Is it time for MoveOn to move on?

MoveOn helped shape the course of political discussions online, but its influence appears to have waned in recent years. 


Curt Hopkins


Published Dec 7, 2012   Updated Jun 2, 2021, 5:59 am CDT

Since its beginning, has been viewed as, depending on your viewpoint, either the gold standard for online political organizing or the 800-pound gorilla on the ‘net. Either way, it needs to be addressed by anyone creating an adjunct or alternative political community on the Web.

However, in recent years, the organization has grown senescent, which prompts the question: Is it time for MoveOn to move on?

MoveOn is a liberal, progressive community, founded as an email list in September 1998 by two software engineers from the Silicon Valley, husband-and-wife Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, cofounders of Berkeley Systems. In the midst of a storm of obsession with then-president Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Blades and Boyd sent around a petition urging politicians to “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.” It wound up getting half a million signatures, though it did not achieve its aims.

A month after founding, Blades and Boyd registered their organization as a political action committee. Calling itself a “family” of organizations, currently consists of two arms, the PAC, MoveOn Political Action; and the education and advocacy arm, MoveOn Civic Action, a 501(c)(4) U.S. tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation, started in 2001.

Currently, the online properties contain featured stories from other media, videos, audio and other content. It also offers the ActionForum, an online discussion forum with reader-rating features that push discussions up and down. It is on this board that a lot of “grassroots organizing” gets done, though it currently appears to be down. (A comment on the forum states: “As we did in 2004, we’ve suspended ActionForum for the final push to the election to conserve technology bandwidth. ActionForum will be back after the election.”)

MoveOn has launched, a petitioning platform. The top petitions at the time of writing were NYC Fast Food Workers Strike, Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in California, and Texas Legislators: Support “We, the People” of Texas by Passing SCR 2.

The various arms of the organization also use more traditional means to prosecute its campaigns, including bus signs, lobbying, phone banks, and donations to candidates.

MoveOn is widely acknowledged as a pathfinder in terms of online political communities. Jeff Scully, activist relations coordinator for the conservative FreedomWorks and its Tea Party-affiliated FreedomConnector social network, told the Daily Dot that MoveOn set the standard for such groups, regardless of their political affiliation. Any new group has to take the choices MoveOn has made into account.

Criticisms and achievements

Although it’s a progressive organization, it has not been particularly shy in the past about accepting money from millionaires. Contributions have included $1.46 million from George Soros to the Voter Fund; Peter B. Lewis, CEO of Progressive, who gave $500,000; and Linda Pritzker of Hyatt hotel fame, who gave $4 million to the joint fundraising committee. The latter was in response to the McCain-Feingold election financing bill, which forced a lower donation ceiling on so-called soft money. MoveOn created a 527 group to skirt the letter of the law, a group it put an end to in 2008.

This year’s page for MoveOn on the Center for Responsive Politics’ lists the group as having received over $750,000 in donations for the 2012 cycle and spending almost $1.2 million. Its PAC arm, on the other hand, spent over $17 million.

In 2004, a crowdsourced ad appeared on MoveOn, which compared then-President George W. Bush with Hitler. Although it was a member-made ad and not specifically commissioned by the organization, the fact it was hosted on its website was condemned by the ADL and others. In 2008, the group successfully convinced Democratic candidates for president not to take part in a Fox News network-sponsored debate.

In 2007, the group bought an ad in the New York Times (“General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”) questioning General David Petraeus’s integrity. (The ad had nothing to do with his eventually revealed affair with his biographer.) It was considered by many to be an exercise in contempt to insult the leader of American forces in Iraq in time of war.

An ad in 2008, featuring a woman telling Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain that she wouldn’t let him use her son (a baby in the ad) as a soldier in Iraq. In addition to short-circuiting the common-sense switches in many viewers, the ad prompted The Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart to congratulate the group on “10 years of making even people who agree with you cringe.”

For the last presidential election, the group debuted an anti-Romney commercial, “A Message from the Greatest Generation,” directed by Michael Moore in which old people use profanities and threaten the Republican candidate with violence.

Among its greatest successes, MoveOn lists its role in getting Facebook to reverse its Beacon program, which posted people’s purchases online on their Friends’ timelines. The program eventually resulted in a $9.5 million settlement.

Others achievements the organization lists, none terribly recent, include helping to fight for Medicare reform, advocating against nutrition cuts to the 2007 budget, and agitating to block the nomination of John Bolton as America’s United Nations ambassador.

Recently, MoveOn seems to have hitched its wagon to a certain degree to the Occupy movement, the decentralized protest movement that grew up in a series of Wall Street protests, which was itself inspired in part by the Arab Spring.

Just as FreedomWorks was criticized for co-opting the Tea Party, MoveOn has been criticized for doing the same thing to Occupy with its “99% Spring” nonviolent protest training sessions earlier this year. In Counterpunch, one Occupy member wrote, “‘The 99 Spring’ is yet another calculated and carefully planned front group” and that MoveOn itself is, in turn, just a front for the Democratic Party.

“Some Occupy types,” wrote Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones, “have criticized the effort as a scheme by Democratic operatives to co-opt their movement. But the reality is probably the opposite: It seems that America’s best-known progressive fundraising organization is now taking its cues from Occupy Wall Street.”

The voice of maturity

Much of MoveOn’s groundbreaking activities appear to be in the past. With the election and reelection of a Democratic president (none of MoveOn’s donations went to a Republican candidate), they appear to have entered a period of quiescence.

MoveOn’s greatest achievement might in the long run be the establishment of a certain type of left-leaning voice in public discussions of policy and the extension of that voice onto multiple platforms. The wake of that move has brought every other group, regardless of political geography—demolishing the distinction in politics between cyberspace and real-life discussions.

Although at one time MoveOn was a kick-out-the-jams type of organization, times have changed and the organization has matured. It is not true that MoveOn should in fact move on. Instead, it is a matter of a young punk getting married and having a family. Whereas before, he was found at the bar and then at the protest and then at the bar again, now he’s got Thursday night dinner with the donors.

Seeing MoveOn at an Occupy event is like seeing your parents at a Mumford & Sons show: The border between cool and sad is terribly thin sometimes. The groundbreaking action now seems to be in the hands of groups like Occupy and Anonymous. But once you break ground, as MoveOn certainly has, it is arguable that one must turn to the cultivation of that ground, lest it be reclaimed by the weeds. Maybe to some degree MoveOn has won its battle and now needs to get on with the unsexy, but absolutely necessary, work of middle-age.

In other words, MoveOn has grown, if not old, at least up. After all, there’s even a book out on Oxford University Press about the group, The MoveOn Effect.

MoveOn has become not so much a challenge to the political establishment, but a part of it. For all the anxiety of aging it is clearly going through, perhaps it’s time for the group to yield to the need for a good pair of dress shoes and a minivan.

Photo by mpeake/Flickr

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*First Published: Dec 7, 2012, 10:00 am CST