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Moving On: A New Kind of Peace Activism

MoveOn has leveraged the Internet to create a new kind of organization with the ability to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and move tens of thousands of people to action within hours.
 
 
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"Our goal is to make it impossible to ignore the anti-war sentiment in this country."
– Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org

A tall, bearded young man, his blue suit hanging awkwardly on his body, steps to the microphone in an ornate room in Washington, D.C.'s JW Marriot Hotel. To the young man's right is the suave, articulate Ambassador Joe Wilson, who served as Deputy Chief of Mission to Iraq in the Clinton Administration. To his left is former Congressman Tom Andrews, the savvy new National Director of Win Without War, a broad-based anti-war coalition.

These men, along with Darcy Scot Martin of Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), Rev. Brenda Gerton-Mitchell of the National Council of Churches and others are at the Marriot to make the case to the American people for the continuation of UN inspections as a strategy of containment. The goal: to avoid destabilizing the Middle East, which would increase the chances of future terrorist attacks and expose U.S. military and Iraqi civilians and soldiers to the retaliation with biological and chemical weapons that an invasion of Iraq may well provoke.

At the podium, the contrast is clear. The smart talkers in the tailored suits are at the top of their game, effectively making the case against an invasion of Iraq. Yet to those in the know, it is 22-year-old Eli Pariser, the tall guy in the rumpled blue suit, who is the powerhouse in the room. Pariser, who is International Campaigns Director of the organization MoveOn.org, tells the cameras that "the Internet is allowing Americans in unprecedented numbers to voice the degree to which mainstream America" disagrees with this war.

But Pariser's modest comments don't quite convey the tremendous scope of his success. For Pariser, along with MoveOn's founder Wes Boyd and his wife Joan Blades, are the brains and sweat behind a strikingly successful organization that has unquestionably emerged as the leader of the diverse peace movement that is desperately scrambling to derail the Bush war express.

A New Kind of Organization

MoveOn has leveraged the Internet to create a new kind of organization with the ability and credibility to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and move tens of thousands of people to action within hours. Without MoveOn, with its more than 750,000 members in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands more around the globe, the peace movement would not be the grassroots phenomenon it is today, garnering broad media attention and earning respect from many quarters.

In the most important ways, MoveOn is at the epicenter of the current peace effort. Yet, while most organizing and political energy by other groups is focused on mass demonstrations – including those in cities and countries around the world this coming weekend, (events that MoveOn strongly supports) – MoveOn is more focused on the grassroots, local media and members of Congress.

"In a sense," Pariser observes, "part of MoveOn's attraction is that it aims for normal people, not just activists, and engages them successfully."

Sincere, polite and reasonable, Eli Pariser modestly describes MoveOn as incredibly gratifying: "The efforts fund themselves ... we're just trying to keep up. We ask for a specific amount of money and much more pours in."

Beneath this Maine native's calm surface clearly lie major ambition and discipline. Pariser's parents are longtime organizers of an alternative school in Camden, Maine that takes high school dropouts and helps them earn diplomas. Clearly his parents did a terrific job of raising him. Right after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Pariser, who graduated from the alternative Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, created a website called 9-11Peace.org, which advocated a peaceful response to 9/11 based on international law and calling on Bush and Congress to exercise restraint. The site was an instant global success, enlisting 500,000 signups worldwide. Not long afterward, Pariser joined up with Wes and Joan at MoveOn.

Active Activists

One of the most remarkable facts about MoveOn is that until a couple of months ago, the organization had only two full-time employees. (With the addition of Zach Exley, famous for his website, GWBush.com, there are now four full-timers).

Longtime peace activist Harriet Barlow suggests that part of MoveOn's success is due to its modest scale: "There is no institutional weight/baggage getting in the way."

Barlow also credits Eli's and new Executive Director Peter Schurman's Maine backgrounds. "[They] seem to have been spared the elitism that hobbles so many bright young stars," she says. "They genuinely believe in democracy, that leadership can and should come from everyday people in the field, and their job is to inspire activism, help focus it and make it meaningful, because then the people in the field will become more active activists."

MoveOn's most dramatic achievement was to turn its Internet machine – focused on petitions, emails to policy makers and raising and distributing money to political candidates – into face-to-face activism and grassroots media buying, the kind of activities that make politicians in this country sit up and take notice.

Says Barlow, "Eli developed the entire piece of the program that advanced MoveOn from a 'sign this petition' entity to a face-to-face organizing group – and he did it by working 18 hours a day by himself, because he believed that people would act if there was a reasonable mechanism to help them get to their representative with a clear message; in this case: 'Don't go to war!'"

