Thursday, July 13, 2006
The first time I met Eli Pariser, I had to stand in line to get to him. It was at a June book-signing for progressive author David Sirota. Pariser had joined Sirota during a question-and-answer period about corporate power. The lanky 25-year-old wunderkind who runs MoveOn.org—arguably the most influential progressive political-action group in the country—didn’t get very far after the event ended and the crowd rushed him.
I found him backed into a corner, his arms crossed over his chest, straining to listen to a septuagenarian from the audience who rambled over the din of the crowd about youth and why they aren’t involved and whether we can get them involved.
“So what do you think?” the man said.
“I don’t know,” Pariser replied. He smiled awkwardly.
“Well, that’s what you guys do, isn’t it? Move on?”
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In fact, politicizing America’s youth is something MoveOn lives and breathes; after all, when Pariser himself was hired as executive director, in 2004, he was the ripe young age of 23. While Pariser is quick to point out MoveOn’s membership spans the generations and is not dominated by youth, the online organization’s flashy campaigns and ad contests judged by the likes of superstars Moby and Jack Black are clearly designed to jump-start his peer group.
Established in 1998 by a tech-centered couple from Berkeley (self-described “accidental activists” who still sit on the board), MoveOn initially launched a small, bipartisan petitioning campaign against the Republican-led movement to impeach Bill Clinton. Not surprisingly, given the growing electoral power of the right in the late ’90s, it quickly morphed into a grassroots PAC and nonprofit focused on electing progressive candidates to public office.
MoveOn has since raised and spent millions for advertisements, campaign contributions, and online polling. During the buildup to the Iraq war, MoveOn moved into the national consciousness with its first big campaign—a peace effort that included online petitions, anti-war television ads, and thousands of house parties across the country. Its membership spiked from a pre-war total of about 600,000 to a March 2003 total of 1.4 million, though this year some anti-war activists have lamented MoveOn’s shift in focus from the war to issues such as “net neutrality” and domestic spying.
MoveOn’s membership now stands at more than 3.3 million, though the organization remains anchored in the virtual world: it is run by 15 staff who communicate via the Web from offices around the country. According to Phil Noble, the founder of PoliticsOnline, an international consulting company in South Carolina that specializes in the use of the Internet in politics and public policy, MoveOn is “still the biggest kid on the block” when it comes to online progressive political organizing. Despite competition from advocacy sites like TruthOut.org and WorkingForChange.com, Noble calls MoveOn “one of the strongest and boldest.”
A native of Lincolnville, Maine, Eli Pariser moved back to
his home state from Brooklyn in May. He joined the MoveOn
staff in 2001, after his online petition for “moderation and
restraint” in post–Sept. 11 foreign policy attracted more than
500,000 signatures and the attention of MoveOn’s founders.
Pariser became the executive director of MoveOn in November
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SARA DONNELLY: A political pundit has referred to MoveOn as the “Christian Coalition of the left,” thanks mainly to its reputation for raising millions online in flash fundraisers to pay for prime-time ads lampooning conservative candidates and policies.
Why has the Internet been such an important galvanizing tool for people, both politically and otherwise?
ELI PARISER: In a lot of respects, people are very busy. I don’t believe in apathy; I don’t think that people are uninterested in politics.
I think they mostly make the rational assessment that there’s very little that they can do. And the Internet does two things. One is, it allows you from where you are, from where you’re working, to have an impact on hundreds of thousands or millions of other people.
So, instead of writing one letter to your congressman and feeling correctly that it’s a drop in the bucket, you can join 10,000 or a 100,000 or a million who are doing that, and all of a sudden you’ve got a deluge.
SD: In 2004, the Howard Dean campaign consulted MoveOn to help plan its online outreach. Have any presidential hopefuls for 2008 contacted you about their online efforts?
EP: Well, we’ve certainly met with a lot of them and, you know, it’s less to plumb us for ideas and more that they understand that if they want to be president they need to know how to speak to the folks who are our members. They go to us because we are in touch with three million rank-and-file Democrats and independents and progressives, and they want to know how to get in touch with them.
SD: MoveOn has announced a “2006 plan for victory.” How will MoveOn define success in 2006?
EP: I think our goal is to win back the House [for the Democrats]; I think that’s going to be a stretch. I think if we win six or seven seats that would be a great step toward where we want to be. It’s not a binary situation. Really, it’s not about 2006. It’s about enacting the policies our members want us to enact, from a real energy solution for the country to health-care coverage for everybody. So any kind of victory [in elections] is only kind of a partial victory because we’re not the Democratic Party. Our goal isn’t to keep a certain group of people in power; it’s to get stuff done for the country.
SD: Why do you feel it’s going to be a stretch to take back the House?
EP: Our system has been locked down. Under the same political circumstances in times past, you could envision a shift of 50 or 60 seats; it happened. But both parties have colluded to make the number of seats in play very small and that just makes it difficult. You really have to kind of shoot the moon to get there. That said, I think if people work hard and really focus, I think we can do this together.
SARA DONNELLY is a reporter for the Portland Phoenix, in Portland, Maine, where this story first appeared.