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MoveOn.org -- Successfully Executing Its Vision and Answering Its Critics

10 questions for MoveOn.org's co-founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades about the recent progressive debate over how Democrats in Congress approached stopping the war in Iraq and their plans for the future.
 
 
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A New York Times headline told the story: "Senate Supports a Pullout Date in Iraq War Bill: Democratic Measure Seen as Rebuke of Policy -- a Veto is Expected."

For the first time in the painfully long four-year grind of the Iraq invasion and occupation, members of Congress -- at least the new Democratic majority, along with a handful of Republicans -- finally caught up with the population. After the loss of countless lives, enormous costs, and widespread destruction of Baghdad and much of the country, Congress confronted Bush over the financing of the war and a real timeline for ending it.

This victory is hugely precedent-setting but also modest in what it will achieve in the short run given its inevitable veto by Bush. It is however, an important first step in a still longer struggle to prevent the president and the Republican Party from continuing their unpopular and destructive Iraq policies, and hopefully isolating them, as the country moves toward the 2008 election. The ability to win this first victory was difficult and complex. It was achieved in part with the energetic and savvy support of millions of progressives and particularly MoveOn.org, the powerhouse citizen's lobby, with 3.2 million email members and significant political capital among elected Democrats due to their prodigious fundraising skills and tactical prowess.

Yet this victory, and MoveOn's role, is not without controversy. The supplemental budget bill provides funding to continue the war, while setting a date to end it, and there is disagreement on its strategic effect. There are some -- and notably a small group of the most progressive House members, including four Democratic representatives from California -- Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters and Pete Stark -- who in the end did not support the vote, but nevertheless made sure that Speaker Pelosi had the votes to win.

As Barbara Lee said, "I cannot stand in the way of passing a measure that puts a concrete end date on this unnecessary war." A number of peace groups also rejected the Pelosi strategy, and some activists were angry that MoveOn didn't hold out for what they feel is the more principled position.

But wanting MoveOn to stay out of the political give and take, and not take the best option the political process has to offer in the present, is to fundamentally misunderstand the organization. As blogger Matt Stoller at MyDD.com noted recently: "MoveOn was born out of an overt rejection of protest politics. The fundamental premise of the organization is based on empowering citizens to participate in the political process; it is institutionalist by nature, and has never misled its members on that point."

There has never been an organization like MoveOn, by far the most successful advocacy operation in the digital era, mastering the use of the Internet for organizing and fundraising, and holding the corporate media responsible for its misreporting and bias. But after all is said and done, MoveOn is an electoral animal, most committed to reshaping Congress to be more responsive to its citizens, and less to the bidding of insurance and drug companies, arms manufacturers, banks bleeding working class consumers dry via credit cards and overborrowing, and all the rest of the bad congressional behavior in the Bush era.

MoveOn, perhaps because of its multiple roles, is sometimes misunderstood: It is a powerful lobbying group; a sometime protest organization; and is especially well known for the tens of thousands of house parties thrown by its members across the country to raise political consciousness.

Furthermore MoveOn has a highly unusual organizational model which it calls "radical decentralization." They have a modest, "flat" organization, staffed with talented equals, all with tech skills, and with no assistants, or assistants to assistants. They operate without offices, spread around the country and think of themselves as "small and nimble."

MoveOn believes that the core problem in politics lies not with the voters, but in the dysfunctional political culture centered in Washington, D.C. Its counter to D.C. corruption and inaction, is to connect and engage the resourcefulness and intelligence of ordinary people, all made possible through the new communications technologies of the Internet.

MoveOn's founders Wes Boyd and Joan Blades started MoveOn in 1998 in order to get the Republicans in Congress over their obsession with Bill Clinton's sex life, and on with the important business at hand. Within days of launching their campaign, they had thousands of members signed up. The group, took off, bringing Executive Director Eli Pariser aboard in 2002. Nine years later they are still at it. In many ways, MoveOn has been a model of organizational stability.

Boyd and Blades live in Berkeley, Calif. AlterNet engaged them in an exchange of ideas via e-mail and phone, to get their sense of this political moment, and where it might take us. We asked them about their critics, how they evaluate their effectiveness, and the crucial battles ahead to bring about a more vibrant, fair and just society.

With the focus shifted to the Senate on the budget supplemental with a deadline to end the war, can you bring us up-to-date on the legislative battle?

