As if they didn’t already know, members of the American progressive left got a taste of what the Beltway punditocracy thinks of them three months ago. On the May 2 episode of Chris Matthews’ MSNBC talk show Hardball, as the discussion turned toward the Democrats’ chances in 2004, leftist convert Arianna Huffington declared that the Dems’ progressive wing possessed the next great doomsday device of national politics. “The Democrats have a secret weapon,” she said, “which is an Internet grassroots organizing group called MoveOn.org that’s about to …” Everyone else just about fell off their chairs, their diaphragms convulsing with contemptuous guffaws. “Come on!” shouted Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes, as Matthews barked, “Howard Dean is not going to be elected president.”
The story of the left’s marginalization is as old as the hills, and promises of its resurgence have proven so unerringly false that there’s a certain desperate, whistling-past-the-graveyard quality to it by now. But the creators of MoveOn.org, an Internet fund-raising and lobbying group, have built themselves a more respectable constituency than anyone anticipated when Berkeley-based software developers Wes Boyd and Joan Blades first conceived of it four years ago. With a membership of 1.4 million people and a demonstrated capacity to raise millions of dollars, these online organizers could fairly liken themselves to the Christian Coalition in its infancy, quietly enduring establishment scorn while they set about changing national politics. And while the Christian Coalition depended upon armies of churchgoers herded into polling stations from the pulpit, MoveOn’s leaders are banking on a less tangible foundation. If Ralph Reed had God on his side, MoveOn has AOL.
Of course, we’ve also seen this giddy infatuation with the Internet before, and its demise was even more spectacular than George McGovern’s. The Web will make recessions a thing of the past; the left will rise again — does anyone really believe such hype anymore? As MoveOn dips its toe into the presidential election cycle with last week’s “virtual primary” — in which its members voted on which Democratic candidate to support — its leaders hope that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they’ll be able to marry two of the most discredited phenomena in contemporary life. But can Web-based organizing really replicate the power of union volunteers or precinct walkers? And can the essentially white-collar sensibility of MoveOn’s membership really reach across the great lifestyle gulf and make common cause with Tennessee truckers? Or is this dot-org doomed to spoil yet another election with a meaningless but oh-so-satisfying protest vote?
Wes Boyd and Joan Blades have the time and resources to change the world thanks to flying toasters. As creators of the software firm Berkeley Systems, they made a fortune on the famous After Dark screen-saver, eventually selling the company to the Internet giant CUC International for $25 million. As the couple became increasingly disenchanted with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, they circulated an online petition urging Congress to “censure and move on” with the business of government. At the time, their site was the smallest of sideshows in that overwrought morality play, and most people barely noticed it.
But as Boyd and Blades used their signatories to raise money for progressive causes and candidates, something funny happened: The left got angry. The 2000 Florida debacle left millions of liberals convinced that a coup had just taken place, and as they watched Tom Daschle’s milquetoast centrism cede the midterm elections to Karl Rove’s pugnacity, they began muttering that the Democratic Leadership Council’s triangulation had sold out too many ideals for too few gains. Fixating upon the cowboy smugness of George W. Bush, and a rush to war that took special delight in vilifying Europe as well as Saddam Hussein, progressives started clamoring for action. No more talk about how we can’t win, they said — just tell us when and where the fight is.
Enter MoveOn, whose membership has doubled since February. In the last few months, its leaders have raised money and lobbied on a host of issues: the nomination of ultraconservative Miguel Estrada for a federal judgeship; new media ownership rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission; and, of course, the war. MoveOn raised funds for billboard and newspaper ads and helped organize the February “virtual march” on Washington that flooded switchboards and inboxes with hundreds of thousands of antiwar messages.
“We have grandparents, soccer moms, our members are everywhere and motivated by real concerns, especially the war on Iraq,” says executive director Peter Sherman. “People want their kids to have a better future than they had.They want a clean environment; they want judicial nominations that are in sync with mainstream values; they want tax fairness instead of tax breaks for Enron executives. Once the mechanism for uniting and engaging these people is laid, victory is inevitable. And the Internet is bringing us to that point faster than expected.”
