MoveOn Fights For A Role In The Obama Era

Barack Obama stole its mojo, and the once-dominant progressive group is looking for a second act. From a voice to a platform.

A MoveOn-sponsored plane swoops over a Mitt Romney event in July 2012. Flickr: moveon / Via moveon.org

What became of MoveOn.org?

The first true online progressive powerhouse — the organization whose tactics and rhetoric prefigured both Howard Dean and Barack Obama — has slid steadily from public view since a very public confrontation with General David Petraeus, dubbed “Betray Us,” in 2007.

In 2012, an organization that led the left’s response to the Bush administration will be best remembered, if at all, for renting low-flying planes to drag banners — “1% GAIN FROM 99% PAIN” — over Mitt Romney campaign rallies.

MoveOn’s fadeout from the center of the Washington conversation isn’t an accident. It’s one part necessity — the group found it impossible to compete with Obama for attention and love, and thrived more in opposition — and one part a controversial decision to allow its “members,” as it calls subscribers to its giant email list, to use MoveOn as an enabler and technical platform for its own campaigns.

It’s a transformation that mirrors the shift in the media industry toward platform-driven companies like Facebook and Twitter, but it’s also a risk for a group that was once defined by the clarity of its voice.

“There’s been a choice by them to not be as visible, to do things at a grassroots level,” said Mike Lux, founder of the D.C.-based consulting firm Progressive Strategies. “Even though they haven’t been as out there and visible to the mass media and general public, they’re still incredibly impactful when it comes to their own membership.”

“Other progressive groups are nervous about them pulling back in terms of national strategy and national coalition building,” said Lux. “That’s not what the MoveOn folks want to do, but that’s what people are nervous about — that’s the worry.”

The site — founded in 1998 as an email petition to urge Congress to “move on” from the Clinton impeachment trial — does have a growing membership. By the end of 2004, when MoveOn was deep in its anti-war campaign, the organization had 2 million members; by the 2008 election, it had 5 million; and today, the group claims more than 7.5 million names on its email list.

But the new MoveOn strategic plan, announced by the organization last week, will take a grassroots approach, with campaigns originating from MoveOn members rather than its staff of 30 employees. It’s a shift toward bottom-up member-based campaigns, and away from the national movements for which the group gained notoriety.

As an example of the potential impact of this new strategy, MoveOn leadership points to President Obama’s plan to relieve student loan debt. The administration’s new policy — an accelerated “pay as you earn” program, announced by the president on Oct. 26, 2011 — started with the 200-word petition of one MoveOn member.

Robert Applebaum, a lawyer living in Staten Island, was frustrated that the president hadn’t used student loan forgiveness as a way to revive the economy. Using MoveOn’s member-based online petition platform — SignOn.org — he drafted an appeal to President Obama.

“With the stroke of the President’s pen, millions of Americans would suddenly have hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of extra dollars in their pockets,” read Applebaum’s Sept. 2 petition, which would eventually harness the signatures of over 670,000 MoveOn members.

By late September, Applebaum’s petition had received so much support, he took it to the White House’s own petition site — “We the People” — and emailed the signatories of his first appeal, asking them to get behind the new petition too. Tens of thousands of signatures from MoveOn members triggered the White House’s response threshold, and one month later, Obama announced a new executive order.

It was a success story — if not one totally reliant on a decision by the Democratic president. And in a political universe where public credit is a path to influence and to power, the fact that it was MoveOn’s success story went almost entirely unnoticed.

MoveOn’s admirers say it has, if anything, been a victim of its own success.

“The Obama campaign copied MoveOn,” said Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA. “There was a moment when MoveOn had mastered online organizing techniques and recruiting techniques before the first Obama campaign, and they copied it almost exactly.”

In its fledgling years, MoveOn was first in its class to innovate technology around organizing and recruiting — they were first, for example, to use a call tool system, “Call for Change,” which in 2006 helped Democrats capture the House and the Senate with seven million volunteer phone calls.

And as Obama for America has become the central organizing body for Democrats — OFA will continue to breathe life, either within the Democratic National Committee or as its own nonprofit, even after the campaign technically shuts up shop — MoveOn takes the next seat in line.

“In an Obama world, the first stop for the question of, say, ‘What does the left think or Democrats think,’ is the White House,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told BuzzFeed. “Even if MoveOn is the second stop, the context is very different in an opposition environment where MoveOn might be the first stop,” said Henry. “And right now it’s what Obama says.”

But during the Bush administration, MoveOn also had the advantage of being the only game in town — and the first to figure out that it could organize politically like-minded people using the internet.

In 2004, then–executive director Eli Pariser co-created the “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest, which asked supporters to give their best critique of the president in a 30-second video clip. “No one had ever done a make-a-video contest like that,” Pariser recalled. “This was pre-YouTube, and we helped show that there was some potential there.”

Today, with a more crowded and professionalized field — and without a single campaign against Bush and against the war — MoveOn has “less of a preoccupation with their brand and more of a focus on a movement that’s bigger than themselves,” explained Henry. “They’re really progressing through what they used to be in ’04.”

MoveOn’s shift hasn’t been greeted with universal acclaim. When the group rolled out its new strategy, along with a round of 15 layoffs, anonymous critics cited in a Huffington Post article accused the organization of ceding its seat the table — abandoning “inside game” beltway politics for local city council battles, an argument echoed by some progressives to BuzzFeed.

“They basically fired the football team’s coaching staff and front office to let the players and fans just run around the field,” charged one source in the Huffington Post piece.

MoveOn’s defenders, though, insist the D.C. inside game was never their game.

“Just because you’re listening to people outside Washington, D.C., doesn’t mean you can’t get people inside Washington, D.C., to listen,” said Greenpeace’s Radford.

“We were never interested in a vision of a grand building in Washington or whatever,” said Pariser, now the chief executive of Upworthy, which aims to spread progressive ideas on social media. “We were much more concerned with building a strong progressive movement and ecosystem.”

MoveOn’s new bet is on the power of its platform. And its new competition may be less like other progressive groups than online platforms like Change.org and other tools yet unbuilt. The SignOn system, executive director Justin Ruben told BuzzFeed, was created for working on local and state campaigns.

“In the back of our mind was the fact that if this worked it could become the template for working on national campaigns. That was always the idea,” he said.

That new template was driven, he said, by members themselves. “We would constantly be hearing from our members about, say, a really important fight in Connecticut about paid sick days — and they would ask us, ‘Can you help us on that?’” explained Ruben. “It’d take us just as much time to run that campaign in Connecticut as it would for us to run a national campaign. We’d have to say, ‘Sorry, that’s really important but we don’t have the bandwidth.’”

“Over the course of the last four months,” said Ruben, “it just became increasingly clear that this was the right path. We couldn’t come up with any other way that might build our impact but to turn the keys over to our members. The holy grail here is that we can use a bottom-up approach to open up new lines of attack and more of them than we could ever run on our own.”

The success of the new model — and the new MoveOn.org — remains to be seen. But supporters say the risk is a calculated and well-researched one, and that Ruben knows what he’s doing. “The progressive community should stop this circular fire squad,” said Radford. “If people just critique an organization for taking a risk, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

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