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Liberals Use the Internet to Move On Past the Clinton Impeachment

(This is excerpt No. 41 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.)

Bill and HillConservatives can learn an important lesson from liberals in how to turn a lemon (the Clinton impeachment) into lemonade (the MoveOn.org movement).  MoveOn became a major political force through its use of the Internet and Meetup.com, eclipsing conservative political efforts on the Internet as of 2004, when America’s Right Turn was published.  In this excerpt we look at some of the keys to MoveOn’s success, and in future excerpts we will look at the Howard Dean presidential campaign and conservative campaign stirrings on the Internet.

Using the Internet for Political Organizing

Ideological talk and news on the Internet is dominated by conservatives and libertarians, as we saw in the last excerpt.  When it comes to political organization on the Internet, however, liberals have been the trailblazers and have far outshone the Right.

Some conservative groups have stressed activism through the Internet from the beginning – Free Republic, for example.  Many other conservative groups have an online presence that supplements their base in direct mail activism, but none of these has the innovation or clout of MoveOn.org.

For conservative politicians, too, their Internet operations are merely a supplement to the real action taking place elsewhere.  Independent politicians – Jesse Ventura and John McCain, for example – do better on the Internet.  But again, none of them came close to the Internet revolution that was the Howard Dean campaign, although California conservatives scored a spectacular victory using the Internet and talk radio to recall their Democratic governor.

Internet politicos come from both the Left and the Right, and some express themselves as wordsmiths, others as online activists.  They all, however, are testimony to the Internet’s capacity for empowering the individual, or a small group of individuals.

Moving on Past the Impeachment

It was September 1998, and one word was in the air, over the airwaves, and on everybody’s minds in Washington: impeachment.  Republicans smelled blood; liberals smelled a plot to bring down their entire program because of a sex scandal.  After it became impossible to deny or defend President Clinton’s actions in regard to a certain intern, a common liberal line was to say: Okay, let’s censure him, but a sex scandal doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Out in Berkeley, California, Joan Blades and her husband Wes Boyd shared in the liberal pain.  Even though they had no experience in politics, they were tech-savvy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and they decided to do something about it.  They posted an online petition at www.moveon.org to “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation,” and issued a press release on September 22 with the headline “Disgusted citizens organize on the Internet …”  The press release advised: “The email campaign began at 9 am PST today, with the first dozen signatories each sending their email notices out to several dozen friends.”

Like Matt Drudge in his Hollywood apartment, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd could hardly have expected the deluge that followed.  Within days they had hundreds of thousands of signatures, and realized they must seize this opportunity to give these people more to do than just circulate the petition.  By June 1999 their petitioners had also generated 250,000 telephone calls and a million e-mails to Congress.

It was to no avail.  The Republican House impeached President Clinton for lying under oath in the Monica Lewinsky affair, giving MoveOn its next crusade: revenge at the polls against Republicans in swing districts who had voted for impeachment.  Rep. James Rogan (R-CA) was the only member of the impeachment team itself to go down to defeat, but MoveOn and its liberal allies had some successes elsewhere.   All told, MoveOn raised over $2 million to help elect four new senators and five new House members in 2000.

Since then, MoveOn has found other causes for mobilization, most notably opposition to the war in Iraq and support for the Howard Dean presidential campaign, and each time it comes out bigger and stronger.  Today it has over 2 million members (membership is free), who are involved in “electronic advocacy groups” based on topics such as campaign finance, environmental and energy issues, media consolidation, and the continuing Iraq war.  And MoveOn’s political action committee (PAC) contributed more than $3.5 million in the 2002 election.

In the current 2004 election cycle, MoveOn is the fourth largest “527” political organization (named for the section of the IRS code that applies to them) in the nation, with expenditures of more than $4.8 million as we go to press.  Most of that money is being spent on TV ads in 17 presidential battleground states urging defeat of President Bush.  Billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis have pledged to give $1 for every $2 given by members, up to a cap of $5 million.

What are some of the keys to MoveOn’s success?

  • * Hot issues, and a willingness to take an unequivocal stand on those issues.  The key to winning is, Boyd told a Take Back America conference, “lead, for God’s sake.”
  • * On a potential minefield of a topic like the Iraq war, MoveOn aligned itself with the mainstream Win Without War coalition, while not wasting energy picking fights with the crazier elements in the anti-war movement.  MoveOn’s Eli Pariser told Salon.com: “The message is a very mainstream one.  We’re patriotic folks concerned about our country’s security and concerned about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses, but we don’t think this rush to war is something that serves our country well or serves the world well.”
  • * No bureaucracy stifling creativity.  The whole show is run by just four people, with minimal support staff.  This is appreciated by members, too.  Bob Muehlencamp told AlterNet.org that people love the sense of “a direct line to god.  There is no big bureaucracy.  You make a contribution, you sign something, and you get immediate action.”
  • * An emphasis on grassroots support by tens of thousands of small contributors, rather than financial dependence that can also stifle creativity.  (It will be interesting to see whether the billionaire support gained in 2004 leads to any internal tensions.)
  • * An easy-to-navigate Web site that involves the visitor with a minimum of hassle.  Reading and signing a petition takes only a couple of minutes.  Mark Rovner, senior vice president at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company, says “MoveOn’s Web site is very accessible.  It has almost no graphics.  It’s all about the messages.  It’s a brilliantly low-tech use of high technology.”
  • * Involving the member.  Not only by signing petitions, giving money, and writing to Congress, but also in the big MoveOn decisions.  In June 2003 MoveOn held what was widely hailed as the first Internet presidential primary, where members decided who should get the group’s support.  (Dean came in first, but didn’t get the 50 percent support required for formal endorsement.  This also proved to be a brilliant way to coax the Democratic presidential campaigns to get their members to join MoveOn in an effort to influence the vote, and thus swell its membership rolls.)  Members were also invited to submit chapters for consideration in compiling the organization’s new book, MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country.

