LIKE MANY AMERICANS, Cherry Arnold was left wondering how she could make a difference when the Bush administration ignored a broad swath of domestic and international opinion to pursue what critics saw as a dubious war with Iraq. Opposition from the United Nations, a host of US allies, and large protests at home, after all, did nothing to slow Washingtonís inexorable move toward hostilities. As Arnold, a documentary filmmaker in Providence, put it in March, a week after the start of the war, "If he [Bush] got this far, what is a gathering on the State House lawn going to do?"
Eight months later, Arnoldís sense of frustration has given way to one of empowerment, thanks to MoveOn (www.moveon. org), the virtual activist group that ó along with Howard Deanís presidential campaign and www.meetup.com, the site that helped to galvanize Dean supporters by bringing them together in disparate communities ó has demonstrated the Internetís power as a medium for political organizing. With five paid staffers, two volunteers, and nothing resembling a conventional office, MoveOn is a sleek, tech-savvy, low-cost operation that claims more than 1.6 million members in the US and takes credit for steering millions in donations to candidates. And by regularly e-mailing action alerts on an array of issues, the virtual activist group makes it easy for people like Arnold to share their views with congressional representatives.
In the case of the proposed $87 billion aid package for Iraq, for example, the documentary maker received a personalized e-mail with potential talking points and contact numbers for US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, and Senators Jack Reed and Lincoln Chafee. "I just picked up the phone and called each office," says Arnold, 41, "and told them the way I felt about how they should be voting." Instead of merely feeling despondent about the policies emanating from Washington, as she did a few months ago, "I can voice my opinion on an issue-by-issue basis," she says, and rather than just voting every few years, "Now I feel like Iím actually doing something."
Skeptics might question whether this sense of accomplishment is illusory. For all its success, MoveOn has done little, after all, to reverse the abiding course of the Bush administration. Although congressional staffers say they take constituent input very seriously (and Kennedy offered a detailed written response to Arnoldís call), it generally doesnít sway votes in the absence of larger forces. (Even some of those, like Reed, who didnít support the measure last year authorizing US military action against Iraq, still backed the $87 billion reconstruction package, which cleared Congress this week.) And Bush, who continues to rely on his highly successful model of large donations from corporate interests and wealthy individuals, raised more than $70 million for his 2004 campaign through September 30, many times more than Dean, his closest rival in the presidential money race, who has compiled a $12.4 million war chest.
Then again, Deanís campaign ó the first to really embrace the philosophical promise of the Internet ó shows why many observers see 2004 as the breakout year for the convergence between the ínet and political mobilization.
Campaign Web sites have proliferated over the last decade, expanding the spread of information from print and broadcast mediums. This time, though, Deanís self-styled outsider campaign has enjoyed singular success in attracting a greater number of smaller campaign donations, transforming the Internet from a passive medium into an active tool for diffusing political power through the masses. Indeed, with Bushís war chest expected to grow close to an unprecedented $200 million, Deanís supporters hold out hope of using the ínet as an equalizer. As Joe Trippi, Deanís campaign manager, recently told the National Journal, "Thereís only one medium in the world that allows two million Americans to contribute $100 in one day if they decide to do it. And thatís the Internet . . . I really believe there are two million Americans who will give $100 [equaling a total of $200 million] to get rid of George W. Bush."
Trippi might be overly optimistic, but itís still striking, as the Journal reported, that Dean raised $7.4 million ó half of his third-quarter total ó through the Internet, while Bush brought in about $1.5 million in the same way, about three percent of his total. MoveOn, meanwhile, whose leadership stresses the importance of building coalitions with like-minded groups, recently embarked on its most ambitious effort, a $10 million fundraising campaign to "run ads that tell the truth about Bushís policies in key Ďbattlegroundí states" in 2004.
Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard Universityís Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Public Involvement In an Age of Uncertainty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), counts himself among those "absolutely amazed" by the success of MoveOn ó "a few people working out of garages and bedrooms."
The professor doesnít think the Internet is yet an equalizer against more traditional campaign tactics. As he notes, anyone looking at the respective bottom lines of the Bush and Dean campaigns would choose the former. Then again, Patterson says, the campaigns of John F. Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and other Democrats "would fall over themselves to get the kind of response Howard Dean has had." Patterson notes that the Internet favors outsider candidates like Dean, adding, "Politics as usual doesnít seem to sell on the Web."
Time will tell whether the former Vermont governor gets the Democratic nomination, and if not, whether his supporters will remain engaged. If he does get the nod, the larger question ó the same one facing the growing intersection of the Internet and politics ó is the extent to which Web users will expand their involvement by becoming politically active on the ground. When it comes to Deanís virtual supporters lending more punch to his campaign, "My suspicion is that it will be quite helpful to him," Patterson says.
