A conversation with the founder of the powerful online progressive political organization.

FORUM: MoveOn Muscles Up: Pragmatic Progressive: Don Hazen’s and Lakshmi Chaudhry’s book transforms political adversity into opportunity.

On January 20, 2005, Inaugural Day, the online political action group MoveOn proposed a strikingly ambitious plan: to organize “networks of neighbors and friends” in every Congressional district that would together create a “national message,” and to use the networks to take back the House of Representatives in 2006. In the missive sent to its three-million-member list, the MoveOn leaders said the plan came directly from the members.

For many members, this was a signal that the organization had dramatically shifted gears after the Democrats’ defeat in November. For Wes Boyd, cofounder, with Joan Blades, of MoveOn, the declaration represented a transition from working in support of John Kerry’s presidential bid and the Democratic Party to building a true grassroots movement.

After a short period of quiet after the election, MoveOn has started to gun its formidable engines. Boyd and company have sent e-mails entreating their member base to petition Congress to speak up on defining an exit strategy and timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, and urging opposition to the administration’s plans to gut social security. Most recently, MoveOn has stepped into the fray over the threats to end the filibuster, asking its members to pass out flyers in their neighborhoods protesting the “nuclear option” at the same time that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was speaking at the “Justice Sunday” rally, maligning Democrats as “against people of faith.”

Don Hazen: Does this ambitious new plan represent a big shift for MoveOn? How is the membership responding?

Wes Boyd: The reaction has been fantastic. I think that’s because this plan is a natural extension of the tremendous energy of last year, but focused on a broader goal. Millions of progressives who had never before been involved in politics got busy last year working for campaigns and getting out the vote. And they liked it. They liked meeting neighbors and talking together about the future. They liked the sense of joint mission and purpose. And they want to keep moving forward.

Progressive populism is a real movement now, and MoveOn is just a small part of this wave. As our contribution to this wave, we’re working to help find good ways for individuals to act at the local level as part of something big and national. The most important part of this plan is the identification of an audacious but achievable goal: organizing to sweep away the right-wing majority in Congress in 2006.

It’s utterly predictable that the radical right will overreach in the coming political season. Their claims of a mandate, in the face of a deeply divided electorate, make that clear. If we’re ready, we can take Americans’ natural aversion to extremists and take Congress in the 2006 election on a progressive reform agenda.

Hazen: You describe hiring organizers, building infrastructure, and recruiting grassroots leaders. Who will make it happen on the ground—can you explain how this might work?

Boyd: We’re starting with the model of our Leave No Voter Behind program from last year. Tens of thousands of volunteers worked at the local level with help from hundreds of paid organizers. Most political campaigns use only paid staff, including even [for] phone banking and canvassing efforts. They don’t really trust volunteers. Leave No Voter Behind was a true neighbor-to-neighbor program, and the results show how powerful volunteer-driven efforts can be. The key, though, is how to set national goals together, so that everyone’s efforts add up to something bigger.

Hazen: What does it mean to develop a national message from the ground up?

Boyd: That’s probably the biggest, most exciting challenge we face. It’s never really been done before, but the Internet gives us new opportunities to broadly engage in these discussions and draw in the huge talent and expertise of Americans outside of Washington, DC. Right after the election, MoveOn members held 1,600 house parties across the nation to talk about next steps. That was a start. Everyone agreed on one key goal: progressives need to hone a clear agenda to counter the think-tank-developed programs of the radical right. We have to get off defense and move to offense. That will take new ideas and a common embrace of key initiatives. With some innovation, a progressive agenda with broad appeal can and will emerge.

Hazen: Getting back to the 2004 election, what’s your view with 20/20 hindsight?

Boyd: I don’t blame Kerry so much but rather the Democratic Party as an institution. The message just wasn’t there. You can’t expect a candidate to arrive in March and create something out of whole cloth. The party currently is about fund raising and occasionally blasting out ads. The senate and congressional campaign committees keep getting more and more narrow in their targeting—there is little work done on national message. The party has to be much more. It has to connect in a real way with rank-and-file members and be their voice.

