The news cycle had downshifted for the holidays. To Wes Boyd, founder of the suddenly celebrated political group MoveOn.org, the season seemed too quiet. He had a vague feeling that trouble was lurking.
Certainly things had been going well. Once regarded as an over-optimistic Internet experiment, by late last year MoveOn had matured into a potent, well-financed force of dissent. MoveOn provided the forum for former Vice President Al Gore to deliver high-profile speeches that took President Bush to task. Billionaire George Soros and his wealthy friend Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, pledged $5 million to subsidize MoveOn’s TV ad campaign assailing the Bush administration’s policies. The media figured out that Howard Dean owed a debt of gratitude to MoveOn for mobilizing the antiwar movement--the parade that Dean jumped in front of. MoveOn was even flattered with criticism from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. A Time magazine headline in November lauded “MoveOn’s Big Moment.”
Boyd’s Happy New Year came to a halt on Sunday, Jan. 4, when Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie accused MoveOn of “the worst and most vile form of hate speech” for hosting Web ads that likened President Bush to Adolf Hitler, including one that morphed the president’s visage into Der Fuhrer’s. Gillespie’s accusation was a cheap, malicious smear, Boyd says, and he was tempted to fight back with the facts.
What happened was this: MoveOn’s Voter Fund had invited the public to submit entries for an advertising contest called “Bush in 30 Seconds.” Website visitors would rank their favorites, and a celebrity panel would choose the best to air on TV the week of the president’s State of the Union address. Submissions were screened not for taste but for arcane legal reasons. (Campaign finance laws allow issue-oriented groups to inform and educate the public, but not to overtly urge the defeat or election of candidates.) Yes, a couple of Hitler ads were submitted, but they were quickly voted down. Neither created nor endorsed by MoveOn, they were on the site for a couple of weeks, buried deep in an automated system that highlighted the more popular ads.
Boyd was in a defiant mood. Who was Gillespie to talk? In 2002, Republicans had aired a television ad featuring images of Osama bin Laden and attacking Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple-amputee Vietnam war hero. That cheap shot had been in voters’ living rooms, not tucked away in cyberspace.
But then came condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups. The more he considered the sensitivities of the offended parties, Boyd says, the more he figured MoveOn should make amends.
Boyd spent a few hours making phone calls. He also posted a statement on MoveOn’s website, explaining the facts and expressing contrition. MoveOn then quickly went back on the offensive.
The episode illustrates MoveOn’s unique position in the 2004 presidential battle. The group’s stated mission is to encourage greater participation in the democratic process and thus make government more representative. But MoveOn’s fiery brand of online populism, fueled by outrage against the Bush administration, is a bete noire for Republicans. The donation from Soros and Lewis has raised accusations that MoveOn is hypocritically skirting “soft money” campaign finance reforms that it once supported. And although MoveOn is a valuable ally to Democrats, some party insiders worry that it might be a loose cannon whose tactics could backfire, alienating swing voters.
Boyd and MoveOn’s small but tenacious staff dismiss such complaints. They’re hoping that Time magazine jumped the gun--that MoveOn’s big moment might not come until November.
At first blush, Wes Boyd might seem like an unlikely candidate to lead a movement that claims more than 2 million members. Casual and calm, Boyd, 43, comes across not as a charismatic firebrand but as a bright, well-informed, considerate and unassuming dad-next-door. Unlike most dads, however, Boyd earned a tidy fortune as a software entrepreneur. He has transformed himself from a mild-mannered computer engineer into a thoroughly modern militant, the champion of Americans who are frustrated by the state of the nation’s democracy. Online, Wes Boyd has charisma to spare.
On a chilly gray day in Berkeley, Boyd tells the Hitler story from Carrie Olson’s living room. Olson is MoveOn’s chief operating officer and a friend and colleague of Boyd and his wife, Joan Blades, since the early days of Berkeley Systems, the software firm that Boyd built from scratch in the early 1990s. The company became famous for its popular flying toasters screen saver, but it also had a serious side. Boyd’s first product, his own creation, was a program called Enlarge that magnified text on a computer screen to aid people with impaired vision. Later he created Outspoken, which transforms text into sound.
