My wife and I hosted one of the over 1,600 house meetings held Sunday night to chart the future of MoveOn PAC. The tightly structured event asked participants to select their top issue and strategy for the next two to four years, but left no time for the larger questions about how people can get involved in grassroots activism in between elections or how the group should prioritize its funds.
Should MoveOn PAC return to primarily relating to its members as donors, or can the organization become a national network of grassroots groups for the college-educated middle class that comprise most of its membership?
Created as an Internet strategy to build opposition to President Clinton’s impeachment, MoveOn.org and its Political Action Committee have become two of the great political successes of the past decade. MoveOn enrolled tens of thousands in e-mail action campaigns, joined with the Howard Dean campaign in waging the first aggressive attacks against President Bush, and ran anti-war and economic issue ads that were consistently brilliant and strategic.
In 2004, MoveOn Pac transformed itself from a group that raised money for hard-hitting newspaper ads and television commercials to an entity that also funded political organizing. The MoveOn PAC harnessed its grassroots base for phoning and door-knocking in swing states, joining ACT and ACORN as the key 527 groups that galvanized record Democratic voter turnout.
After thousands of MoveOn members walked precincts and called voter lists, it became clear that the group’s potential went well beyond its fundraising prowess. In an era of declining secular civic engagement MoveOn touched a chord, as further evidenced by the thousands of participants in its Sunday night house meetings.
The question now is where the phenomenally successful group goes from here. The Sunday night events did not address this issue, focusing instead on external issues and strategies.
But if our house party was typical, MoveOn members were energized by their electoral activism. While temporarily deflated by Bush’s victory, most are ready to rumble.
This puts MoveOn’s leadership in the seemingly enviable position of having to figure out how to best harness the energies of tens of thousands of talented people. But the flip-side of this opportunity is that if the group delays too long in getting people re-involved it could lose them; this puts a premium on MoveOn’s quickly figuring out how to complete its transformation from an Internet and donor-driven group to a powerful vehicle for grassroots activism outside electoral campaigns.
MoveOn’s growth pains reflect its dramatic success—after the presidential campaign galvanized its membership, many MoveOn members will no longer be content to simply give money and vote for their favorite television or newspaper ads. But MoveOn’s organizational structure of a central staff communicating to members via the Internet would have to change to accommodate an ongoing grassroots activist component.
That’s why MoveOn should explore becoming a national network of grassroots groups along the lines of ACORN, the Associated Communities for Reform Now. ACORN has local chapters that work on local, state and national campaigns, but its demographic membership base-working-class families of color-differs greatly from the overwhelmingly white, college-educated and middle to upper middle class members of Move On.
I don’t sense much interest among MoveOn members for the group to focus on local issues, but organizing local chapters creates the sense of belonging and community that is the springboard for activism. It would also lessen the group’s dependence on the Internet, which for all the good it does for bolstering activism, is no substitute for in-person meetings and strategy discussions.
ACORN’s local chapters boost the group’s power at the state level, and MoveOn’s local chapters could dramatically impact politics in California and likely other states. Many of the domestic priorities of the Kerry campaign—such as expanded health insurance, an increased minimum wage, and increased education spending-can be meaningfully addressed through successful state-based campaigns.
MoveOn members are primarily focused on national politics, and local membership chapters would also be the best strategy for harnessing the group’s energy for national campaigns. Consider how local chapters of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) and Neighbor to Neighbor built a national progressive movement against US intervention in Central America—this organizational model brought thousands of new activists into national and international struggles in the 1980s and can be replicated today.
Creating a new organizational structure for MoveOn would take time and money, but the upside is tremendous. America needs an activist-oriented political organization for the progressive middle-class, and MoveOn already has the membership base to create a powerful national organization.
One of the tragedies of the Central American Peace Campaign is that its mass organizational vehicles for anti-war activism were not replaced with similar groups pushing other national campaigns. The recent Presidential campaign came closest to recapturing the energy and mass participation of the left’s last great political movement, and it would be a tragedy for progressives to again fail to sustain and build the activist organizations responsible for this success.
ACORN is already off and running to expand its membership in working-class communities of color. MoveOn should also seize upon its gains, and is perfectly positioned to attract tens of thousands of new activists as times get tougher in the months ahead.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook. He and his wife live in Berkeley and can be reached