EchoDitto Blog

Movement-Building and Email-Sending: a conversation about the MoveOn Effect

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Dave Karpf, author of The MoveOn Effect. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at FireDogLake.com.

My first job out of college in the late 1990s was as the “webmaster” and online organizer for Common Cause. At the time, Common Cause was one of the largest grassroots advocacy groups in Washington, DC and had offices in almost every state capital. It was probably at the height of its power and financial resources and just about every single dollar of its sizable budget was raised via direct mail. My job, as a young nerd, was to build an online advocacy capability that would augment the power of the “armchair activist” Common Cause could tap through phone banking and direct mail. Little did I know at the time that the internet would provide a massive disruption to both the fundraising model and the advocacy model that built Common Cause.

Dave Karpf’s exceptional book, The MoveOn Effect, examines and explains the rise of the Netroots, putting organizations like MoveOn.org , the PCCC, DailyKos, and FireDogLake in historical and academic context. There is a rich study of political institutions and organizations that Karpf is able to tap into to better plumb the depths of what we have now, how it is different from what came before, and where we might be heading. Dave not only brings an academic and historical point of view, but he brings an activist point of view. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Sierra Club, serving on their National Board of Directors from 2004 to 2010.

The book is essentially divided into four parts: first, an examination of MoveOn.org and more broadly MoveOn’s model and its impact on political advocacy, organizing, and fundraising. He examines MoveOn.org in the context of an earlier generation of advocacy organizations, like the Common Cause I experienced just out of college, and the Sierra Club that Karpf was active in as a college student. How did advocacy and political activism work before MoveOn.org? How did MoveOn.org change things?

But MoveOn.org and the giant email list is just one part of the Netroots landscape, so Karpf next deftly moves on to look at the role of blogs – and more specifically community blogs – as a new form of political association, one that shares characteristics with the old institutional Democratic Party infrastructure. Along the way, Dave invented something called the Blogosphere Authority Index, an academically rigorous and structurally coherent way of measuring the true community strength of blogs – not just their traffic, but the activity of a blog’s readers, comments, and contributors.

The third major examination of the book is a look at the relationship between online and offline, taking a deep dive into the Meetups of the Howard Dean presidential primary campaign of 2004, and the political meetings that continue to persist long after the campaign ended.

Finally, Dave takes a deep breath and plows into an interesting and compelling argument about why the Republicans don’t have a MoveOn.org or an ActBlue.com, and why their blog communities don’t carry the same impact of weight as the blog communities of the Left. He argues that the weakness of the Republican Netroots boils down to the fact that they were in charge in the 2000s, holding the White House and (for the most part) one side of the Capital. As the political establishment, they didn’t need technology for leverage and political power – so they didn’t develop it.

I have done his arguments a disservice in trying to quickly sketch them out so as to encourage some discussion; you should buy the book and read it to drink deeply from his compelling arguments, interesting observations, and provocative questions. I have a heavily marked up paper copy (I know, so old school! But the old habits of blue bic pen notes in the margin die hard; see Billy Collins’ poem Marginalia for a chuckle) that I keep returning to, keeping notes with the ambition of sending Dr. Karpf a detailed missive peppering him with questions, observations, and the occasional complaint.

But coming out of reading his book, I have three main questions, all of which I raised in our online chat and which Dave addressed.

One of my concerns about the MoveOn Effect is the extent to which online activism is tethered to what Dave calls “issue salience”. A less charitable characterization of “issue salience” might be “issue opportunism”. MoveOn is able to be nimble, and quick, because it doesn’t have a core issue or group of issues to which it must remain faithful. It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to anticipate the issue topic of the next MoveOn.org email. I wonder what the implications for issue salience might be for advocacy and potential ideological drift, as well as issue selection. Dave has aptly explained why traditional political organizations are “unlikely to [have] a smooth transition” to Netroots style activism. What gets lost in this transition from the old organizations to the “postbureaucratic” generation of political organizations?

Dave’s response:

I see good news and bad news here.

The good news is that most of the leading netroots organizations have taken proactive steps to make sure they don’t spend all their time “headline chasing.” FDL is a good example: in the past 24 hours, FDL has run stories on the aurora shooting and on Mitt Romney’s Bain problems. But it has also run a couple pieces on WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning. That’s because FDL has made a proactive commitment to working on the Bradley Manning issue. I’ve seen similar commitments from PCCC (campaign finance reform) and MoveOn (other 98%). So it isn’t all-headline-chasing, all-the-time.

That said, I share your concerns about what gets lost in the disruptive transition from old advocacy groups to new ones. In particular, I think a lot of large-scale, long-term social movement efforts require an investment in infrastructure – trainings programs, field organizers, etc. The direct mail fundraising associated with armchair activism was really good for that kind of infrastructure. It was a reliable base of unrestricted funding that organizations could apply wherever it was needed most. The targeted online fundraising that MoveOn pioneered is better suited for other things. It’s great for raising a bunch of cash quickly to put a commercial on the air. But money raised for a tv commercial is restricted to the purpose of airing the commercial. You can’t simply divert it to field staffers.

