By Melinda Welsh
This article was published on 01.08.04
Red, white and byte
Virtual activists—in Sacramento and across the country—are beginning to change politics as usual
Ask Joan Blades to show you her office, and she gets a wild grin.
The co-founder of MoveOn.org bounds into her North Berkeley living room, with its overflowing bookshelves and kids’ backpacks, and lifts an artfully lacquered hat box. She returns to the dining room and places it on the table. With a flourish, she sets a Sony notebook laptop on top of this base, throws out her arms with dramatic flare and laughs. “Ta daaaa!”
Behold the workspace of a woman who is changing the world.
Blades and her husband and co-conspirator, Wes Boyd, known in political circles as two of the most influential progressive leaders to hit the scene in a decade, both work from home computers. So do their small band of seven hardworking MoveOn techies in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Together, the collection of cyber-activists has set politics-as-usual on its head this past year in the United States.
Could it be that the most important political story of the year is being scripted by a handful of geeks on laptops?
Yeah, you bet.
MoveOn has grown during the past five years from an e-mail Boyd and Blades sent to 300 friends to an organization with more than 1.6 million active members whose goal is to do nothing less than “take back America” from an administration they believe has led the country down the wrong path. Basically, MoveOn uses the power of e-mail—with its instantaneous speed and negligible expense—to activate alliances that can mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to send strategic e-mails and faxes in hours, as well as raise millions on behalf of like-minded political candidates or campaigns.
Last year, MoveOn helped orchestrate thousands of anti-war rallies (remember the large February 15 anti-war rally at the state Capitol?) and candlelight vigils across the globe and right here in Sacramento by getting the word out on the Internet about coordinated actions. And last June, MoveOn held a virtual Democratic presidential primary that some pundits believe forever will change how we elect presidents.
In Sacramento, MoveOn has thousands of member-participants who regularly engage in cyber- and other kinds of activism, mostly related to issues of national concern. For example, on December 7, local MoveOn members sponsored more than a dozen live get-togethers in Sacramento, Elk Grove and Davis. The purpose of the “national day of house parties” was to promote a new documentary, Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War. In Davis, one such party attracted a whopping 150 people, some traveling from as far west as Vacaville and as far east as Rocklin to connect with fellow cyber-activists and watch the film. Originally scheduled as a home party, MoveOn member Eden Dabbs changed the venue to a nearby community center when her online R.S.V.P.s tallied more than 100 participants.
“This organization has built an incredible online network,” said Dabbs, a writer, mom and cyber-activist. “MoveOn continues to use the Internet in creative ways and helps fill a need people have to be politically active in a time when they’re dissatisfied with the way America has been behaving when it comes to foreign policy.”
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon of online activism is already spreading and migrating. Plenty of other groups, both liberal and conservative, are attempting to tap the magic of grassroots online democracy.
“People had stepped back from politics because they thought it was fruitless,” said Blades, “but then along came the Internet.”
It should come as no surprise, in the eccentric world of the wired, that the couple that created the flying-toaster screensaver would go on to shake the halls of power in America. Yes, Boyd and Blades, creators of a software firm called Berkeley Systems, contrived the unforgettable flying-appliance program and also developed the After Dark screensaver. The latter made them a fortune. They sold the company in 1997 for $25 million and, within a year, became what they call “accidental activists.”
It all started in 1998 when they got fed up with then-President Bill Clinton’s imminent impeachment. The pair sent e-mails to a few hundred friends, urging them to call upon Congress to censure Clinton and “move on” with the nation’s business. The e-mail zoomed way out there and back again on the Internet, gathering tens of thousands of names of like-minded people on a petition. The Web site MoveOn.org was born. The organization began to collect e-mail addresses, initiate quick civic actions and raise funds for politicians deemed worthy.
Then came 9/11, the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan and talk of a war in Iraq. Enter Eli Pariser, the 22-year-old son of 1960s activists. Pariser was using the Web to accomplish anti-war networking with a success and style that seemed familiar to Boyd and Blades. They were impressed and offered him funds and assistance. Soon, MoveOn entered heavily into the burgeoning anti-war movement; Pariser became international campaigns director for Boyd and Blades’ organization.
In September 2002, during the long prelude to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Boyd, Blades, Pariser and a small but growing staff of MoveOn devotees asked members to cough up funds for a $50,000 New York Times ad. The request raised $200,000 in a few hours. They experimented successfully with new “meetings” technologies online that helped people, in Boyd’s words, “take a message” to their representatives. The group raised money to run national TV spots and print newspaper ads—mostly in The New York Times—that went against the drumbeat for war. They collected millions of signatures on a petition to the U.N. Security Council and got 450,000 people to flood congressional phone lines in a single day, calling it a “virtual march.” They joined forces with the Win Without War coalition and became key, last February 15, in orchestrating coordinated anti-war protests and then vigils across the globe. (Hint: We’re talking about the largest single day of protest in world history.)