When Boyd sold Berkeley Systems in 1997, he and his wife say they had no particular interest in entering the political arena. Then one night in September 1998, during dinner with friends, the conversation turned to their mutual disgust over Washington’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky affair. What Congress should do, they agreed, was get it over with--just censure President Clinton and proceed to genuine priorities. Soon Boyd and Blades created a petition called “Censure and Move On,” which they e-mailed to family and friends, who passed it on to others, and so on. They ended up with 400,000 signatures. In Silicon Valley, this is called viral marketing.
Boyd and Blades, astounded by the petition’s success, say they felt obliged to their online allies. Using their huge mailing list, the couple created MoveOn.org with an eye toward the 2000 election and the chance to punish lawmakers who were dragging out the scandal. MoveOn formed its own political action committee, which raised more than $2 million in donations--averaging less than $50--and helped bring down several impeachment hawks.
Today MoveOn has grown into an online community where registration is free and open to anyone. The organization is stunningly efficient--the paid staff numbers only 10, including six positions added since November. (Boyd and Blades take no salary.) The prevailing philosophy is liberal-to-centrist, with a strong dose of antiwar sentiment and antipathy toward the Bush administration. When MoveOn staged its own Internet “primary” last June, 44% of the vote went to Howard Dean, 24% to Dennis Kucinich and 16% to John Kerry. Most members, however, did not participate, leading Olson to suggest they were still undecided.
The Web has its conservative websites as well, but none are nearly as successful as MoveOn’s. This shouldn’t be surprising because the Internet has proven useful to insurgents. Jesse Ventura exploited the Internet in his stunning election as Minnesota’s governor in 1998, and Sen. John McCain quickly raised millions on the Web in his upstart 2000 bid to derail George W. Bush.
The Internet is a natural place for dissent to take root--"sort of an underground medium for underdogs,” says Claremont McKenna College professor John Pitney, author of “The Art of Political Warfare.” Much of MoveOn’s constituency comprises Democrats who are not only frustrated with the Bush administration, but also with their own party’s leadership and mainstream media that they believe serve corporate interests. Pitney, a former acting research director for the Republican National Committee, says MoveOn members “almost see themselves as prisoners tapping on the pipes to each other.”
For MoveOn, the medium is at least part of the message. broadcast pundits can reach millions of people, but the Internet has its advantages too. “The biggest difference is that broadcast is one-to-many, and the Internet is many-to-many,” says MoveOn.org executive director Peter Schurman. And while TV and radio are passive, the Internet is active and more intimate.
If Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads” take their cues from him, the idea behind MoveOn is for members to take their cues from each other. Unlike much online political advocacy and commentary, MoveOn is short on ego and long on issues and agenda, always trying new ways to engage its audience. Recently, for example, it encouraged MoveOn members to meet each other at private gatherings and watch a documentary critical of the Bush administration’s march to war.
One way MoveOn’s staff keeps a pulse on members’ interests is through its automated Web tools. Visitors to its website will find ActionForum, which invites members to interact by identifying and ranking vital issues. In another effort to understand its constituency, MoveOn last summer arranged for 20,000 members to interview each other about their interests and values, and it hired a consulting firm to analyze the reams of data and divine the broad consensus.
Given its geographic roots, MoveOn often contends with the label of being “Berkeley-based.” That’s something of a misnomer; MoveOn’s staff members work out of their homes--in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and New York City. But in another sense, there is no separating MoveOn from Berkeley, hometown of the group’s founders.
Whatever labels may be applied--liberal, pinko, wacko--Berkeley can’t be called apathetic. MoveOn is imbued with Berkeleyan sensibilities--skepticism toward authority and an idealistic sense of possibility. Above all, there is a faith that individuals working collectively can change the course of history.
Like Boyd and Blades, Carrie Olson is a Berkeley native. She accompanied her parents to her first antiwar protest at age 12. “When you grow up here, you see that you can have a voice in matters,” Olson says. “And it will be heard.”