H. PHILIP WEST Jr., the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, used to be somewhat skeptical about the Internetís usefulness as an organizing tool. That changed, though, after the Web site of Common Causeís national organization (www.commoncause.org) linked with www.meetup.com to schedule a nationwide series of get-togethers on media consolidation. The local rendezvous, held October 8 at the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop in Providence, was relatively small, drawing just five people ranging in age from 20-somethings to gray-haired veterans of local politics. Yet West was nonetheless struck by the Internetís ability to attract three like-minded people he wouldnít have otherwise met "who were wonderful in their variety, and intensity, and interest in the issue." In terms of the Webís potential as a channel for organizing, "I was immediately sold."
To be sure, the Federal Communications Commissionís drive to allow big media to become even bigger remains a remote concern for most people. But the Providence meet-up attracted a quintet concerned about how six gigantic corporations own most of the news and entertainment media ó and how the public interest often suffers as a result. As West says, "All in various ways talked about how they felt the culture is being impoverished by media consolidation." After the meeting was over, West talked some more with two of the youngest attendees. "I was struck by their indignation and realism, and yet theyíre not tuning out," he says. "Theyíre saying, ĎWeíre angry and we want to do something about this.í " On a broader level, more than 7000 people signed up for 70 meet-ups across the country on the media deregulation issue.
One of the younger men at the Providence meeting, Vinaya "Vinny" Saksena, a 25-year-old aspiring journalist who lives in Warren, became attuned to the issue as a student at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. In terms of the Internetís capability for organizing, "I think itís just starting to realize its potential," he says. "Itís a way for people to connect and find out about each other, and find other people who have common interests and views, who you might not otherwise have the chance to meet." As Saksena notes, Internet-based organizing has particular appeal for a topic like media regulation, which ó even though it could remake the media landscape in Rhode Island, for example, by allowing the corporate owner of the Providence Journal to buy a local television station ó got scant mainstream media attention prior to the FCCís June 2 decision.
A funny thing happened, however, on the way to the less regulated world favored by FCC chairman Michael Powell, the ProJo-owning Belo Corporation, and other proponents. Even though the Republican majority carried the day during the FCCís three-to-two vote, an outpouring of grassroots opposition, spurred by a coalition encompassing such strange ideological bedfellows as MoveOn and the National Rifle Association, led Congress to roll back, at least temporarily, the end of the ban on owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. In a triumphant moment for MoveOn, several senators were photographed with sacks of the tens of thousands of e-mails generated by activists.
The FCC issue may be something of a special case, since different elements of the political spectrum were troubled by different elements of deregulation. But Lauren Coletta, director of field operations for Common Causeís national organization, sees it as an example of how the Internet can foster political communication. "Itís still back to good old person-to-person communication," Coletta says, describing how an Internet petition concerning Halliburton and other foreign contractors in Iraq attracted 10,000 signatures in little over a day. "If you create a message about issues that are compelling, people are going to forward it to their family [and friends], and get more and more people involved. It still boils down to the traditional tenets of organizing."
Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, describes online groups like MoveOn as "the perfect merger of organization and technology," particularly since young people ó who vote far less than older generations ó are more Internet-savvy. "Online organizations are reaching new populations, younger people and individuals who traditionally havenít been very active in the political process," West says. "Organizations like this empower the grassroots. It allows the average person to gain much greater influence in policymaking. No longer are their views filtered by intermediaries."
Drawing reference to the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate, when the far more photogenic Democrat scored visual points over his gloomier GOP rival, West says, "Next year could be for the Internet what the 1960 election was for television . . . If people get organized and demonstrate real power, everyone will acknowledge that this is a technology whose time has arrived."
WHEN MOVEON WAS launched in 1998 in response to two Californiansí frustration with the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the lack of congressional leadership toward a quick resolution, "We thought it was going to be a flash campaign ó a couple of months," recalls co-founder Joan Blades. As the organization gathered 200,000 signatures in a little more than two weeks, it became clear that the concept of an Internet-based activist group could have some staying power. Nor did it hurt that Blades and her co-founder, Wes Boyd, as successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, were able to lend initial financial support to grow MoveOn as a force for public involvement.
In the five years since, a combination of Internet savvy, progressive ideals, and engaging tactics (asking supporters, for example, "to help us find the most creative, clear and memorable ideas for ads that tell the truth about George Bushís policies") have propelled MoveOn to steadily greater horizons. Gathering $2 million for candidates in 2000 through an average sized donation of $35, the organization claims to have boosted its fundraising total to $4 million in 2002. Similarly, after targeting a $40,000 goal with an e-mail appeal to fund an ad in the New York Times, the $400,000 that flowed in made possible a wider media campaign and suggested the prospect of grander things.