That’s what I call the loss of a “beneficial inefficiency.” Direct mail was an inefficient tool. Email is more efficient. But the inefficiency supported a public good, and now we don’t know we’re going to support that public good in the future.

Micah White, editor of Adbusters magazine, is one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He wrote a compelling “Total Critique of Clicktvisim” where he decries the A/B testing, performance-oriented culture of activism that is part of the MoveOn Effect: “The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.” In a sense, White seems to be critiquing the creativity and “soul” of performance-driven professionalized digital activism. While I don’t believe that it is necessarily an either/or question, I do think that successful activism/movement-building has powerful stories and core values that drive participation and ultimately drive change. There is a role for leadership in the digital, distributed age – drive and direction matter. Take 2008 – the Obama presidential campaign sent emails about the state of the country, about real issues like race relations, and about the tactical moves required to defeat McCain. This cycle, in the midst of endorsing gay marriage and changing immigration laws, the campaign is sending emails encouraging people to donate $5 to win dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker and related celebrities. Which is more powerful? I’m going to guess that the “win dinner with someone famous” performed much better in A/B tests, but is that really the kind of presidential politics we want?

I’m glad you mentioned Micah White’s “clicktivism” critique, Nicco. I’ve written a couple of blog posts directly replying to him.

I honestly don’t think very highly of his criticism. A/B testing provides a form of passive democratic feedback to netroots organizations. MoveOn can hear the will of their membership far more effectively than, say, the Sierra Club can. That’s an unqualified positive development. I would rather have advocacy groups that can hear from their supporters than ones who basically can’t.

Political organizing is equal parts art and science. I do agree that we need to avoid putting too much faith in the metrics. There are plenty of questions that simply aren’t testable, and we don’t want organizers to shy away from the untestable-but-important. That said, this has always been the case. All the critiques of clicktivism apply just as well to the previous era of armchair activism. This is an ontological distinction within the activism world — a difference between activism-as-political-art vs activism-as-political-process. The culture jammers at Adbusters have always been critical of the political-process activists. And I’ve always been a political-process activist. But in that sense, I really don’t see Micah White effectively addressing “clicktivism.” He’s mostly providing the latest version of a very old argument within activist circles, and doing so in a style meant to piss off the maximum number of people!

I loved Dave’s examination and description of the MoveOn Effect. I think he has done an excellent job of clearly articulating a major change in our politics. I’m also on board with his Blogging Authority Index and characterization of community blogs as political associations – more excellent work. The final chunk of his argument is the rise of off-line/on-line hybrid activism, which he describes as “neo-federated” organization building. Our ability to translate online activism to offline people power does not have the power and force that I would expect, or that the country needs – as evidenced by the Tea Party. Right now, there are more than 700 active Tea Party Meetups, with each Meetup leader paying $12 a month out of pocket – in most cases paying that monthly fee for over a year, and in many cases for over two years. (The Tea Party’s use of Meetup definitely reinforces Dave’s argument of outparty incentives for tactical innovation.) I would argue that we need to compare apples to apples (or at least apples to oranges, instead of apples to lug nuts): the point of comparison for the neo-federated model should be the local Democratic Party meetings of old, the patronage-heavy party – and we’re simply nowhere near that kind of power. In the MoveOn Effect, Karpf makes a powerful comparison of MoveOn.org to the earlier generation of organizations like Common Cause and the Sierra Club. In Political Blogs as Political Associations, he makes an equally powerful comparison of community blogs like DailyKos and FireDogLake to the earlier generation of legacy organizations. But I’m just not sold on the comparison in the neo-federated model. His lead example is compelling – Philly for Change carries more power than the local chapter of the Sierra Club – but I suspect there are many, many more local chapters of the Sierra Club than Democracy for America.

You’re right about this. It’s the reason why I spend part of that chapter discussing the Drudge Report and proto-blogs. I think Democracy for America is a proto-example of what a neo-federated org could look like, just as the Drudge Report was a proto-example of what blogs later looked like.

The missing ingredient, I think, is the mobile web. That really didn’t exist in 2004. It is now reaching a point in the its diffusion curve where we can see political and social applications. Tea Party groups (current outparty) have led the way. The mobile web blurs the distinction between online and offline experiences. You no longer have to be tethered to a laptop to be online. I honestly think we’ve only scratched the surface of how civic organizations can use mobile tech to enhance community engagement.

I think there’s real promise and real power in neo-federated organizing. And I think it’s still on the horizon. But you’re right, the current examples of the model are really pretty limited.