MoveOn is the Berkeley ethos filtered through Silicon Valley’s pragmatic technological know-how. Olson sees strong parallels between the daily functions of MoveOn and Berkeley Systems.
Indeed, MoveOn is run like a small business that thinks big. Boyd is, in a sense, a serial entrepreneur whose second big venture happens to be in the marketplace of ideas.
But early on, observers wondered if MoveOn should be taken seriously. Blades, who often represents MoveOn publicly, tells of one Harvard University panel discussion where her rhapsodic description of how the Internet could make the world a better place was interrupted by a conservative panelist. “Kumbaya.com,” he cracked, bringing laughter from the audience.
The chortling has ended, in part because MoveOn reflects another Berkeley trait--anger over perceived injustice. One of his greatest regrets, Boyd says, is that MoveOn steered clear of the 2000 presidential race. If the U.S. Supreme Court had not halted the Florida recount, Boyd says MoveOn might well have disbanded. Instead, Boyd and Blades decided the institution of democracy still needed their help. That’s when the mom-and-pop political shop decided to take on a professional, permanent structure.
The ad hoc cause had become a crusade. Boyd started building software tools to add muscle to the website, and he began searching for the right partners to launch a new political machine.
In the giddy days of San Francisco’s dot-com era, a serious young man with an MBA from the Yale School of Management came to town with an idea for a dot-org to save the world. Peter Schurman called his start-up Generation Net, which aimed to engage young adults and teenagers the same way that MoveOn engaged its members. When his effort stalled, Schurman accepted Boyd’s proposal that the nonprofits merge.
Steeped in grass-roots values, Schurman now finds himself explaining MoveOn’s acceptance of $5 million from Soros and Lewis. While Republicans have accused MoveOn of circumventing campaign finance laws, some liberals worry about the purity of an organization that previously had relied on raising money in modest increments from a wide circle of supporters. Schurman is quick to point out that Soros and Lewis made a 50% matching gift, meaning they will contribute $1 for every $2 that MoveOn raises. Boyd says that approach should keep the process healthy.
After Soros pledged money to the liberal organization America Coming Together, a Republican-led group called Americans for a Better Country asked the Federal Election Commission to clarify the rules governing such politically oriented groups. This month the FEC issued a nonbinding draft advisory opinion stating, in part, that such groups could not spend money to promote or oppose a federal candidate. More than 300 groups protested, including MoveOn, arguing that the opinion was so broadly written it would inhibit free speech. However the FEC rules (likely this summer), the decision is sure to be contested, says Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way.
Whatever happens, MoveOn has proven adept at getting its message out. When CBS refused to air the winner of the anti-Bush ad campaign during the Super Bowl, saying it would not broadcast advocacy ads, MoveOn’s protest became a story in its own right and the spot received wide exposure on newscasts and online.
The ad, titled “Child’s Pay,” featured a moody montage of children working at mind-numbing jobs, followed by the question: “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1-trillion deficit?” The ad’s message, Boyd points out, is thoroughly centrist.
When terrorists struck on U.S. soil, Eli Pariser was a 20-year-old college graduate working for a nonprofit that advised philanthropists. The son of 1960s antiwar protesters, Pariser soon launched an online petition that was the modern equivalent of a daffodil stuck in gun barrels. His website urged a “restrained” response to terrorism. Soon he had more than 100,000 signatures in the U.S. and nearly a half million worldwide. Wes Boyd was impressed; MoveOn members also were wary of military response. In early 2002, Boyd hired Pariser as campaigns director.
After Congress authorized the use of military force in Iraq, and while United Nations inspectors searched Iraq for banned weapons, MoveOn met with a coalition of 20 organizations alarmed by the notion of a preemptive strike, including the NAACP and the Sierra Club. They adopted the banner “Win Without War.” While the media looked for signs of protest on college campuses and saw little, traffic soared at antiwar websites, and MoveOn’s registration topped 1 million. Gathering strength on the Web, the antiwar movement had a “stealthy” quality, Pariser says, before protesters hit the streets.
