Illustrations by Julie West
Activism used to be arduous. Not anymore. Click a button, move a mouse, and bingo — you’re in the world of online political campaigning. A few more clicks and you can sign petitions to Congress protesting the war, the Clean Air Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. You can demand that President Bush be censured, call for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and urge Congress and the FTC to revoke Fox News’ right to use “Fair and Balanced” as its slogan. All without leaving your chair. It’s activism made easy — maybe too easy. Why, it’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for politicians.
Much of this is thanks to Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, 40-something founders of the liberal Internet advocacy group MoveOn.org. Back in the 1980s, Boyd started a computer-software company called Berkeley Systems. His first major work was to develop software that allowed blind and visually impaired people to use a computer. One program, inLarge, magnified onscreen characters up to 16 times their normal size. Another, OutSPOKEN, used the Mac’s built-in voice synthesizer to convert visual icons into sound. Then Boyd struck gold with a series of screensavers, of which the “flying toasters” one was the best known. Online game shows such as You Don’t Know Jack followed. By the time Boyd and Blades (who are married) sold the company in 1997, Berkeley Systems had 150 employees and $30 million in sales.
The next year, 1998, was the year America went mad. There was Bill Clinton on television, red-faced and defiant, wagging his finger at the camera and saying, I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Some people believed him and didn’t care; some people didn’t believe him and didn’t care; and some people didn’t believe him and cared very, very much. Most of the last group were Republicans, and a few of them were congressmen and senators, and Boyd and Blades didn’t agree with their views at all. In fact, it’s probably fair to say they hated them. And so, one night over dinner, they decided to do something about it. They sent out a one-sentence e-mail to about a hundred friends, calling on Congress to “censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing our nation.” Their friends sent it to their friends, who passed it on to their friends, and soon they had received a staggering 400,000 replies to their e-mail petition. Without even trying, they had achieved instant fame as pioneering Internet activists. MoveOn, the online organization they eventually formed in response to these events, now has 2.2 million members in the U.S. (registration is free), with another 800,000 or so abroad. In 2000 it raised over $2 million from small donations, and tasted sweet revenge by helping defeat some of the Republicans who had tried to impeach Bill Clinton. MoveOn was quiet during the Florida recount of 2001, but 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought it roaring back to life.
At the recent Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., Boyd and Blades were welcomed like conquering heroes. If people had had flowers, they would have thrown them. “It’s so incredible to actually revere people,” gushed Arianna Huffington, the MC for a gala dinner at which the entire MoveOn team was presented with the Paul Wellstone Citizenship Award. “And I do revere all the people of MoveOn.org!”
Later, during the dessert course of crème brûlée wrapped in a dark-chocolate shell overlaid with a raspberry sauce, Peter Schurman, MoveOn’s executive director, asked if anyone among the 800 people sitting around the ballroom’s 80 tables, each of which glimmered with candles and flowers, had at some point during the last year taken action at least once with MoveOn. If so, would they please stand? Everyone laughed, and then almost everyone in the ballroom of the Washington Marriott Hotel stood up.
After the dinner, unable to get anywhere near Boyd and Blades, who were surrounded by admirers, I ran into Moby, who had been responsible for providing the evening’s musical entertainment. He was wearing a black T-shirt that said “Fanny Pack, NYC” on it, jeans and a zippered jacket. With his glasses and bony skull, he looked more like a computer nerd than anyone on the MoveOn staff did. “It’s funny, because they’ve all become sort of political celebrities,” he noted. “None of them expected that, none of them anticipated it. I think they’re all a little taken aback [at having gone from] being smart nerdy kids in their bedrooms with computers, and suddenly they’re national political stars.”
Joan Blades and Wes Boyd(Photos by Christine Jegan)
“Do you think they’ll be satisfied by a Kerry victory, or will they keep pushing?”
“I don’t know what their plans are after Bush loses the next election.”
The following morning, I stumbled across Boyd and Blades as they were about to enter the hotel. I introduced myself and explained that I was hoping to come out to Berkeley to interview them — would that be okay? Would they be there? Or would they be speaking at conferences like this one?
For a moment, they peered at me in the sunlight. Then Blades said, “Oh, we have children, we have to be home.” “We live in Berkeley,” Boyd put in. So it won’t be a problem? I asked. “No,” Boyd said, “we work from home. That’s the beauty of it.” Could they spare me 15 or 20 minutes either today or tomorrow to first ask them some questions here? Unfortunately that wouldn’t be possible, Boyd replied, but if I wanted to see them in Berkeley, I should contact Trevor FitzGibbon at Fenton Communications.