Nowadays, MoveOnís Web site is chockablock with different campaigns ó "Fire Rumsfeld and Change Course," "Investigate the White House" ó as well as volunteer and donation opportunities, the possibility to sign up for action alerts, and a bit of cheeky humor. ("Dear MoveOn member, Today weíre giving you a chance to clear your name. Weíre asking you and tens of thousands of MoveOn members to sign an affidavit affirming that you didnít leak the identity of an undercover CIA agent to the press last July.") Overall, "In terms of policy, itís a way to provide a counterweight to the big money interests," Blades says in a telephone interview from Berkeley, California.
Asked to what extent groups like MoveOn can be an equalizer against more traditional interests, Blades says, "Thatís a hard question. We are very focused on trying to help our members be more effective in getting their views across and being a part of the political dialogue." The group has a more significant role, she suggests, as part of a broader coalition encompassing hundreds of other interest groups, including organized labor, womenís rights, the environment, civil rights, civil liberties, and other causes. "Itís not just about moveon.org," Blades says. "Itís about all of us helping the average citizen to have a real voice in the political conversation, and thatís fantastic."
Greg McCarthy, press secretary for US Senator Jack Reed, believes groups like MoveOn can have a real impact on the 2004 election. "Itís a good sign," he says, "that theyíre expanding beyond the border of electronics to actual grassroots politics, which is where the influence will come in the election. Going beyond the people who are Web-literate, getting out into the streets and making people aware, both in person with literature drops and door-to-door, but also with well-organized, well-conceived media events that will get the electronic mediaís attention" will make a greater difference.
Thanks to software made available by the national AFL-CIO, the social action group Rhode Island Jobs With Justice (RIJWJ) has been able to utilize the same technology utilized MoveOn and the Dean campaign. "We can send out an e-mail to the about 1400 Rhode Islanders in our database," says RIJWJ director Matthew Jerzyk. "It personalizes it directly to the person." The software makes it possible to ask the recipient, in the case of RIJWJís concerns with the tax stabilization package for the Rising Sun development in Olneyville, to e-mail Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, members of his administration, the city council, and the developers. With support from about 200 people, this campaign generated 5000 e-mails in a two-week period, Jerzyk says.
As the activist notes, this software has proven so successful for the Dean campaign and MoveOn since the technology is very conscious of where it goes. It tracks whom has received forwarded e-mail, for example, and whether that recipient has taken any of the requested follow-up actions. "[Itís] sort of this Big Brother technology for the left, where you can identify who on the Internet is doing what you ask them to do," Jerzyk says. "Once they do the first thing you ask them do," an escalated commitment ó sending a fax, making a donation, or taking part in a meeting ó can be sought. In the same way, those who didnít take an initial action can be contacted and asked to become involved.
The RIJWJ director credits this software ó which comes with virtually no cost, thanks to its provision by the AFL-CIO ó with heightening the democratic debate over tax stabilization for Rising Sun. He notes that a vice president of Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse, the main developer for Rising Sun, responded to each of those who e-mailed him, suggesting that the communication isnít taken lightly. At the same time, Jerzyk is quick to note that technology isnít a substitute for strategy. "MoveOn has been successful not only because of technology, but a well developed strategy," he says. "Itís an integration of access to technology and good political strategy . . . If you donít have a strategy, but you have the technology, itís not going to work."
One overlooked element in the many stories devoted to MoveOn and the Dean campaignís skillful use of the Internet is the digital divide, the extent to which poor Americans lack the Web access taken for granted by the more fortunate. It hardly seems coincidental that Deanís campaign, a target of some criticism for the overly white crowds at campaign events, has benefited from the enthusiasm of middle-management office workers with ready Internet and e-mail access at their jobs. Itís a far different story, as Jerzyk notes, for those low-wage workers who might check their e-mail only once a week and the many others who donít really grasp the vagaries of Web sites and such. The Internet raises "the capacity to fight powers like the Republican Party," the activist says, "but we also have to figure out ways to lower the digital divide." As part of this effort, RIJWJ plans to offer Internet training to hotel workers seeking a new contract at the Providence Biltmore.
Paraphrasing Robert D. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), a key work on social organizations and civic discourse, Jerzyk notes the twin dynamic of the Internet. The potentially good thing is its ability to connect people. On the other hand, the connection is often done "in a way [so] that people arenít coming together," and are instead relegated to typing on a keyboard in a isolated setting. Certainly, getting people to sign online petitions and make donations is useful for political campaigns. But itís the next step ó getting people away from their computer screens and into meetings and other real-world contact with other people ó that offers greater promise for invigorating civic discourse and political participation. "One we get to that level," Jerzyk says, "the Internet really has the potential to change America."
Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ phx.com
Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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