But can the Internet, even when applied in new and creative ways, really change the fundamental political dynamics of this country? Or will it merely accelerate the pace? If there’s one area where the Net has made a difference, it’s the looming California nightmare known as the recall campaign. According to Ted Costa, one of the leaders in the Gray Davis recall drive, the campaign was born in a nexus of the Internet and talk radio, as disgruntled citizens circulated via e-mail the idea of ousting the governor. The Web emerged as an incredibly effective tool to muster volunteers to hand out petitions, and so far, 160,000 signatures have been collected entirely online. “It has been very good when we get people on our e-mail list,” Costa says. “It gets us volunteers whom we train to stand in front of supermarkets.”
Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of mischief the Internet can amplify so easily. The recall drive is a creature born of blind, populist rage, a way to express a nihilistic, damn-the-consequences anger at Davis’ venality. Its supporters don’t have to care about the long-term effects of capricious recall drives, because thanks to the blooming of hyper-niched, partisan Web sites, no one ever has to read another opinion he doesn’t already share. And thanks to the Internet’s promise of instant communication, this rabid partisanship can be translated into immediate action, without the reflection and sobriety that a slower pace of communication once necessitated.
MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades says she can’t afford to worry about contributing to this effect. Conservatives are going to use the Internet anyway, she says, so why abandon a useful tool? And whatever side effects are outweighed by the opportunity for millions to participate meaningfully for the first time in their lives. “I think it’s so important that people get involved in politics,” Blades says. “That’s the key component of MoveOn. I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I never did anything before this, you’ve given me a way to be heard.’ And that’s tremendously healthy.”
In any case, says UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain, the Internet is hardly going to take populist anger to new, unsurpassed heights. Each new communication tool brings with it a new populist application, and the republic has survived. “The precursor for a lot of this was Jerry Brown’s 800 number for his presidential campaign,” Cain says. “Populist forms of organizing have been around for a long time. It’s just that the Internet makes possible new forms of populist organization. … Can you take the resentment of liberals and play it in East Lansing and Columbus and Mississippi? Sure. Is it created by the Internet? No.”
Unfortunately for MoveOn’s leaders, that resentment of liberals will be a key barrier to success in the upcoming election. The nonprofit and its counterparts at Working Assets and the New Democratic Network are part of a larger effort to replicate the right wing’s intellectual infrastructure, a universe of Rupert Murdoch papers, opinion journals, talk radio networks, and think tanks like the Manhattan Institute. But if MoveOn is going to expand beyond the educated, professional, coastal liberals who gave birth to it, it will have to find a way to viscerally relate to people who lead a vastly different life. As David Brooks has pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly, the great gulf in American politics isn’t class or ideology, but temperament and lifestyle. These days, whether you earn more than $35,000 isn’t nearly as important as whether you believe in faith healing or listen to Toby Keith. Translating liberal ideas into this language, bridging the “authenticity gap,” will be particularly tough, because MoveOn’s natural constituency virtually epitomizes the sophisticated urban secularists who have so little in common with the culture of, say, Kentucky.
Of course, MoveOn executive director Peter Sherman disagrees with this analysis. The notion that America is divided into “red states” and “blue states,” he says, is a specious conceit created by polling and campaign advertising. MoveOn’s great promise, he claims, is its capacity to bypass such cynical ploys and give people a chance to get involved in the process. Once people start talking to each other, he says, they’ll realize how much they have in common, and what they have in common is fundamentally progressive: “Underneath that superficial dichotomy — which is the result of campaigns that consist of nothing but high- dollar political ads in certain states at the last minute — underneath that, my strong belief is that Americans, whatever their voting habits, share a certain set of values.”
Still, if MoveOn hopes to break through the scrim of media and campaign ads, they’ll have to learn some new habits. Unlike his Weekly Standard colleagues, David Brooks takes MoveOn very seriously, and he has been watching the virtual primary with interest. But despite the new momentum from the left’s alienated core, he thinks the online organizers still have much to do before they can resonate with that part of the country for whom God and family still convey some of that Old Testament magic. “They have to show they know about Red America, which is not always the case,” Brooks says. “Be religious. Know what Pentecostalism is. Learn the language of Christianity.”
Last Friday, MoveOn announced the winner of its primary: Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose gun ownership credentials and plain-spoken persona may be the key to reaching across this cultural divide. The question, though, isn’t whether Dean can win the hearts of Red America, but whether his supporters can.