In December 2002, MoveOn told members it wanted to raise $40,000 to buy a page in the New York Times with a carefully calibrated message: “Let the Inspections Work.” Members sent in 10 times that amount. MoveOn used some of the extra money for its first TV ad--a bold re-creation of the famous “Daisy” ad from the 1964 presidential campaign, which juxtaposed images of a little girl plucking flower petals with a nuclear blast.
MoveOn had become antiwar central. It organized a “virtual march” on Washington--a deluge of e-mail, phone calls and faxes. It organized members to contact 400 members of Congress. When it encouraged candlelight vigils, the effect was worldwide.
As war drums sounded in late 2002, Boyd continued to look for talent. Over the years he had received e-mails from Zack Exley, a Boston Web activist best known for a satirical site called GWBush.com. Exley, a former union organizer and software developer, claimed the domain name in 2000 when he noticed that the Bush camp had failed to register it. And before the election, Exley had presciently created Countercoup.org, which recommended protests if Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College.
A few months after Boyd hired Exley early in 2003, MoveOn offered its expertise regarding online organizing to every declared Democratic presidential candidate, regardless of their stand on the war. Only Howard Dean accepted. Last summer, Exley took a two-week leave from MoveOn to consult with the Dean campaign. “They were already on the right track,” Exley says. “Maybe we helped them in getting tangible results in fundraising"--a hugely successful effort that boosted Dean’s early front-runner status.
Many within the Democratic Party see MoveOn’s influence as a double-edged sword. Simon Rosenberg, executive director of New Democrat Network, a centrist political action committee, says he admires MoveOn for energizing his party, but likens the organization to a muscular adolescent. “I hope their politics mature,” Rosenberg says.
Dan Schnur, who was communications director for Sen. McCain’s campaign, says he also is impressed with MoveOn--and somewhat grateful. “It’s ironic,” Schnur says, that a group founded to stop Bill Clinton’s impeachment is now trying to move the Democrats away from Clinton’s centrist stance. Schnur approves: The more that MoveOn can push the Democrat nominees to the left, the better it is for the GOP. Dean’s fade and John Kerry’s rise, however, is generally thought to be less comforting to Republicans and more appealing to centrist Democrats.
Fundamentally, organizers point out, MoveOn is less interested in the candidates than the issues. It’s just that MoveOn disagrees with President Bush on just about every matter of importance. MoveOn’s organizers say it’s important for the Democrats to energize the party’s grass-roots base in the battle for swing voters. No matter what label fits best, they say their constituency is hardly on the leftist fringe but well within the broad mainstream--and more centrist than the Bush administration.
“There’s been this effort to paint us as far left, and I think that’s simply untrue,” Blades says. “Our messages cause our list to grow because they resonate with such a broad group of people. We have a very liberal membership, but also a very centrist membership--and it’s not all Democrats.”
The shots from the right are a sign that MoveOn is having an impact. Once a curiosity, MoveOn is now regarded as a threat. Boyd figures the Hitler broadside is an example of opposition research. The news cycle for that story came and went, largely within “the right-wing echo chamber,” Carrie Olson says. It helped generate news coverage of the contest and drove the curious to the website. She believes the criticism backfired.
The day the controversy broke, MoveOn received an e-mail from one Steven Thiltgen. He described himself as “a lifelong Republican” who had recently decided “to stop my linear, closed-minded thinking.
“I explored your website as a direct result of all the hullabaloo on FoxNews regarding your Bushin30seconds stuff. I have spent the past hour viewing and reviewing the ads. I am speechless. Could I have been wrong all these years? I am starting to think so. . . .
“I’m not gonna jump off the deep end and abandon everything ‘right’ just yet but I just want y’all to know that I have found tremendous value in your website. . . . I, an arch-conservative . . . might even go to the ‘contribute’ page!”
Thiltgen is a 35-year-old Atlanta resident who works in software. Reached for this article, he confirmed that he indeed had visited the “contribute” page.
“I sent them 50 bucks,” he says. “And I sent links to 10 or 11 friends.”
Whether that’s viral marketing, or the sound of prisoners tapping on pipes, it’s clear that word is getting around.