Put all this together and you get an Internet-based activist organization with more than 2 million members – which, as liberals love to point out, is more than the Christian Coalition had at its peak.

But How and Where are all these Liberal Activists Going to Meet?

Meetup.com calls itself “a free service that organizes local gatherings about anything, anywhere.”  As we went to press, the site said 1,146,000 people have already signed up for meetups about 4,190 topics.

Founded it 2002, Meetup.com gives you two approaches to its services for finding other people in your area who share your interests.  You can look through all the groups currently meeting in your area, and sign up for the next meeting.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can suggest the topic that interests you and then see if others in your area sign up.  You vote on where you want to meet, and take it from there.

If this sounds like an ideologically neutral design, that’s indeed the case.  But just as Newt Gingrich and his band of House conservatives were the first to realize that neutral C-SPAN gave them an opportunity to spread the conservative message, so were Howard Dean campaign operatives the first to realize that neutral Meetup.com could help them spread their candidate’s message.

Even today, only a third of Meetup’s gatherings are politically oriented, but the Dean campaign is what put the site on the map.  Even though Dean is no longer a candidate, he continues to have twice as many supporters signed up for meetings (now under the rubric of Democracy for America) as John Kerry does.

The top topics in politics and activism, as of the end of March 2004, were:

  1. Dean in 2004 (>164,100 members)
  2. Kerry in 2004 (>84,600)
  3. Wesley Clark (>62,500)
  4. Democratic Party (>44,200)
  5. Townhall (conservatives) (>23,200)
  6. Kucinich in 2004 (>21,900)
  7. John Edwards (>12,700)
  8. March for Women (>11,600)
  9. MTV and RTV (>7,900)
  10. Common Cause (>6,700)
  11. Republican Party (>6,200)
  12. Impeach Bush (>4,500)
  13. Environmental Defense (>4,400)
  14. Bush in 2004 (>3,800)
  15. Nader in 2004 (>2,800)

 

America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24. “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution”
  25. “Talk Radio Demolishes Hillarycare, and Provides a New Battleground for the Culture Wars”
  26. “Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio”
  27. “How the NRA Used Alternative Media to Save the Second Amendment”
  28. “C-SPAN Starts the Revolution Against TV’s Liberal Gatekeepers”
  29. “Fox Replaces CNN as King of Cable, Giving Conservatives a Voice on TV News”
  30. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  31. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  32. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  33. “Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory”
  34. “Cable TV—With Fox in the Lead—Becomes America’s Primary Source of Campaign News” 
  35. Political News and Impact: Newspapers Tumble—and Liberals Face Competition
  36. “Conservative Writers Get New Venues as Columnists and in Magazines”
  37. Conservative Authors Fire a New Weapon: Books with Ideas That Have Consequences
  38. “The World Turned Upside Down: How the Internet Empowers the Individual”
  39. Why Politicians Like Hillary Don’t Want You to Have the Choices Offered by the Internet
  40. “Conservatives and Libertarians Embrace the Internet”
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frustrating terminology, action, in-action

Please, please, define "organize", "organizer", "organized". Exactly what does an "organizer" do? Many people seem to think this is one of those "everybody knows" things with bags of accretion and implication which are a total mystery to some of us. I'm moderately organized: pens, pencils, erasers here, biochem & med books there, econ over there, history there, physics over there, computer programming books over here, calculator in reach there, index cards, thesaurus, dictionary, in-coming snail sorter up there...

I've observed some people, when they first run across others of like mind on an issue-cluster, say "We need to organize. Give me $5K (or whatever) and I will have the froms filed to create a 5999(z) by tomorrow afternoon". !?!? What's "organized" about that?!

What happened to "little platoons" of each person doing whatever they can toward a mutual aim or goal?

Part of what happened with the internet was balkanization, enabled by web browser-based discussions rather than the wide-open usenet news-groups (using client & server apps). Together with attempts to defend against malware & spam, and the rise of immoral Alphabet/Google/YouTube, FB, Twit, Yahoo, Oracle, Verizon..., the shift made it just as easy to block some political & moral & religious expression as spam.

Why have Republican pols & pundits repeatedly sunk their teeth into and worried at and worried at the most minor of the Clinton crime family (and other leftist) offenses, and let their most severe crimes go? Why do they follow the leftist script of the day & week (squirrel!) instead of focusing on our own priorities?

And what's with calling illiberal leftists "liberal", and classical liberals "conservative". Edmund Burke was conservative, the Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson was liberal, Mark Levin is liberal, Rush Limbaugh is liberal, Mrs. Schlafly was liberal, Saint-Simone was a leftist, Pelosi is an illiberal leftist. Alexander Hamilton was more difficult: sometimes a conservative, power-mad monarchist, monetary fraudster & extortionist/protection racketeer...other times at least somewhat liberal.

Here lately, I have been plagued by outfits asking me to sign up for their "news-letter"...whose content consists of "dire issue of the day! quick send your donation, so I can spend it on who knows what good or nefarious purpose", never "here's an issue, send e-mail to this pol or editor or bureaubum at this e-mail address, send snail to this address, if you can. Please, show up at this place and time tomorrow or next Sunday if you can."