Wes Boyd: Sure. Last Friday, House Democrats pulled together and passed, as part of the supplemental appropriations bill, a real timeline for the redeployment of troops from Iraq. This was a remarkable display of unity against the president, and the progressive caucus played a key role. We all backed them as they fought to keep the timeline in the bill. And then riding that momentum on Tuesday, the Senate defeated an amendment that would have stripped out the timeline from their bill. So it really looks like the Congress is finally going to confront the president. This is the first step in what will be a difficult struggle to turn our country away from the president's disastrous policy in Iraq. But as we prepare for the next steps, I think we should take a minute to appreciate this victory and understand how it happened. Because there's something really interesting and important happening here.

How so, what's changed?

Wes Boyd: Well, hope, I suppose. Hope becoming real. We've been saying, "It's always darkest before the dawn" for years. And now we can actually see tinges of orange on the horizon. It's been a frightening time. But Joan and I have been lucky. We've been connected to millions of people who want to make a difference. So we knew there was real hope. And, of course, the Internet played a remarkable part in all this -- with all the organizations that started connecting with real people and the blogs and so on -- we have the beginnings of a new kind of connected populism that I think has never been seen before.

The November election shifted the momentum in American politics. Should it really give us hope that the right wing hold on America is crumbling? Do you see the election as a turning point and how did it come about?

Joan Blades: We felt something really different happening, starting in 2005 -- well before the 2006 election. We could feel things shifting in a big way. I guess it's partly that the conservative movement ran up against a dedicated opposition. But it also ran up against harsh reality -- the failure of neoconservative ideas. We could see new opportunities opening as the president became increasingly unpopular. We watched for the moment when we could move from defense, where we all simply manned the barricades against the greatest excesses of the administration, to go on the offensive.

Working within MoveOn, we've been in a unique position to see the incredible growth of movement energy and capacity over the last years. And after all of everyone's efforts together translated into a Democratic majority in November, we were really beginning to hope that the moment to go on offense would come soon. And it happened this last week. Working together with lots of great people and organizations, we helped push through wins in both the House and the Senate, and now Congress is finally on record as confronting the president to get out of Iraq. It's a big deal.

But we have very a frustrating situation -- 60 percent of the public wants to get out of Iraq, the election defeat of the Republicans was a strong indication of public sentiment, expectations have risen, yet the killing goes on, and in some ways gets worse. How do we make sense of this?

Joan Blades: Yeah. It incredibly frustrating. And what's going on in Iraq is heartbreaking. After the election last November, hope blossomed briefly. We weren't ready to hang the "mission accomplished" banner, or anything. But the American people had clearly delivered the message. Rumsfeld's resignation looked like the beginnings of the administration changing course. And the Iraq Study Group's report, though flawed, indicated that the foreign policy establishment had had it with this mess. The wheels seemed to be turning.

But then the president decided to continue to stonewall against the American people. To double down. To escalate, rather than deescalate.

Over the holidays, as we saw this happening and the marketing program beginning for "the surge," the progressive movement began to mobilize. And we began to hear from MoveOn members again, in a big way, that it was time to push hard and show support for strong Democratic leadership on Iraq. Our strategy was clear: continue to isolate the president until his "stonewall" crumbles. And make sure that Democrats take a unified position against escalation and against the war. Because if the Democrats divide or get quiet, this would become a bipartisan war -- like Vietnam was -- and it's not clear how we'd ever get out and how the killing would ever end.

Wes Boyd: Yeah. The quick analysis was that if the Democrats can maintain unity against the president, we will succeed, because the situation on the ground in Iraq is, as even the Iraq Study Group indicated, bad and getting worse. The Bush strategy is fatally flawed and can't work. It's a political strategy -- designed by Karl Rove, I guess -- not a policy for success in Iraq. Or for stopping the killing. Things will continue to get worse for the president and the GOP, and finally Republicans will break away from the president, and he'll have to deescalate and redeploy.

And the pressure mounts every day. Although the administration has begun a major public relations campaign, the news from Iraq is worse every day. On top of that, the president has been hit by scandal after scandal: Libby, Walter Reed, Gonzales.

Our campaign strategy in this context is to go as deep as possible in isolating the president. Show "moderate" members of Congress that the American people are against the war, in their districts. Ally with veterans organizations to show that being against the war is supporting the troops. And most of all, while screaming bloody murder about this disastrous war and occupation, support unity, not division, among progressives and Democrats. This was the new challenge.

MoveOn has been criticized recently for particular close relationships with the new leadership. For example, Farho Manjoo's article in Salon was titled " MoveOn Moves In with Pelosi."

