Where does MoveOn.org move on to, now that the 2004 presidential election is history?
It seemed like an appropriate question to ask Adam Ruben, the MoveOn.org field director who recently transplanted from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. The relocation (he lived here in the early 1990s) was more for family reasons than organizational; a virtual entity, MoveOn can be run from just about anywhere. Still, Seattle is a MoveOn stronghold, and Ruben's arrival is giving a lift to regional progressives deflated by November election results.
Formed in 1998 as a liberal online-advocacy effort to get the country to "move on" from the Monica Lewinsky episode, MoveOn first helped demonstrate the political and fund-raising strengths of the Internet.
Drawing on a vast e-mail list, MoveOn connected Americans for bake sales, house parties and neighborhood canvassing. It invited members to vote on presidential-campaign TV ads and hosted a night boosting Michael Moore's release of "Fahrenheit 9/11." Overall, MoveOn raised $60 million from half a million donors for the presidential election.
Then George Bush got elected to a second term, giving rise to relentless second-guessing. An article in Rolling Stone magazine went so far as to suggest that MoveOn and the Internet may have impaired the liberal cause by marginalizing, rather than mainstreaming, progressive platforms.
A slight, soft-spoken former environmental activist, Ruben, 34, gives little impression of looking over his shoulder. After the election, MoveOn polled its constituency for hot-button issues (election and media reform top the list), and last month the group sponsored a call-your-senator day to oppose controversial Bush judicial nominees.
Now it's tackling Social Security and pushing a new book, "50 Ways to Love Your Country."
With the 2006 campaign on the horizon, MoveOn is taking its Internet strategy down to the very tips of the grass roots. Drawing on a database of 70,000 volunteers and 3.1 million e-mail names (in the United States), the group is moving into the electorate, neighborhood by neighborhood.
"Politics used to be a face-to-face process," Ruben said. "Then advertising and TV and voice mail took over, and people stopped talking to their neighbors about political issues."
MoveOn has found that making personal contact with a fellow American, even a total stranger, is far more effective than mass-media campaigns, Ruben said: "Face-to-face is still the most effective way to influence someone."
For the judicial nominee call-in, MoveOn held house parties throughout the country featuring Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, on a conference call. Attendees signed up for small teams that will keep in touch via e-mail and MoveOn activities.
Called "Operation Democracy," the project to date has drawn 2,100 teams and 10,000 individuals. Ruben can't quantify how many are in Seattle but said the city has a higher-than-average concentration of MoveOn participants.
Operation Democracy is focused "primarily on national races," Ruben said. The aim isn't yet to have MoveOn involved at the city council or even state legislative level. But it seems inevitable that the MoveOn model will filter down to local politics.
In a way, the MoveOn experience is both informing and reflecting an overall Internet trend toward localization. As well as neighbors might know each other, neighborhood e-mail lists are rare and there's no logon equivalent of the phone book White Pages.
Perhaps MoveOn's prime contribution has been to show an alternative path to political action — beyond the voice mail, TV ads and junk mail that have numbed many to the electoral process. Even if the Internet winds up simply being a conduit to the ultimate political persuasion — person-to-person contact — it will have served a pivotal role in transforming democracy.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates."
Copyright © 2005 the Seattle Times