Progressives have been on defense for so long that the building blocks aren’t ready to move, the strategic initiatives aren’t ready to go. Bush, who certainly isn’t a great leader, can, for example, pick up a strategic effort on Social Security right after the election and it’s all ready to roll…their infrastructure is always working and always ready to move on to the next thing without pause.

Hazen: What about the Internet? Didn’t the DNC and Kerry use it effectively?

Boyd: The Democratic Party had no idea how to use the Internet. They treated it like free money and then kept on doing all the rest of the things they normally do—working to raise money from the same big contributors. They don’t understand or want to use the Internet as the two-way communication system it is.

Hazen: MoveOn created some controversy with this statement shortly after the election: “In the last year, grassroots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC and proved that the party doesn’t need corporate cash to be competitive. Now it’s our party: we bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.” What were you saying? What did you mean?

Boyd: Well sure, it should read “We the people…” It’s not meant to read “We, MoveOn….” But the ability for the party to gain most of its support from small contributors is nothing less than revolutionary. The Democratic rank and file can own the party because there is a way [for them] to fund-raise and support the party. This changes everything. It especially means that Democrats can stop mumbling when they speak about important issues that involve the interests of big contributors.

The Democratic Party can be the populist party not just in name and reputation but in reality. But Internet engagement of a base of support does more than bring financial support. It gives leaders another channel for engaging with real people and to understand their issues and concerns.

Hazen: What about the wing of the Democratic Party that wants it to move rightward, or to the middle, as they say? 

Boyd: It’s silly to try to move to the center. There is no center. There is no single dimension in politics. People are far too complex to classify this way. You never will see the right move to some theoretical center, because they understand that their power stems from projecting a coherent story about the problems we face and where we need to go. They are wrong, but they’re coherent. They don’t mumble.

We’re engaged with millions of people and we can testify: there is no gravitational pull from the masses to some center. We don’t avoid moving to the center because of ideology. We simply are not hearing that from America.

This reminds me of the argument about whether we should focus on the “base” or on the “average American.” This is simplistic, too. There is no average American. It’s a false choice. The base is the group of people who are ready to work and support leadership. To fail to engage the base is to fail to be politically effective. The base is the key to progressives engaging America more broadly. But you have to do both.

Hazen: You have taken some heat from the blogs for MoveOn being too “top down.” How do you respond?

Boyd: We have a very quick and accurate feedback mechanism with our membership. We try to model a style of leadership where deep listening and reflection of the concerns of the membership are the source of our collective power and effectiveness. We see ourselves as offering a service, not telling people what to do. If people appreciate the service, we’ll do well and have an impact together.

Hazen: Beltway conservatives calling for a “new liberalism” on military steroids have recently placed MoveOn in their sights. New Republic editor Peter Beinart called MoveOn “soft,” claiming that its efforts are doomed because it does not put “the struggle against America’s new totalitarian foe at the center of its hopes for a better world.” What is your response?

Boyd: The idea that we should identify an entire culture as a totalitarian movement for Democrats to oppose—I think that’s wrong and I think it’s dangerous. We and MoveOn are keenly aware of the need for vigilance against terrorism. We do not minimize the threats we face, nor are we hostile to US power or its use to counter real dangers. Security must be a guiding principle for Democrats and all Americans. We, like most Americans, want our children safe, our homes and offices secure, and terrorism defeated.

However, one of the problems is in the dynamic of opposition and the media. It’s simple—we’ve been in the opposition and on defense for a long time. So when the president says that the way to fight terrorism is to fight a war in Iraq, we say, “Wait a second, are you insane?” That’s perceived as not caring about terrorism.

We know that people here, the staff and the members, care deeply about security but are looking for leaders who are ready to address the real challenges of security in the post-9/11 world. We believe in the wisdom of crowds, and we believe that the policy elites in Washington, DC, get it wrong pretty damn consistently. In the end, the future of liberalism/progressivism depends not on identifying and vilifying an enemy and manipulating the American public but on espousing a positive vision for the future around which a movement, a party, and an American consensus can be built.

Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet. This is excerpted from Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics, edited by Hazen and Lakshmi Chaudhry.

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