Wes Boyd: Mr. Manjoo missed the real story behind the victories this week. He failed to report that the reason MoveOn and others could pivot to help leadership in Congress, in the face of likely criticism from some anti-war activists, was because of the strong support we all felt from MoveOn members and the progressive base. We published a memo refuting claims otherwise that can be found on our home page ( http://pol.moveon.org/iraq/supplemental.html). This deep foundation of support is a new thing. And a hopeful thing. Because it means that a base-grounded movement can push leaders hard, yet be nuanced and strategic, because people are tuned-in enough to understand the nuance. I think the blogs are playing an important role here -- there are millions of new political mavens who really understand the details of what's going on now. And they help ground the movement. We've moved beyond sound-bite politics.

Two other criticisms that received attention, leveled by John Stauber, a writer and activist who, with Sheldon Rampton, runs the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison Wisconsin, charges MoveOn with abandoning groups in the peace movement who refused to support the Pelosi budget supplemental. Furthermore, Stauber has accused MoveOn of not representing your membership because of how you communicated with them on the question of the House vote? What's your defense?

Joan Blades: In a movement working to move forward, everyone plays a different role. Some organizations and leaders will demand nothing less than an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops. And that's a crucial part of the movement. It keeps us grounded in the real goal of all this -- bringing an end to the horror in Iraq. Not only will we always respect and support our friends who do that, it's a crucial source of pressure.

Others will help mobilize to show a unified front defying the President. We need to connect a movement stretching from Cindy Sheehan to Nancy Pelosi. This is a tough new challenge. And given that most of the folks on the MoveOn list basically want to support the Democratic majority in moving forward ... When Democrats do move forward, this connection role partly falls to us.

Most MoveOn members, like ourselves, will embrace both these roles, at different times. Push like mad for the occupation to end, and then pivot to support broad political unity, when it's justified.

As a mother with a 17-year-old son, for me, this is very personal. We need to fight the president's incredibly reckless war policy every day, until it stops. Everything we care about is at stake.

Wes Boyd: The notion that we could ever go against the will of our members is a deep misunderstanding of how we do business. As an online organization, we can only work on things that our members are really fired up about -- otherwise they simply won't click. They won't pass on petitions. And we wouldn't get anything done. That's why we listen to our members so closely.

On this particular issue, our internal engagement of our members consistently gave the answer that the bill was a concrete step forward. They wanted Democrats to unite around it instead of splintering, and they wanted to support Democratic leadership to get it passed. Not because they are naive in some way, but because they understand how the movement needs to move forward in careful alliance with congressional leadership. In fact, it's deeply hopeful to see how strategic and grounded the progressive base really is -- given how frequently Democrats are demonized by the right as simply angry extremists.

Even so, we all couldn't have won the fight of the last week without the dozens of other organizations who publicly fought for the bill as well, including progressive champions like US Action, Council for a Livable World, VoteVets, SEIU, AFSCME, Progressive States Network, Americans United and the AFL-CIO. And the continued anti-war pressure of groups like Code Pink, TrueMajority, and UFPJ was key. I was particularly impressed by the the leadership of the core "Out of Iraq" caucus members -- congresswomen Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters. Holding out for the best bill possible and then releasing the caucus to vote for the bill at the key moment. The Progressive Caucus really made this happen and is going to play a powerful new role in this Congress. And congressional leadership -- Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- really stepped up.

Anyway. It was an an all-hands-on-deck moment, and it was just enough to produce the victory widely reported as a direct rebuff to the president's policy in Iraq. For example, the Washington Post 's headline after the House win was " House OKs Timetable for Troops in Iraq." Of course, if the story had gone the other way, the headline would certainly have been "Democrats Divided. GOP to Lead on Funding for Troops."

But we all pulled it off.

MoveOn has had enormous success by many measures and in many ways is unique in the history of progressive politics. Yet, you are sometimes misunderstood by people outside your membership, perhaps because you mainly work electorally yet sometimes do protest politics. Is this your sense that you are misunderstood, and does it cause you problems?

Wes Boyd: Hmmm. I'm not sure I'd call it "protest politics." It's more like, well, citizens being heard. Because these politicians -- the people in Washington -- they work for us. And we're going to just keep making that point, strongly, until they act responsibly.

Yes, we do our business in some fundamentally different ways than many traditional groups. MoveOn came seemingly from nowhere, because we helped fill key leadership vacuums -- both during the Clinton impeachment and in opposition to the Iraq war -- by offering a new way for people to engage. We saw our role as providing a service, not telling people what's what. We want to help connect the deep resourcefulness and common sense of the American people to American democracy. Using new communications technology as a catalyst.

Joan Blades: But when we started getting going, we were totally unprepared for how bad things were in Washington.

A quick story ...

The last time Wes and I visited Capitol Hill before this last year, was in 2003.

