No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart (Part II) No Longer a Start-up or an Upstart (Part II)

BY Chris Nolan | Thursday, December 23 2004

MoveOn’s metamorphosis from an organization interested in Internet-based innovative processes and community-building efforts into a business-as-usual advertising focus group and fundraising machine is striking. Co-founder Joan Blades, of course, suggested it wasn't that much of a departure for the group. MoveOn members got to decide which ads they liked, said Blades, referring to the "Bush in 30 Seconds" campaign where members were asked to vote for the best spot to run during the Super Bowl.

"It's great to get people outside the Beltway engaged," said Blades, who decried the use of TV advertising in political campaigns. "I think it's exciting to have real people making ads. Getting regular citizens involved in the democratic process makes democracy more robust." Zimmerman also stressed the instant feedback MoveOn was able to get from its on-line members. But he described a process that will sound familiar to anyone ever involved in a traditional campaign: A script would be produced on Monday. Tuesday it would be up for review on the MoveOn site. Wednesday MoveOn would ask for financial support. "Thursday, we made it. Friday it was on the air," said Zimmerman. "That's not how a typical campaign works."

No, it's not. Focus group testing usually slows the process down by at least a day. MoveOn members weren't asked to comment on the scripts. Script changes weren't made because of member comments or reviews, said Zimmerman. In fact, after a while, the whole thing ran rather well – perhaps too well -- because Zimmerman and MoveOn knew their audience. "We had a sense of what the member wanted,'' Zimmerman acknowledges. "The capability of going to members and raising money was extraordinary," he says.

Old Whines in New Bottles

Well, you know what they say about things being too good to be true. "People started confusing the donors as being representative of the voters," says the campaign vet. The whole process raises questions about the ads effectiveness. If donors – true believers with money to spare, many of them new to politics – were picking the ads, isn't there a chance these same ads will be unappealing, perhaps even offensive, to the less passionate, the swing voters the party needed to attract? Given the tenor of some of the ads MoveOn's grassroots members made – one film that was nominated compared Bush to Hitler and provided Bush with an easy out when it came to denouncing campaigns run on his behalf – as well as the election's outcome, the answer is probably "yes."

That self-affirming approach – asking a question when you know the answer, the touchy feely stuff that's so easy to mock in "progressive" politics -- seems to be continuing despite Kerry's, and by extension, MoveOn's defeat. In post-election house parties held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 16,000 participating MoveOn members devised – by voting face-to-face and then reporting their tallies online to the organization -- a strikingly uniform agenda. MoveOn members thought the organization should focus primarily on voter reform. That's code for saying there was fraud in Florida or Ohio. They also suggested that the organization make "media reform" one of its goals and that it articulate what Blades described as a "compelling 'progressive' message." Those are worthy challenges, but they're not, as writer Marc Cooper has pointed out, political goals as much as they are strategic forays. And they're not actions that make Democrats – particularly the party's most liberal wing – look at what they're doing or not doing to attract votes.

It's apparent after an hour of conversation with Blades that she doesn't understand how different her political views are even from mainstream Democrats. "Progressive is not the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party," she said. "I'm saying Progressive means 'progress.'" But progress for whom? A quick – and admittedly unscientific -- check of house party locales shows them concentrated in states that supported Democratic nominee John Kerry or in cities or college towns in Bush states, communities where Democrats did well during the election. "It's true, we don't have as many people in the Red States," she said. If MoveOn is talking across party lines – as Blades says members want to do – it's got a funny way of soliciting different points of view.

Still, Blades insisted, harking back to the organization's more idealistic roots, the gatherings were national in scope and universally successful. "Our job is to listen to our members and help them engage in the political process as best they can," she said. "I used to think the object was to win. I'm beginning to see there's more to it than that."

Listening, But Not Hearing?

Blades said she's proudest of the work MoveOn did on the ground on Election Day for an effort it dubbed "Leave No Voter Behind." "The most important thing we did this election season, as far as I'm concerned, was our field work," she volunteered over breakfast. "We had hundreds of thousands of people in the streets." But John Kerry, the candidate for whom MoveOn was organizing, didn't win. How is that a success? "Beg your pardon?" Blades shoots back, leaning a bit over her waffles and counting off turnout figures. "You call that 'not working?' I call that awesome."

"Leave No Voter Behind" has come in for criticism from poll workers who were given the wrong lists, sent to the wrong places or simply left unsupervised. The glitches that did exist weren't MoveOn's fault, said Blades. "We were definitely disappointed in the quality of information we were given," she said. "We do our best to play well with others – others are less committed to the process." She made clear that she's referring to America Coming Together, ACT, the organization set-up to run the Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts, which had error-ridden databases. "It's not rocket science," said Blades, the software veteran animated by the technical challenge. "Not for us."