Fenton Communications . . . Fenton Communications . . . “Wait, I know Fenton Communications!” I thought to myself. I was reading something by David Fenton, its CEO, in a book titled MoveOn’s 50 Ways To Love Your Country just last night. A two-page introduction to a chapter called “The Many Faces of the Media.” The writing was dismal, though par for the course in corporate America. “This chapter contains tips from members on how they do all these activities,” went one sentence. “Today, the Right successfully dominates media outlets and thought itself,” went another. How many outlets? I wondered. Two, five, a hundred? Fenton wasn’t communicating.
A few days later, I called Trevor FitzGibbon as suggested. “Is this going to be a biased profile?” he asked.
The usual line about Boyd and Blades is that they look and sound like your standard-issue mom and dad. They’re normal people, living a normal life, who just happen to have lots of money and a remarkable knack for facilitating political action.
Standing outside their house on a lush residential street in North Berkeley, I take in the small front garden ablaze with flowers and notice a bright-blue plastic water gun lying on the porch: so far, so normal. Then the front door opens, and Joan Blades is saying hello and leading me into a large, airy living room with white walls, a pitched ceiling and handsome wooden beams, and from there into an adjoining dining room. A housekeeper works in the kitchen beyond. Blades, who has a slim, youthful figure, looks much younger and hipper at home than she did in D.C. She wears a formfitting Code Pink–Women for Peace long-sleeved shirt, a necklace of glass beads and faux pearls, and large, severe-looking glasses.
In the dining room, she sits me down at a plain wooden table and offers me a glass of water. I say yes to the glass of water, she brings it to me, and the interview is on, with no preliminary chitchat. I ask about her background, and she tells me that she was born in Berkeley but that Boyd was born in Alaska and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They met playing soccer 20 years ago. Her mother’s side of the family was originally from Denmark. Her father was a Democrat, and her mother a Republican. “I think things have polarized a great deal in the last decade,” she says, hinting, perhaps, that a successful Democrat-Republican marriage would be harder to pull off now than it was in her parents’ day.
“One of the things I love about MoveOn,” she continues, harking back to the organization’s origins, “is that the original MoveOn petition was one sentence that brought people across the political spectrum together: ‘Censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.’ You could be Republican, Libertarian, Democrat — people signed that petition because you could come together around that. It was the healthy, appropriate thing to do.”
Early in 2002, Boyd and Blades teamed up with a young peace campaigner named Eli Pariser, and with his help transformed MoveOn into one of the engines of the anti-war movement. In February 2003, MoveOn and another group, called Win Without War, organized a “Virtual March on Washington,” resulting in more than a million phone calls and faxes to the government protesting the war. Soon afterward the group was instrumental in setting up the “Vigil Around the World,” in which thousands of simultaneous anti-war candlelight demonstrations took place all over the globe.
Will MoveOn be organizing any protests for the Republican convention in New York? Apparently not. “We tend to step into vacuums,” she explains. “There was a vacuum of leadership on the issue of [Clinton’s] impeachment. No one was saying, Censure the guy. Tell him you did bad, but get back to work — that was our role. On Iraq, the administration was starting to talk about going to war, and no one was saying anything. One of the beauties of MoveOn is that if we see an opportunity to do something helpful, we can do it, and we can do it in short order. The “Vigil Around the World” was organized in less than a week. It just rolled around the world.”
“And you organized that?” I ask, amazed that an international display of anti-war sentiment and candle lighting could have been masterminded by a couple of private citizens in Berkeley.
“Mmm-hmm,” she says, so casually you’d think she was being asked if she’d remembered to pick up milk at the supermarket.
Looked at as a business venture, albeit a nonprofit one — Boyd and Blades don’t take a salary — MoveOn must be judged a stunning success, a testament to its founders’ entrepreneurial ingenuity. But there’s also the matter of their political vision, the enormous groundswell of liberal activism they have tapped into and begun to sculpt into a potent force. The group’s ability to raise money is extraordinary. In April this year, MoveOn managed to raise $750,000 simply by holding bake sales around the country. As Blades says, they may be the only bake sales ever to warrant an article in the Economist. MoveOn raised $3.2 million in the second quarter of this year alone.