Of course, none of this stopped the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But those orchestrating the war certainly were aware that huge numbers of Americans were strongly opposed to what was happening. “We haven’t won on everything,” said Blades. “But we made a difference.”
Next came MoveOn’s online Democratic presidential primary last June. In just 48 hours, more votes were cast online (317,000) than in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined. The event attracted national media coverage and was seen by pundits as a glimpse of a possible future in which traditional primaries might be replaced by online voting. The fortunes of Howard Dean—who placed first in the MoveOn primary—quickly increased because of his strong showing in that contest.
MoveOn has been involved in everything from fighting new media-ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission to opposing the recall election in California. Clearly, the organization had little impact on the outcome of that election. Not deterred by a seemingly regular inability to achieve a short-term goal, MoveOn recently commenced a $10 million drive to fund anti-Bush commercials in key battleground states during the upcoming presidential primaries and has launched a policy-ad contest in which the winning commercial—as judged by the likes of Michael Moore, Gus Van Sant and Janeane Garofalo—will be televised during President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January.
All of this begs the question: Will MoveOn, and the other online organizations, burn out members with too many requests to take action on too many issues?
“They’re too smart to burn people out,” responded Don Hazen, director of the Independent Media Institute, which runs the alternative news syndicate AlterNet.org. “MoveOn moves fast and doesn’t worry about what people think. They’re jumping on all sorts of things, and there seems to be no limit in sight.”
“I don’t have geek training,” confessed Andrew Greenblatt, webmaster for TrueMajority, one of two other progressive organizations aggressively attempting to tap the potential of online activism. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Greenblatt passed on practicing law and instead turned to his innate and singular ability to “translate geek” into language regular people could understand. “I was an activist looking for new ways to fight back,” he said, “and I’ve finally found one.”
Five years ago, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s began TrueMajority “in order to compound the power of all those who believe in social justice,” says Cohen on his Web site. The organization now boasts 325,000 members who receive “take action” e-mails and flood Congress with faxes about key issues. “You used to at least have to write a check or attend meetings to be active,” said Greenblatt. “Now, you just have to check your e-mail.” Another organization promoting cyber-activism is Working Assets, a long-distance telephone company with a social conscience and revenues of $133 million in 2002. Since 1985, Working Assets has raised $35 million for donations to progressive nonprofit groups. With its “flash activism network,” Working Assets—under the ActForChange banner—organized almost 100,000 people to e-mail congressional leaders about the war. The group is now focusing on voter-registration efforts.
These three organizations—MoveOn, TrueMajority and Working Assets—together dominate the current field of cyber-activism. All were founded by entrepreneurs (or, in the case of Working Assets, by multiple progressive businesspersons as a for-profit telephone company) and therefore are observed to have certain traits in common, such as a high tolerance for risk, a passion for hard work and efficiency, a willingness to fail and a knowledge that failure can lead to big things. The same cannot be said for most nonprofit organizations, whose leaders typically spend lots of time building consensus and pleasing boards and funders.
This approach also might explain why MoveOn and the others are adept at using tools created for the business community, such as conference calling online, because the same technology that can hook business people up with each other can hook citizens up to members of Congress. “Businesses invented the technology, saying, ‘How can we use it to make money?’” said Greenblatt. “Activists are taking the technology and saying, ‘How can we use it to change the world?’”
But progressives are not the only ones trying to boot up citizen activism. Howard Kaloogian, the Republican challenger for Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat on the U.S. Senate, has teamed up with Townhall.com to provide a forum for conservatives to meet up online. And just a few months ago, the Republican National Committee launched an “online toolbox for Republican organizers.” Another conservative group, named Citizen Outreach, put up a Web site in late July with the specific goal of becoming “a mainstream alternative to MoveOn.org”—a group Citizen Outreach characterizes as “radical” and “left-wing.”
“MoveOn.org has a five-year start on us,” said Citizen Outreach President Chuck Muth, “but they lost in their effort to stop the impeachment, and they lost in their effort to stop the U.S. from removing Saddam Hussein. Zero for two is not a very impressive record.” The Citizen Outreach Web site (at www.citizenoutreach.com) features “brushfire alerts,” online petitions and pre-written letter templates for those who want to take action from the right side of the spectrum. But thus far, there is no indication that Citizen Outreach or the other conservative cybersites are sparking activism at near the level of the three leading progressive sites.
Meanwhile, for the front-line cyber-activists for liberal causes, optimism about the Internet and its power to change the world remains high. “What you’re looking at is a democratizing technology,” said Greenblatt. “With the old way, if you have a lot of money, you have a lot of power. With the new way, if you have a lot of people support, you have a lot of power.”
Dabbs, the local MoveOn advocate, concurs. “This is a great way to combat politics as usual,” she said. “In some ways, MoveOn and cyber-activism have restored what democracy is really supposed to be all about—and that’s encouraging. We band together, express ourselves and effect change.