. "We definitely wanted the Democratic Party to know the grassroots should be involved," Blades said recently. "If you want to call that rattling…"

Whatever you call it, it seems to have had an effect. Worried not just about the bruising primaries ahead but also concerned about the possibility that candidates, like Dean, with MoveOn's support, could stay in the race and split the party, killing any Democratic chance at victory, party leaders apparently decided to bring the Berkeley start-up and its disruptive technology into the tent. Whatever the reason--and money played a role--MoveOn was welcomed to primetime politics. Soon it turned the bulk of its energies to tapping its grassroots supporter to review TV ads and collect the money to pay for them.

Zimmerman says he wasn't – exactly – the matchmaker on the deal with Soros and Lewis but his fingerprints aren't hard to trace. He has worked on a series of state ballot initiatives to reform anti-drug laws sponsored by both men. (Oddly enough, that’s not how Blades remembers things. "I'm not aware of there being any coordination with the DNC," said Blades. "Certainly we wanted to fill in the gaps.")

TOMORROW: MoveOn's metamorphosis into a business-as-usual advertising focus group and fundraising machine; how it listens (and how it doesn’t); and its future course.

Stand-alone journalist Chris Nolan runs "Politics From Left to Right," a San Francisco-based political site that focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and the differences between East Coast insiders and West Coast influencers.

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