That it has been able to do so is due to its status as a so-called 527 organization, a label that comes from a section of the tax code. By law, individual donations to a political candidate cannot exceed $4,000, but there is no set limit on donations to 527 groups, which are supposed to be independent of any political party. Officially, therefore, MoveOn is neither endorsing John Kerry nor urging the removal of George W. Bush; it is bringing “issues” to the voters’ attention. In fact, it is exploiting a loophole in the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. In this year’s second quarter, Democratic 527 groups raised a staggering $27 million. (Having first tried and failed to shut down those groups, the Republicans then had to play catch-up; their biggest group, Club for Growth, has raised $5 million.) Since last October, MoveOn’s voter fund, which goes toward financing campaign ads in battleground states, has raised $10 million.
One of MoveOn’s most brilliant strokes was “Bush in 30 Seconds,” a competition in which people could create their own political ads and then submit them to be voted on by the membership. One of the ads that was submitted — the now-infamous “Hitler” ad, comparing Bush to the Nazi dictator — brought them a lot of bad publicity. The Republicans, who loathe MoveOn, then tried to score political points by excerpting the Hitler image for a Republican campaign commercial about Democratic extremism. Titled “Kerry’s Coalition of the Wild-Eyed,” the ad also quoted from Fahrenheit 9/11 and the fierier speeches of Al Gore and Howard Dean. Ironically, the Republicans were criticized for using the Hitler image just as MoveOn was, with the result that their ad backfired. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that both parties should steer clear of using Nazi analogies, though, to be fair, only the Democrats have made a habit of comparing the Bush government to the Nazis. (If the Republicans were to return the favor, they would probably call MoveOn, and other groups like it, “liberal fascists.”)
The winner of “Bush in 30 Seconds” was “Child’s Pay,” a stunningly effective ad that dramatized the future cost of the Bush administration’s deficits by showing children doing menial jobs such as washing dishes, mopping floors and picking up trash. The message — “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?” — was brought powerfully home by director Charlie Fisher. In a clever touch, folksy acoustic-guitar music was featured on the soundtrack, as if what we were watching were just another advertisement for whole-wheat bread.
Another popular ad (No. 3 out of 150) alludes to the Patriot Act. A young Middle Eastern man, or perhaps Pakistani, in Western clothes but with a heavy accent, stands beside a river and addresses the camera. The camera work is edgy and unsettling. “In my country,” he says, “a group of religious extremists are reshaping the government to promote their own agenda and morality.” He goes on to list two restrictions on freedom (the government can track your phone calls and imprison people suspected of terrorism without charges) and then says, “Why should you care about what is happening in my country?” The answer, of course, is that his country is the good old U.S. of A. And to prove it, the Manhattan skyline emerges behind him, with Le Corbusier’s United Nations building prominently featured.
Have liberals rediscovered their political passion or are they just having a torrid affair with political propaganda? Most people, even those who are fairly partisan, are ambivalent about conventional political ads. They concede that they are a necessity in modern campaigns. But they also regard them as a distasteful exercise in crude sloganeering and borderline lying. They don’t particularly want to watch the ads, and they certainly don’t want to make them. But this year that doesn’t seem to be true. For MoveOn, celebrity artists are lining up to make commercials. In the coming months, we will be seeing MoveOn ads produced by the highbrow, award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War) and directed by Rob Reiner, Richard Linklater, Margaret Cho and Allison Anders. Alicia Silverstone will appear in a spot directed by Woody Harrelson, and the likes of Al Franken, Aaron Sorkin, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, Danny Glover and Scarlett Johansson will be writing scripts or supplying voice-overs. Along with partisan documentary films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald’s new Outfoxed, both of which MoveOn has stumped for, it’s all part of a giant, perhaps unprecedented effort by the country’s intellectual and artistic communities to unseat the conspicuously unintellectual, inartistic man in the Oval Office. And MoveOn, as much as anyone, is leading the charge.
Blades’ phone rings, and she answers it: Her sister-in-law is in town. A dog barks in the kitchen, and the couple’s 6-year-old daughter runs into the room in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms and then runs back out. “You could put on some pants,” Blades calls out after her. Through the dining-room window I see Wes Boyd in the garden outside and catch his eye. A few moments later, he comes into the room and shakes my hand. I’ve already been warned that he’s busy today, and, sure enough, he says he’ll only have about 20 minutes to speak to me, as he’s expecting an important conference call.
