Progressivism Comes of Age
MoveOn.org's Eli Pariser
In the youth-driven culture of the Internet, it's pretty pointless to describe someone as a "wunderkind." But what else do you call a person who, at a mere 23 years of age, is already a major player in one of the most successful progressive political movements ever definitely the greatest of the Internet age, rivaled only by Howard Dean's presidential campaign?
That's where Eli Pariser now sits. At an age when so many people are still trying to "find" themselves, Pariser has a pretty clear mission in life. At 20, he founded 9-11Peace.org, a Web-based peace campaign that pressed for a nonmilitary, multilateral solution to world terrorism after 9/11. "Suddenly I had an e-mailing list of over half a million people," he says. "I quickly realized that this wasn't something I could just do out of my house." Before that, he was Web and IT director for More Than Money, a nonprofit that helps wealthy people use their resources for the public good, and co-director of The American Story Project, an online documentary exploring the political beliefs of ordinary Americans.
After seeing the devastation that the Bush administration was wreaking upon our world and our democracy, the Maine native joined up with MoveOn.org, an organization originally founded by a pair of San Francisco tech entrepreneurs to counter the Republicans' insane push to impeach Clinton. Since then, the MoveOn.org site has morphed into a powerful tool for progressive politics: It has organized millions to sign petitions, contact their congressmen, raise millions of dollars to create anti-Bush television ads, and host a variety of political events. In short, it has become a vehicle to focus progressive rage into a laser of action, enough so that it has come under repeated (and slanderous) attacks by right-wing propagandists.
Pariser is now the campaigns director for MoveOn.org, making him a busy, busy man, zipping around the country and doing things like giving a keynote address at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival and Conference. After repeated phone messages were left for Pariser, he finally found time to talk to the Chronicle "but only for about 10 minutes."
Austin Chronicle: Why do you think your movement has been so successful in comparison to other attempts at progressive organizing? You're not even the first attempt at online organizing what have you done that's different?
Eli Pariser: I think it's because we have a combination of a real democratic process where we listen and consult with our members. It's a two-way communication. It's also because we have a real common-sense message that is mainstream in its tone and approach. And then we also have innovative stuff, like sponsoring house parties.
When we offer simple tools, people do amazing things with them. We organized house parties around the nation to watch the documentary Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. Over 500 people convened in a Kentucky movie theatre to watch it.
AC: You're finding out what it's like to be on the receiving end of hardball politics. One Texas conservative group tried to link you to the Communist Party USA, and the Republican Party itself wrongly accused you of comparing Bush to Hitler. Describe that experience for me. Is it daunting?
EP: No. What's interesting is how shrill the right is becoming as it gets more defensive. There are two things at work here: First, real people are beginning to realize that this administration is not on their side. And second, the people are seeing these right-wing activists who can only engage in name-calling.
AC: What does the failure of the Howard Dean campaign say about Internet-based movements?
EP: I think there are so many things upon which a presidential candidacy lives and dies. Although ultimately Dean won't win the Democratic nomination, what he set out to do was achieved. He totally achieved a new dynamic in political fundraising. The great majority of President Bush's campaign money comes from a few large donors. Dean, on the other hand, mostly relied on many people giving him small donations. That makes me hopeful for democracy.
AC: Do you think of yourselves as a Democrat organization?
EP: No, we're not affiliated with the Democratic Party, and I think a lot of credibility comes from that, because we are able to exert torque on the party from the outside. While many of our members agree with the party, we are in a position that we don't owe the Democrats anything.
AC: How do you foresee the Internet impacting political organizing in the future?
EP: I think it has vast implications. I hope it will mean that people can self-organize in meaningful ways, that it can bring them together. Using our Web site, people convened congressional meetings, groups of people found each other in over 400 locations, and met up with people they had never met before. You can quickly find people in a community that have the same beliefs as you.
AC: How does the Internet make that easier than more traditional means?
EP: We have what I call the "easy first-step phenomenon." When I send my friends an e-mail asking them to sign a petition, that takes about half a minute. And once they've agreed to get on board with us, they can very quickly contact 10 or 20 more people. It has a very quick impact. It's not like standing on a street corner trying to get people to listen to you.
Pariser and MoveOn.org's Zack Exley will give a co-keynote speech at the SXSW Interactive Conference on Sunday, March 14, at 2pm. See www.sxsw.com/interactive for more information.