On the Spot: Moving On with MoveOn

Election '04

The waiting list was long; only a lucky 60 people found their way to this San Francisco location on Sunday, Nov. 21. With a friend in common – the progressive online organization MoveOn.org – conversation came easily; they converged on the San Francisco loft, trading names and stories on their way up the stairs. While some had brought their own chairs or stood by the food, most people sat on the floor. Around the country, over 18,000 people were meeting at 1,500 parties like this one, designed to help MoveOn.org decide on its next priorities and strategies.

MoveOn mobilized hundreds of thousands of frustrated people before the Nov. 2 election. They made phone calls to swing states, educated themselves with progressive media, raised over $50 million for John Kerry and local candidates, and sent over 70,000 volunteers into the swing states. Because the organization was particularly vocal in the last month leading up the election, their silence in the days that followed after election day left some of their members feeling lost. Where was the group that had helped them turn outrage into action? In an interview with KGO radio, Joan Blades, MoveOn's co-founder, said "The day after the election we were deluged with emails from members saying 'Thank you, this was wonderful, what next?'"

After dealing with their own sense of electoral loss and recognizing some of the smaller victories from election day, the staff at MoveOn realized that they didn't know what was next. They had some ideas, but, as the staff wrote in a collective email to supporters, "we agreed that we couldn't move forward with anything until we heard from you."

In the San Francisco loft, people jumped at the chance to talk about possible future strategies. After three weeks of grieving, they were ready to talk about action. "MoveOn was one of the most effective groups before the election," said Marilyn McNeal, a young digital media teacher and singer. "We need to figure out how they can continue to be effective now that the election is over.

"We have to find our own Karl Rove," said a woman in a Greenpeace T-shirt. "We need to be as ruthless as they are."

"I don't think we can do anything until we listen to people in the red states," said a blond woman who originally hailed from the Midwest. "I'm a Christian progressive activist and I get so frustrated with Christians, and with activists who won't listen to each other."

For two hours, the ideas flew back and forth: from creating an activist version of Craigslist.org to a mass exodus into the center of the country, from winning back Congress, to supporting a think tank that could identify new progressive leaders.

By the end of the two hours of talk, the diverse group had come to a surprisingly unified sense of agreement: progressives need a uniform vision to counteract the conservative triad of god, guns, and gays. "It infuriates me that Bush has hijacked the idea of morality," said an African American woman with neat braids. "We need to have a message that is simple, clear and focused."

The question turned to how to communicate that message. People had a variety of ideas, from running for Congress to creating a sister city project between urban progressive area and smaller predominantly conservative cities and towns. The sister city project could support activists working in progressively isolated areas as well as possibly begin letter writing communication between conservatives and progressives who may have similar daily life concerns but come to politically different conclusions. Everyone in this country has concerns about wages, about health care, about the war, focusing on these similarities first could help build connections that could later bring about political change.

By the end of the evening, the conversation turned to MoveOn itself and how it could build on these ideas. Many people wanted it to being doing more and doing it more locally. But MoveOn had been so successful partly because so many people were willing to put aside their specific agendas and issues and focus on electing progressive candidates. Can an organization that had been successful in part because of the unification of so many different ideas keep that energy and unity going without a specific election to work towards?

The final task of the evening at all 1,500 house parties was to vote on their top three recommendations for strategies MoveOn should pursue and then to send them all to the MoveOn staff to process and report back. It wasn't clear whether MoveOn would abide by a majority vote from its members, if there even was one clear winner, or if it would just take all that feedback into consideration when figuring out their next move. At the loft in San Francisco, the top strategy vote-getter was clear – create a progressive vision. It was also clear what strategy was least popular: the idea of moving more into the center. "Any more to the center, and we'll be the right wing," said one woman, a former candidate for the Board of Supervisors in Marin, shaking her head when the idea was raised. "We've tried that," added a financial broker. "And it was a total failure."

"My friends say MoveOn.org is the Wal-Mart of activism," said Camila Aguilar, an activist and the host of the San Francisco loft party. "But I think of MoveOn as my public relations company. They brought everyone out here tonight." MoveOn has proved its ability to gather people and get them energized. The challenge will be to get them organized to do something and to figure out what that is before the energy dissipates. In this loft in San Francisco, under the shadows of beautiful green trees in a room filled with life and energy, people were filled with both ideas and an almost restless need to begin the next project. "If MoveOn can't do it," one activist shrugged, "we'll do it without them. We'll just move on."

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