Together we walk across a small patch of lawn to the guesthouse, which is where Boyd and Blades have their office. Boyd is solidly built and balding, with blue eyes, a high forehead and reddish-blond hair that’s turning gray. The first time I laid eyes on him, at the Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., in June, he reminded me oddly of Dick Cheney. He has that same technocratic aura. And now, sitting in his office, across from a bookcase weighed down with titles such as General Relativity, The Dawning of Gauge Theory and The Life of the Cosmos, I feel as if I’m talking to a younger and, of course, much more liberal version of the vice president. He calls himself a “process person,” talks about “global capital bulges,” refers to democracy as an engineering problem, and in general comes across as a policy wonk without portfolio. What annoys him is that the wrong politicians are in power, rigid ideologues who, he believes, launch wars for no good reason and can’t strategize their way out of a paper bag.
Even in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, with a day’s growth of ginger stubble on his chin, Boyd manages to look like a CEO. On his desk a laptop computer emits a series of bizarre beeps and burps and chirrups whenever something lands in his e-mail box, which seems to be about every 10 seconds. He sits in a swivel chair and drums his fingers impatiently.
“The guy’s a natural,” says Lawrence Comras, president and CEO of Greenhome.com. “He was always ahead of his time, and just really understood what computers could do. After Dark was really Zen-like, when everything else was very frenetic. You Don’t Know Jack was the first game show on a computer, and it presaged a whole slew of gaming apps like it. And MoveOn is again showing us what it means to harness the power of computing, this time for social change. It’s about time.”
Boyd says that what he really likes to do is build systems and companies from the ground up and get them to the point where they can be turned over to someone else. That’s what happened with Berkeley Systems, and MoveOn is approaching that stage now. The staff still numbers only 10 people. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, a single MoveOn staffer, using a laptop, can rally half a million protesters worldwide from a small room on West 57th Street in New York, as Eli Pariser did in the fateful winter of 2003. In a couple of years, Boyd and Blades plan to re-enter the business world and start a new software company. But for now, politics remains their focus, and in a larger sense, the need for strategic thinking about the problems that face America and the world. “The system in this country has really become all about fund-raising,” he says. “It has become about leaders spending the majority of their time not on policy or figuring out the big issues that affect us all, because they have to spend that time on the telephone talking to rich people to bring in the money so that they can mount the next campaign. And it’s just a disaster. It’s a disaster for them personally, and it’s a disaster for the country, and because this country’s so powerful, for the world. We can’t be strategic.”
It seems, then, that the problem is fundamental. But can the answer be simple? Boyd believes it can. Most political issues, he argues, can be stripped down to an ethical core. Without an undue amount of work, the average citizen can study them and find a coherent position on them. Specialists, on the other hand, are often mired in their various political subcultures, with the result that their thinking becomes distorted and their conclusions almost outrageously wrong-headed. As an example of the latter, he cites the Iraq war, which he claims was “clearly not the most strategic move” America could have made in its war on terror. Even calling it a “war on terror,” he believes, was a mistake; what was needed was international police action. Cops and robbers on an epic, global scale.
“I actually think that one of the most dangerous phenomena is the bowing to expertise, whether it’s in international relations or how to use technologies,” he says.
Like his wife, Boyd laments the divisiveness of Washington politics — but then, so does everyone else. It has become a ritual gesture of self-exoneration, as when Fox News reporters bemoan partisanship. Love it or hate it, the success of MoveOn is clearly contributing to the country’s polarization. And it is precisely because it is polarizing that so many people love it. This isn’t a wishy-washy election season.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican pollster, argues that MoveOn and organizations like it are the left-wing equivalent of talk radio. “What the Internet has done is, it has organized the hate-Bush crowd and allowed them to communicate with each other,” he says, giving MoveOn its due. It has allowed liberals to organize, get out a consistent message, apply political pressure and raise millions of dollars. But the impact, he says, is only on “the true believers”: Republicans and swing voters pay no more attention to their message than liberals do to Rush Limbaugh.
Still, even if that’s true, most people believe that the rise of talk radio has had an enormous effect on the country, and that it has pulled the country to the right. So it would be richly ironic if MoveOn, which was born of outrage at the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, eventually evolved into talk radio’s left-wing equivalent. And if right-wing radio really has been as politically influential as many believe, one might well wonder whether neutralizing it through an opposite and equal force might not eventually pull the country back in a leftward direction.