But it's far from clear that the $5 million MoveOn poured into voter outreach was truly money well spent. And again the problem appears to be in the mode of listening—or not listening—done by the group’s leadership. "They almost lost me initially, because they just couldn't get organized on the ground in Seattle and there was no good way to contact them, except going through the black hole of their national website," said Carolyn McConnell, who volunteered for MoveOn in her Seattle neighborhood. McConnell is – like many people who worked the polls on Election Day – reluctant to criticize MoveOn's intentions, which she still sees as potentially very effective. "I only got pulled back in because one woman in my neighborhood took major organizing on herself. And then after the election, I had very little way of continuing to connect with the MoveOn community in Seattle and my neighborhood," she said.

Similar complaints are being echoed in on-line forums – not MoveOn's of course – around the web. "MoveOn seems to me to be sort of perfect example of how NOT to get people involved in politics," one DailyKos member recently wrote. That member’s message described, nearly in lock step, the same process that the organization's main political consultant, Bill Zimmerman, outlined for the making of its ads. "What MoveOn wants, it seems to me, is for people to send them money, and sign online petitions. MoveOn wants to WRITE the petitions, and MoveOn wants to decide WHO gets the money. It's not democratic. Beyond saying, "Yes, I'll sign", or, "Where should I send the money?" MoveOn doesn't want any member participation."

Communications problems – experienced by almost anyone who wants to approach the organization – are widespread. "You can't get through - or at least I can't, and I bet most average joes can't either. This is odd, because MoveOn managed to rake in shitloads of money from average joes before the election. You would think they'd be responsive to joe when he tried to contact them," the Kos member complained.

This absence of back-and-forth is perhaps MoveOn's most striking characteristic, even for those who deal with Boyd and Blades all the time. "It's kind of like dealing with an Eight-Ball: Many questions are asked," said a consultant who has worked for MoveOn. He's referring to the toy that supplies answers on a floating die that surfaces when it's turned upside down. That need for control, said Carlston, is the result of Boyd and Blades' business orientation. "That's really common in people who come out of a business-oriented environment where you're results-oriented," he added. Zimmerman also acknowledges that MoveOn hasn't taken as much advantage of the community structures and on-line organizing made possible on the web. "They're aware of the dichotomy you're talking abut," he said. "I see them struggling to resolve that." What ZImmerman doesn't say: Now that the Internet is a part of grassroots politics, organizations have to embrace and encourage the give-and-take with leadership and one another.

Blades is mum on how or if MoveOn will change its approach, noting that the group had plenty of work during the election and needed to focus on its short-term priority, defeating Bush. "I want it to be effective. The question is 'What's going to be effective?'" She's clearly got some sort of plans. "I'm looking forward to this coming year. I'm looking forward to it because it's a time when we can be more issue-focused." A few days later Boyd told Salon’s Farhad Manjoo that he believed the group had accomplished its mission of creating a strong opposition to Bush and its new task was to develop some strategic initiatives to rival the Right’s success in injecting its ideological vision into the mainstream. Neither of them has said anything about rethinking the group’s slant or mode of operation.

So, now MoveOn faces a start-up's most unwelcome dilemma. Its original message has – because of its involvement with mainstream, big money Democratic Party politics – been corrupted, probably beyond repair. And while Blades talks about civic involvement across party lines, Boyd's desire to win the internecine warfare breaking out in the party seems like a return to MoveOn's original charter, complete with a soupçon of frustration and indignation Will Boyd and Blades be content, in the words of one party activist, to be the Democratic organization that "monetizes two million liberals"--reaching, again and again, into the pockets of an established constituency to support known topics in familiar ways? That's a role that would make MoveOn important but not particularly powerful. Those two million Liberals – like the 300,000 who signed the original "censure and move on" petition – can donate enough money to fund a presidential campaign but to win, they along with Blades, Boyd may have to make substantial and lasting changes.

Of course, MoveOn's core constituency may not care about winning. For them, the Holy Grail of reforming the Democratic Party in their "progressive" image may be enough to maintain the illusion of moving on.

What do you think MoveOn should do now? Join the conversation by posting your comments here.

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.

Civic Hall
Personal Democracy Media presents Civic Hall, a one-of-a-kind community center for the world’s civic innovators. Located in the heart of New York City, Civic Hall is your home for civic tech.


Sign up for email updates from Personal Democracy Media and Civic Hall.