We went to talk about "connected democracy." And we wanted to show evidence that in this new world, things are basically different. That "when we fight, we get stronger." And, of course, to encourage people in Washington to fight. But things were really bad. We were shocked by the sense of desperation among elected Democratic leaders and the political class. You could tell they were scared. We met with a group of Democratic members of Congress, and it was like meeting with an exiled band of rebels. They had been totally beaten down by the bullying tactics of the Republican majority. It was terrifying. Because it became clear that it was up to those of us on the outside. Us. Those of us out here in America. That nobody could save us but ourselves.

So Wes and I didn't go back to Capitol Hill for three years. It was too depressing. And it was clear that the energy to change Washington was not going to come from inside. It would take a movement on the outside for progressive leaders on the inside to rebuild.

Wes Boyd: And that's what's happened. Because we all care enough about our country to work to redeem her. We at MoveOn and thousands of other leaders and other organizations and millions of individuals. But there was something new. Something that let us grow at a pace unlike any emerging movement in the past. And something that changed the basic character of the movement. The ability to communicate instantly and almost for free -- two way communication -- with millions of good people who want to help. And people who can lead, as well as follow.

It's still surprising how difficult it is for leaders from the old school to understand how fundamental this difference is.

The foundation and grounding and strength of the progressive movement is the millions of people who are engaged. But please understand: this is not some kind of phony demagogic populism -- where leaders see themselves as having all the answers and exhorting "the little people." It's very different. Take the blogging world, for example. A totally new progressive communications infrastructure. One that nobody planned and nobody owns. It's amazing.

The only organizations that will do really well in this new world are organizations that serve their members and constituents in the most humble sense of that word.

Matt Stoller, a prolific blogger at MyDD has written: "MoveOn was born out of an overt rejection of protest politics. The fundamental premise of the organization is based on empowering citizens to participate in the political process; it is institutionalist by nature, and has never misled its members on that point." Do you agree? Is this a fair characterization?

Wes Boyd: Hmmm. Interesting. I've never thought of it as a rejection. But our approach is definitely one of believing that these people in government work for us. And that we're going to demand they do the right thing. From the very first day we started MoveOn, we took that approach. For example, two weeks into our very first campaign in 1998, when we were thinking we should ask people to organize themselves to meet with their members of Congress, we said to members, "This is not a protest or rally. You are constituents demanding accountability from your member of Congress." People were shocked that they could do that. That they could just ask for a meeting. And they'd get one. Maybe we were beginning to lose that most treasured part of our democratic traditions. The notion that every single person has the right to relate, as an equal, with our representatives in government. Because we are equal. This is the foundation of our civic life in this country. And it's a beacon for the world. And must be preserved.

One factor that seems to set MoveOn apart is the fact that your structure and how you operate is radically different than other organizations. How are you unique?

Joan Blades: Yes, I don't think it's widely known how the MoveOn team works. First, at MoveOn we've built a culture than fully embraces our outsider status. We don't hunger for inside power, because we think of it as an illusion -- especially remembering the Democrats we visited in 2003. We have a set of internal documents, called the MoveOn Way that help us define this culture. (Note: At AlterNet's request, MoveOn.org has posted these key documents at http://moveon.org/moveon_way)

We've kept our staff largely out of Washington D.C., and in fact located all across America, to avoid being drawn to the D.C. mindset -- we call it radical decentralization. We deliberately keep our staff small, so that we don't find ourselves needing to feed the organization, instead of doing the work. Of course, it helps that we have such great people on the team. They really work so hard and with such integrity. And we aggressively maintain a posture of service and friend-to-friend engagement with everyone in our network. Finally, we don't take money from large contributors, so we don't become unclear on whom we're serving -- MoveOn members.

Has the criticism stung that has been aimed at you? Would you do anything differently?

Joan Blades: Oh, sure. But people have mostly been very supportive. We're very impressed with our colleagues in the movement. People are doing this work for the right reasons. Not for ego. And passions run high. As they should. Because this is serious business -- life and death. Frankly, we've also grown thick skins -- the right wing has been trying to demonize MoveOn for years. We see that as a badge of honor. And I suppose the occasional barb from friends is a kind of growing pain. The most important thing is that we continue moving forward together. And respect everyone who has given so much of themselves to make a difference. And win the day.

In summary what is likely to happen in the near term and leading up to 2008? Can there be an effective inside-outside strategy going forward and how might some of the divisions, which emerged recently, be bridged, or even should they be?

Wes Boyd: In the near term, we are just past the first stage of the fight with the president to change the ridiculous policy in Iraq. We have to keep unified so we can face him down. Every day his support gets weaker. Everyone plays an important role. We have to keep pushing. Together. There's a lot of work to do. But we're optimists. You can feel the times changing. Can't you?

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

 
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