Boyd certainly seems to think so. “There’s a myth of America being a right-wing country,” he says. “There’s also a myth of America being a divided country. There’s so much Americans agree on that we can use this technology, and this way of connecting, to do good work. So we can actually get stuff done instead of fighting.”
The received wisdom about two-party politics in America is that the party that appears more moderate generally wins. The reason why the two-party system has always driven parties toward the center is because that’s where the undecided votes are. But this year the dynamic may be different. For the left, especially, anger at the president has caused such an unprecedented degree of politicization that it may no longer make sense to allow moderates and swing voters to dictate every aspect of electoral strategy. Instead, people like Boyd may be betting on the notion that this time around, huge numbers of Americans who don’t normally vote will go to the polls on November 2 and pull the lever for John Kerry. Not just in Democratic strongholds like New York and California, but in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where MoveOn is focusing its efforts.
To a longtime mainstream Democrat such as the political consultant Pat Caddell, the degree of vituperation coming from both sides is disturbing. He believes that the hatred of Bush manifested in MoveOn’s ads alienates and often angers political moderates. He expresses amazement at the decision by Marc Jacobs, the fashion designer, to turn the window of his store in downtown Manhattan into an anti-Bush harangue, and the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which the comedian Larry David (whose wife is an active member of MoveOn) decided not to sleep with a woman solely because she was a Republican.
“Obviously, everyone has a right to speak and should speak out, but this just crosses lines,” Caddell says. “What would happen if American corporations started attacking Democrats as part of their normal business?”
Caddell, when you speak to him, sounds like a flesh-and-blood human being. He speaks from the heart as well as the head, he worries about means as well as ends, and he thinks of voters on both sides of the ledger as people rather than as pawns to be pushed around. Divisiveness for its own sake offends him. Moreover, he thinks it’s bad strategy. “What politically is being accomplished by the vitriol inside activist circles towards Bush?” he asks. “It blinds people. It reminds me of watching Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell at work — all liberals are evil. [Hating Bush] is a secular religious thing, and it’s not very smart politically. If I were a Republican, which I’m not, I know what I’d be doing with it.”
But is divisiveness as counterproductive as it has been in the past? Is this an election different from all other elections? We won’t know until it’s over, but anyone who lives in a “blue” state knows that something unusual is in the air. It’s possible that the fundamental rule of American politics — that the most valuable votes are found in the center rather than on the margins — may have been temporarily suspended. And the clearest evidence for this argument can be found among the kinds of normally lackadaisical Democrats MoveOn has galvanized into action.
Usually, the problem with heating up the base is that it eventually becomes angry at the mainstream section of the party for being too moderate. The left wing of the Democratic Party can almost be defined as the section that thinks of the center as a sellout. Left-wing Democrats hated Ronald Reagan and the war in El Salvador almost as much as they now hate George Bush and the war in Iraq. But their anger didn’t translate into active support for Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. They voted, but they didn’t work for those elections. They put their passion into organizing directly for their own causes.
This time, however, things are different. For the first time since the 1960s, there is no opposition between the base and the elite of the Democratic Party. The presidential election has become a cause in itself — a kind of über-cause that carries all other progressive causes in its wake. What’s more, the reservoir of undecided voters is smaller than it has ever been. For once, there may actually be more votes to be found on the wings than there are in the center.
This may explain why, for all his talk about “getting stuff done” instead of fighting, Boyd shows so little interest in compromise, even in an interview. On cultural issues, he comes across as an illiberal liberal, and dismisses any counterarguments as “baloney.” (“Baloney” seems to be one of his favorite words.) His adversarial stance is also on display when asked whether there are any journalists on the right whose views he finds worthy of respect. It’s a standard question, and one Democrats usually find easy enough to answer. (“Well, Bill Safire’s usually interesting,” they’ll say. “Christopher Caldwell’s always good. Hell, these days I even agree with Pat Buchanan on some things . . .”) But Boyd, who has no problem promoting Michael Moore, mutters darkly about people “who are just playing the game to be outrageous. You know, the Bill O’Reillys, the Ann Coulters . . .”
“But that’s kind of the white trash of journalism,” I point out. “I mean serious conservatives who have a view that disagrees with your own. Who do you listen to? Who do you read?”
“I won’t go there,” Boyd answers. “I won’t name anybody.”
“I just don’t want to call anybody out.”