The face-to face lobbying produced 130 signatures on Congressman Sherrod Brown's Congressional letter calling on the President to respect the UN process and let the inspections work, including 30 members who voted for the Iraq resolution.

Another of MoveOn's strengths is its ability to connect to people directly and move quickly on their behalf. Legendary union organizer Bob Muehlencamp, creator of Labor Against the War, says what people love about MoveOn is the sense of "a direct line to god. There is no big bureaucracy. You make a contribution, you sign something and you get immediate action."

MoveOn owes much of its character and nimbleness to its unusual origins. The brainchild of former Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, it has its roots in the odd mixture of the impeachment of Bill Clinton and entrepreneurial technology.

Boyd and Blade's company, Berkeley Systems, was famous for its flying toaster screensavers. When the couple sold the company in 1997, they had 120 employees and $30 million in annual revenue. Boyd and Blades were catapulted into national prominence when they became disgusted with the Clinton impeachment process and created a website that tapped into a huge groundswell of opinion that wanted the country and particularly the Republicans to, as the name suggests, move on.

MoveOn offered an easy and efficient way for citizens to contribute toward a new leadership in Congress. Hundreds of thousands eventually joined up, and MoveOn raised more than $2 million to help elect four new Senators and five new House members in 2000.

Ads and Innovations

Several characteristics separate MoveOn from traditional issue organizations. First, they are not dependent on foundation money, with all its attendant worries about how to behave and when the next grant will come. Second, they have "hard money" – as opposed to grants and tax-deductible contributions – which enables them to be partisan, contribute to political campaigns and exercise clout in the political process. "Everyone told us we couldn't raise hard money, but it has not been a problem," notes Pariser.

Third, thanks to Wes Boyd's technology savvy, MoveOn is very sophisticated on the web. They have addresses of all their members and can organize them to zip-plus-four, an incredible asset in influencing political campaigns. MoveOn also doesn't over-intellectualize or talk down to its members.

"They offer good terse analysis, something specific to do and immediate feedback," observes Harriet Barlow.

Another MoveOn innovation that is changing the nature of political organizing is its aggressive effort to raise money to buy paid media and make inroads into a communications front historically dominated by the corporate media. In December 2002, MoveOn members contributed more than $300,000 in just two days – far exceeding the organization's expectations – to purchase antiwar ads in The New York Times.

More recently, MoveOn, working closely with Fenton Communications, produced an updated version of the famous Daisy television ad, which depicts a young girl picking the petals off a daisy as a nuclear mushroom cloud blooms in the background. The ad was a powerful tool used in the 1964 defeat of conservative Barry Goldwater, effectively painting him in the public's mind as a dangerous man in favor of using nuclear weapons.

In this case, 10,000 contributors gave $400,000 to place the Daisy ad in 13 major US cities – and this after the MoveOn had asked for only $27,000 for a modest symbolic ad buy.

Regrettably, the media strategy has hit a few snags. CNN, Fox and NBC all declined to sell airtime on their national networks for the Daisy ad, as well as other ads developed by the National Council of Churches and the Win Without War coalition. The Washington Post reported that NBC refused to air the Daisy ad because, according to NBC spokesperson Hillary Smith, "it pertained to a controversial issue that we prefer to handle in our news and public affairs programming."

NBC is owned by General Electric, a major arms producer.

Toward a Broader Strategy

Remember those graphic television maps depicting the blue and red states on that fateful election night of 2000? The maps showed how the country was divided, with the Republicans dominating huge swaths of the South and the West, while the Dems controlled the West Coast, the Northeast and some of the Midwest.

Some critics have questioned the wisdom of pouring resources into ads in the New York Times and focusing on the liberal areas of the country – regions that Karl Rove and the Republican strategists have no doubt written off (part of the negative consequences of an electoral system that doesn't elect the candidate who receives the most votes). While keeping the antiwar base energized is important, MoveOn is now thinking more clearly about a broader strategy targeting some of the red states – Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, Florida and others – where resources and organizing efforts would have to be heavily invested to defeat the Bush war apparatus in 2004 .

And what will – or should – scare politicians and the Bush administration is that MoveOn is now targeting grassroots media in Congressional members' districts.

At the moment, MoveOn is employing what Eli Pariser calls "a steady email drum beat to generate a grassroots media campaign to place ads on billboards and in local newspapers. This will be a massive, coordinated, PR campaign – one that can reach millions of people and clearly tell the President where our nation stands."

Pariser continues in his calm, confident way: "Our goal is to make it impossible to ignore the anti-war sentiment in this country. You'll see signs in windows, bumper stickers on cars, flyers on your doorstep, billboards along the streets, and ads and letters in the newspaper."

Don Hazen is executive director of AlterNet.org.