Chris Hayes on MoveOn

Chris Hayes has written the definitive profile of MoveOn on its tenth anniversary, drawing, in classic Hayesian fashion, on grizzled left-wing organizers and tech guru Clay Shirky. Rather than read about the daily ebb and flow of the campaign, you’d be shrewd to spend some quality time with this article as it vividly describes the future of organizing.

In many ways MoveOn’s relationship to its members looks a lot like a business’s relationship to its customers. If a product isn’t selling, they take it off the shelves. For activists rooted in an earlier generation of social movements, which tended to prize long, disputatious meetings and the unwieldy process of forming bottom-up consensus, this approach is at best alien, at worst insidious. Customers, after all, aren’t part of the creation of the product: they’re not running the meetings where new packaging is designed; their input is limited to the final result and expressed through the transaction of purchase. And the role of customer imposes no obligations. You are free to buy or not buy, or in MoveOn’s case, sign the petition or not sign the petition. Oscar Wilde once complained that the trouble with socialism was that it took “too many evenings.” MoveOn holds out the promise of progressive change without the evenings.

I was most impressed by how MoveOn’s leadership is attuned to the overromanticization of deliberative democracy.

The organizing model that requires long meetings and vigorous debate can lead to organizations being driven by, in MoveOn spokeswoman Ilyse Hogue’s words, “the loudest person in the room,” something that cuts against MoveOn’s non-shouter ethos.

Having experienced this “democratic” dynamic firsthand, I really appreciate Hogue’s canny realism. But I do have some other points, which you’ll find below.

Chris is convinced that MoveOn represents today’s silent majority, or rather a slice of today’s silent majority. I was surprised that he didn’t reference Matt Bai characterization of MoveOn as built on the angry energy of besieged liberals surrounded by conservative suburbanites. I imagine this doesn’t tell the entire story, but it struck me as a plausible characterization of many MoveOn members, and I think it fits Chris’s MoveOn-as-Netflix framework.

I also think Bai’s mental model of MoveOn does a better job of explaining how the MoveOn left is not the rough equivalent of Nixon’s silent majority. As an example, Chris uses Sandy Tracy.

Take, for example, Sandy Tracy. For twenty-eight years Tracy taught high school in a small town seventy miles west of St. Paul. She always voted Democratic, but she was never particularly politically engaged. “I’m 60,” she says, “and during the Vietnam protests I was too afraid to participate in any of those kinds of activities.” But then came the Iraq War and Kerry’s defeat, and it began to feel like the country, even the world, was spinning out of control. “I was really, really, seriously upset about the results of the election of 2004 and the track that the war was going. That was part of why I retired when I did: I just couldn’t concentrate on my job.”

Let’s stop and consider that this is pretty unusual. To be sure, there were conservatives — Birchers, anti-tax radicals, early homeschoolers — who were similarly so exercised by the liberal Leviathan that they couldn’t concentrate on their jobs. But of course they weren’t representative. I’d submit that Tracy is a highly unusual figure. Many Americans are upset and disappointed by the failures of the Bush Administration. Most continue to work. When people become so consumed by politics, there is usually a reason that is independent of politics.

To give you an example from my life, I was briefly unemployed after my TNR internship. So I spent 2002-3 in New York, during which time I had a lot of ferocious arguments over Iraq with my mother. We were ostensibly arguing about just war, preventive warfare, political legitimacy, etc. We were in fact arguing over deference and what it meant to be a mature adult.

I’m reminded of the wonderful, challenging Mike White film Year of the Dog, in which one dog-lover’s grief over the death of her beloved pet that becomes so painful that she embraces a life as a full-time radical animal rights activist. As silly as this sounds, I’m convinced that Year of the Dog is the best — and most sympathetic — portrayal of political extremism I’ve ever seen.

Then there is Pariser, one of the most impressive political figures of our generation.

The day after 9/11, Pariser, then living in Boston, wanted to do something to help. When the local blood bank told him it was beyond capacity, he channeled his anguish and hope into an online petition he e-mailed to thirty friends. Earnest, plaintive and humane, it made the case for international leaders to use “moderation and restraint” in responding to the attacks, and called for employing “international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction.”

One reason Pariser is so impressive is that the tone of the movement he helped create has changed so dramatically since those early days — it has gone from moderation and restraint to winning without war, and now to shifting from one theater to another. To some extent, this is a product of genuine reflection: yes, perhaps we do need to occupy and pacify Afghanistan through overwhelming force. But to some extent this is a product of long engagement with partisan politics, reinforcing Chris’s broader point about the evolution of MoveOn.

A quick note about Chris’s comparison of MoveOn to the NRA:

Or consider this: to manage its lobbying efforts and programs for its more than 4 million members, the NRA has a staff exceeding 500 and a $15 million, 390,000-square-foot office building in Virginia. MoveOn has a staff of… twenty-three. And no headquarters. Twice a week, a dozen of MoveOn’s staffers call in from around the country for a strategy session. The organization is so committed to the ethos of the virtual office, it has an internal policy that even when staffers are living in the same city they’re prohibited from sharing office space.

But of course the NRA has discrete goals that go beyond partisan politics, and they’ve been very successful in achieving them. MoveOn’s mission was to end the escalation in Iraq and to bring the troops home. But the “escalation” might be the instruments that brings the troops home. MoveOn aims to elect progressive Democrats. The Democratic majority has swelled. The NRA aims to elect pro-gun members of Congress. Their numbers have also swelled, thanks in no small part to pro-gun Democrats. Also, the NRA has a service-oriented component that MoveOn doesn’t. My sense is that the NRA is a very different organization that leverages its staff very effectively. The comparison doesn’t really wash. That said, it is true that there is no broad-tent center-right organization that has achieved similar influence. Of course, it’s not clear that a MoveOn of the right would be a good thing if its mission was to enforce ideological orthodoxy. Chris’s core contention is that MoveOn is not left-wing, which is true. But it aims to minimize the cognitive burdens on its members, and to that end it is not terribly flexible about its core commitments. It is an utterly rational posture that will, of course, exact costs.

I imagine the MoveOn-as-Netflix model will eventually prove potent on the right, most likely in the form of single-issue pressure groups, include new-model taxpayer groups. I wonder who will step up to do the heavy lifting.