“But I mean people you respect, not people you’re trying to insult,” I say, genuinely puzzled at this point.
What follows is a prolonged silence, during which Boyd ostentatiously looks at his watch and then glares at me. His eyes look like chips of blue ice. I can’t decide if he’s annoyed because he can’t think of an answer — perhaps he never reads the opposing side? — or because he finds the question offensive in and of itself.
“No one?” I ask finally.
“I’m not going to call anybody out,” he reiterates. “I’m not going to validate anybody.”
Shortly after this, the phone rings and Boyd picks up: The conference call has come through, and the interview is over. Blades, who came in halfway through the conversation and has been clicking away on a laptop at another desk, nervously ushers me out of the room and back into the main part of the house. Now wearing a black MoveOn T-shirt with the words “November 2” printed on it in white letters, she’s being very friendly, as if to make up for the distinct chill emanating from her husband.
I ask about the house, and she tells me it was built in the 1920s, that its style is known as “romantic revival,” that it is furnished largely in “grandmother” (hand-me-downs), and that she and Boyd bought it for $224,000 16 years ago, before they had made their fortune. She does most of her own gardening, and when she goes to take care of her ailing mother on the other side of Berkeley, she goes by bicycle. It’s a busy life, and MoveOn is only a part of it. “I do my best,” she says. “The kids and the dog come first, and then my mom, and then the garden. I’m afraid the garden’s going to suffer this year.”
A few minutes later, Boyd shows up, his mood apparently improved, and says that he can spare me another 10 minutes or so if I want to talk a little longer. We go back to his office, and this time he’s all smiles, or at least attempts at smiles, and is interesting and persuasive about the economy, homeland security and “geek” culture. He defines MoveOn’s mission as an attempt to bring “as much diversity into [the] power structure as possible. That is, ordinary citizens . . . who can provide the countervailing influence against the notion that some kind of inside-the-beltway elite can make all our decisions.”
It would be hard to imagine a better illustration of diversity being introduced into the power structure than Laura Dawn, a 34-year-old singer and sometime Moby collaborator who is now a MoveOn staffer acting as a liaison between the group and the arts community. If you saw Dawn walking down the street in New York’s East Village, in goofy sunglasses, a miniskirt, knee-high boots with platform soles, and a zippered top with an electric-guitar motif, chances are you wouldn’t say to yourself, “Now there’s a woman who’s helping shape this country’s political discourse!” But she is, and it has been the peculiar genius of Boyd and Blades to mine the available talent, and to put their trust, in terms of both MoveOn’s staff and its membership, in the intelligence of relatively ordinary people. “Bush in 30 Seconds” was Dawn’s idea.
Dawn is from Iowa, and she pronounces “Iraq” as EYE-rack. Her father is a butcher. Her parents get most of their news from TV, and they watch a lot of Fox. At one point, she says, her mother was under the impression that the 9/11 hijackers were from Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “The reporting in the last four years has been increasingly disturbing,” she tells me as we sit in a packed East Village café. “It’s so incredibly biased it’s not even remotely journalism in my opinion.”
She has a caustic, sharp-edged wit. Or so I gathered during the Take Back America convention, when she, Moby and another guitarist played Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” at the gala dinner. After the guitarist, who appeared to be fairly new to the instrument, had stumbled through a painfully protracted solo, Dawn leaned into the microphone and asked, “Are you done?” With her pale skin and fiery-red hair, she had a strikingly dramatic presence.
But now it’s all work. She joined MoveOn last September and went full-time in January. She puts in 15-hour days, she’s got a problem shoulder and her arms hurt. She pulls out a Treo and a laptop from her backpack and shows me rough cuts of some of the new ads MoveOn is working on. “The idea is to combine writers and directors and artists in a meaningful way and produce something that’s really unique in terms of political advertising,” she says. The image on her laptop screen is barely larger than a plus-size postage stamp, and the noise in the café overwhelms the sound.
In the first ad, directed by Benny Boom, a group of young African-American men are gathered in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Dawn says it has a hip-hop soundtrack, and she calls out one or two lines of dialogue, for my benefit, as it goes along. “What’s the problem?” somebody asks the men. “No problem,” they answer. “We’re here to vote!” Another ad, by “Child’s Pay” director Charlie Fisher, depicts a world in which everyone from pregnant women to Olympic athletes has a cigarette in their mouth. “While Bush dismantles the Clean Air Act,” comes the voice-over, “Americans are smoking the equivalent of 20 cigarettes a day.” And then in “Going to Iraq,” MTV’s Jimmy McBride plays a greasy Boston cabby riffing on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia, where the September 11 hijackers were actually from, or any of the other al Qaeda strongholds, like Indonesia or Pakistan or Yemen. I ponder the fact that though the café we are sitting in is owned by an Italian, half the stores on the block are owned by Yemenites. “George Bush. He’s NOT on our side,” the ad concludes.
