Myths About Moveon
by Matt Stoller, Sun Mar 25, 2007 at 08:56:30 AM EDT
In the heat of the fight around the supplemental, there were a lot of accusations thrown around that Moveon lied to its members, that it somehow sold out, and/or that it is now a Beltway insider organization. There is also the strategic question of whether the supplemental was a good step or a bad one. As I supported Moveon's actions in this campaign, I'm going to address the argument, promoted by among others John Stauber, that the organization somehow acted in bad faith.
It's helpful to go back and examine how Moveon has historically interacted with its members, and why these members receive and respond to Moveon emails and requests for action. Last year, Blogpac did some research on blog influence and Moveon membership. The two sections of the poll are here and here.
I'm putting up the following chart, because it's important to realize that the argument that Moveon 'sold out' starts from the premise that members of Moveon had a frosty relationship with the Democratic Party to begin with. Look at the chart below and you'll see that this is just not the case. Moveon members by and large love Democratic Party leaders, even conservative ones like Bill Clinton. They are primarily loyal partisan Democrats.
Let's go back to the history - Moveon was born out of an overt rejection of protest politics. You may or may not think that Moveon is in bed with Pelosi, but the organization started out to defend Bill Clinton, a relatively conservative President. Moveon has always worked through the political process, beginning with its work on gun control in 1999 and its targeting of pro-impeachment candidates in 2000, and continuing through its work on Iraq from 2002 onward, its internet primaries in 2004, its involvement in the DNC Chair race in 2005, and its policy oriented work around net neutrality and media consolidation, and its fights with Fox News and the Sunday shows. 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.
Moveon was not the only website out there protesting the Clinton impeachment. There were many websites protesting at the time, including web rings (ah, the late 1990s). Only Moveon, though, turned into a networked organization with 3.2 million members over the next nine years that engaged in electoral, political, and policy advocacy. Only Moveon turned its list into a powerhouse of politics, and it did so through a dedication to practical results around progressive populist principles. While other groups blast out emails and degrade their lists, Moveon listens aggressively, tests intensely, and thinks strategically every step of the way about what their members and the web can accomplish. While Moveon struggles with scale, anyone who has managed an email list knows that if you don't think about your emails as going to people with real concerns, if you talk down to them, and if you don't show real results, your power drops. Unlike direct mail or high-dollar-broadcast politics, internet politics requires a tangible and immediate results-oriented model or it fails.
John Stauber, who is an ardent critic of Moveon, comes from a different generation of liberal activism. He started as an activist against the war in Vietnam in high school, and moved into environmentalism in the 1970s (working on the first Earth Day). He works through policy-oriented groups on food safety and media activism, authoring "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry'' (1995), "Mad Cow U.S.A. (1997)", "Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (2001)", "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (2003)", "Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State (2004)", and "The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq (2006)". His roots are not institutionalist, they come from a generic skepticism towards any aggregated center of power, and his tools are PR and outside networks that have traditionally been distrustful of the Democratic Party leadership. This makes sense. If you watch, as Stauber did, the collapse of the Democratic Party from the 1960s onward, the corruption of a media system, and the failure of every liberal institution (including unions), you tend to base your career choices and philosophical outlook on existing outside of the institutional fabric of the Democratic Party coalition.
Stauber isn't used to a non-Southern Democratic Party. It's nothing he's ever known, and it's frankly nothing that any of us have ever known. None of us know how to wield power in this new political world, where the public is liberal, the military industrial state is cannibalizing itself, and the political system is (slowly) reorienting itself around this shocking new paradigm. Stauber is also not used to the idea that activist liberals actually like the Democratic Party. He believes that Moveon members would not support Democratic leaders if presented with a different set of choices, without acknowledging that Moveon members have traditionally supported Democratic leaders when the questions are tactical in nature.
There's a larger generational problem here. Every successful political movement has both an 'inside' negotiating strategy and an 'outside' set of organizers putting pressure on the insiders. Every successful political movement has the capacity to make mistakes, even big mistakes, and continue moving forward. And every successful political movement builds a new establishment that can wield power and make decisions, ultimately electing people to office that are sympathetic to new ways of wielding power. Moveon is working as a key component in building a new establishment that makes decisions, makes mistakes, and learns from them.
I don't know if the supplemental is a major step forward or not. I know it won't end the war, since this was has been coming for sixty years and is part and parcel of a militaristic political structure that we must and are working to disassemble within both parties. But it is a major step forward in terms of our movement, as we affirmatively passed a significant piece of legislation through a House which, while full of some new blood, saw its Democratic membership grow by only 20% in 2006. Moveon was true to its members in helping this happen.
As for the non-bad faith arguments, there is handwringing about whether the Democrats will 'own the war' in 2008 because they will ultimately end up voting for military funding. I don't think so. Just look at the Pew poll to see whether Democrats own the war - according to the Pew data dumb, the parties were tied in approval ratings at 42% in 2002, and now Democrats and Democrat-leaners are 50% of the electorate as opposed to 35% of the electorate for what is increasingly seen as a fringe insane group of conservatives. In other words, the public knows that this legislation will run up against a temper tantrum from Bush, and doesn't see it as a particularly big game-changer one way or the other. As a movement it is a big deal, but that's an internal perspective. Democrats will not own the war in a political sense, because Democrats by and large oppose it and Republicans do not. People aren't stupid. They know this, and weird legislative maneuvering about budgets and an asshole President don't change this basic fact. If we elect Hillary Clinton as our nominee, that will change, but for now, Bush and his GOP fanboys love this war and Democrats are trying to stop the madness.
Now, in a larger and more important sense, we all own the war. It's our war. American attacked Iraq. Voting against funding or this bill or for impeachment or anything else does not exempt you from responsibility for America's actions in the world. That's what it means to live in a liberal democracy; citizens get a say in things but also have to take responsibility for the actions of the state even when we don't agree with what the state is doing. That means that Moveon, or anyone else, isn't 'selling out' when we participate in the political process. There is a set of political institutions, and you either participate in them or you don't, but you are responsible for the war as an American regardless.
Moveon members know this. It's why they joined Moveon, not because they were looking for a place to protest outside the system but because they wanted to work through the political system to protect Bill Clinton from radical revolutionaries, show support for not overreacting to 9/11, and/or stop the Iraq war. That's always been the deal with Moveon. You can disagree with their strategy, and the great thing about the internets is that you can organize and do whatever you want and no one's going to stop you. But a criticism of Moveon along the lines that Stauber is offering, that they are operating unaccountably and undemocratically, is simply a mimick of his earlier (and mostly correct) arguments about a corporate media system that creates bottlenecks to control citizens. Only, Moveon isn't creating any bottlenecks, they are and have been doing what their members want, which is to work through the political process to end the war as best they can.
Ultimately, we should not be fooled into thinking that an attempt to wield power from within the system is wrong on its face or that it's not representative of Moveon's membership. Moveon members have a relatively long history of involvement and support for members of the Democratic Party. Many long-term progressive activists and insiders have traditionally and correctly seen no value in supporting what was a corrupted Democratic coalition, but they should now adjust their strategies accordingly as the public and the Democratic Party shifts away from the right in a once in a generation tectonic electoral realignment. There's a lot of work to do in bringing America away from a right-wing national security state. There is no magic bullet, and attempting to marginalize and undermine allies who have come into the process within the last ten years and who have a significant base and exciting and effective tools certainly isn't it.