“I can’t think of anything more important to do with my time,” Dawn says, closing her laptop. “What we just did in Iraq is terrifying. We invaded a sovereign country, and I just couldn’t live with that. And now I don’t get any sleep and I’m tired as hell.”
“And what will you do if Bush wins in November?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you after I stop banging my head against the wall,” she replies.
Dawn works mostly with Eli Pariser, the gangly, bearded 23-year-old who shot to Internet fame when, shortly after 9/11, he sent out an online petition pleading for “moderation and restraint” in response to the al Qaeda attack. Pariser sent his petition to 30 friends, who passed it on. Within a fortnight, 100,000 Americans had signed up, another 400,000 overseas, and Pariser was getting calls from the BBC and the South China Morning Post. Wes Boyd took note, and a few months later hired Pariser as his campaigns director. It was a characteristically smart decision.
The people who signed Pariser’s petition weren’t Democratic Party activists; they were anti-war activists, and their failure first to stop the war in Afghanistan, and then the war in Iraq, only made them more determined to at least stop Bush. They seethed for a new outlet, for a way to pursue their struggle in an alternative form. By funneling these people into the Howard Dean campaign, the new, improved MoveOn gave it to them. And when Dean went down in flames, MoveOn simply moved them over to the Kerry campaign. In this way, MoveOn transformed an anti-war campaign into an electoral campaign. It translated the fervor that makes people take to the streets into the fervor that makes them contribute money. And now it is translating it into the fervor that holds “house parties” all over the country, swells the attendance for Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed, and more importantly, perhaps, gives up its own time for such humdrum tasks as operating phone banks and calling voters in swing states. Many anti-war activists who contributed money to the Dean campaign were amazed at themselves — they’d never done that before.
One person I spoke to recalled standing in line at a movie theater and telling a friend how he’d just donated money to a political campaign for the first time in his life — “It feels so bourgeois!” he told her — when the woman in front of them turned around and said, “I know exactly how you feel. I just did the same thing!” Somehow, this election season is making left-wingers feel fulfilled. You could see it at the Take Back America convention in D.C., where they were having a grand old time. Old warhorses like Julian Bond gave barnstorming speeches, and though their words suggested anger, their faces frequently radiated joy. Having someone to hate is fun.
“If someone had told me six months ago that by this time [Kerry would] be up in the polls and unified and in a good strategic position, I would have told him he was dreaming,” says Pariser, calling on his cell phone. “Part of it has been the total unraveling of the Bush foreign policy. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, from Richard Clarke on to the 9/11 Commission to the Senate intelligence reports. It’s very clear the president misled people, and that creates a very good organizing environment for us.”
As Pariser says, MoveOn certainly isn’t the only reason for the flowering of Democratic activism — perceptions about Bush and the war are responsible for much of it — but the combination has created something entirely new: a left-wing electoral body that is turning out en masse for a mainstream Democratic candidate. The kind of people who might once have worked for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and George McGovern — men they would have truly admired — are now working even more passionately for John Kerry, whom they mock for being a bore and sounding like a Republican.
But there is another factor. For progressive voters in states like New York and California, the closeness of the 2000 election underlined as never before just how inconsequential a vote for a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state can be. And so they are putting all their efforts into getting other people to vote in the 15 battleground states, where a vote for a Democrat does count. And thanks to groups like MoveOn, they can do it very effectively.
The Internet model of organizing really has lowered the effort involved in joining up. Now if you want to do more than vote, it takes about two minutes to figure out how. And your commitment needn’t go beyond a single meeting. You can sign up for a day, make calls for a couple of hours on your own cell phone, and never come back. When the cost of doing something is lowered, there are lot more takers. MoveOn has not only channeled the activist left into the election, it has vastly expanded the size of the available cadre by making it so much easier to cross the line from getting into arguments to actually doing something.
“I’m not much of a joiner,” says Laura Dawn, “but when it comes to MoveOn, you could say I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.”