Democracy in Action

As campaigns director for MoveOn, Eli Pariser oversees a million-plus address email list comprising progressive activists. Zack Exley serves as MoveOn’s organizing director, a position that allows him to combine his background in grassroots organizing with a long-time hobby and occasional career in technology.

As campaigns director for MoveOn, Eli Pariser oversees a million-plus address email list comprising progressive activists. Zack Exley serves as MoveOn’s organizing director, a position that allows him to combine his background in grassroots organizing with a long-time hobby and occasional career in technology.


Founded in 1998 as a response to the founders’ growing anger with the President Clinton impeachment proceedings, MoveOn has grown into a far-reaching political machine capable of mobilizing thousands of volunteers and raising millions of dollars, in effect resurrecting grassroots politics. In their SXSW Interactive keynote, which included a good-humored but totally serious introduction by Molly Ivins, Pariser and Exley addressed how MoveOn got started, how members mobilize, and what people can do to help reclaim politics. What follows is a partial transcript of their session.

Zack Exley: MoveOn didn’t bring people back to politics single handedly. So many groups have done such good work. Even the DNC has done a good job. The ACLU uses their list very well. It’s not us who did it, it’s MoveOn members. And that’s good it’s not us because Eli has some news for us.

Eli Pariser: Last night around 12:30, my phone rang, and it was a Washington exchange. I heard a voice on the phone, it was a voice I recognized, and it was Karl Rove. We spent a long time talking, and I’m going to actually endorse the Bush campaign and get out of politics.

Exley: I’m going to give the rest of the talk.

Pariser: That actually wouldn’t matter. It doesnt have to be us. There are all these nodes that are developing. There’s a wave of concern about the direction George Bush is taking this country.

Exley: The Dean campaign is an example of that. The Internet is a new structure, a new technology. It allows connections between leaders and people effortlessly. The Dean campaign is an example. Joe Trippi is in the audience, and he’s the man who made it happen. Dean had like two seconds on TV after the last election. He said, “I think we lost because we’re acting like Republicans.” People took to the Web to find Dean, and he was there, on the Web, in blogs.

Pariser: The whole point is that this not about us, it’s about you.

Exley: We sent out an email to see who’d be here. Here’s who you are. You’re 40% Democrat, 40% business people, 40% MoveOn members, 34% lefties, 34% consultants, 14% annoying lefties. You own up to it! 10% green party. 9% libertarians. And 7% don’t care, 5% didn’t know who the hell we were, and 2% were whacko libertarians.

Pariser: 0% were Republicans.

Exley: That looks bad, but I Just forgot to put Republicans on there.

Pariser: I thought we’d talk a little bit about how we got here. I’m 23, just a few years out of college, and my head is spinning. It was almost a total accident that I got involved in this. Sept. 11, 2001, I was working for a little nonprofit in Boston. I was just struck by the horror of that day, as well as the consequences. What do I do? They had enough blood in the local blood bank, I did my shopping, came home, and just felt a little empty inside. That is not the message. I started this little Web site, and it said some basic things. When we go after the terrorists, we shouldn’t use weapons of mass destruction. We should work with our allies. A friend sent me a petition. I put that up and sent it to a lot of friends. I thought that was it, that I was done.

The next Monday I checked my email, and there were 3,000 messages in my in box. I got a call from the guy who’d agreed to host the Web site for free. He said, Eli, what’s going on! Where are these people coming from? They’re crashing the server. The petition had attracted 40,000 people. Then the BBC called. They said we’ve been hearing a lot about this. Who are you? I’m 20 years old, I don’t know who I am! People had signed the petition, forwarded it on, forwarded it on, and forwarded it on. Over the next two weeks, over half a million people from 192 countries got involved.

What was scary was when people started emailing me and saying OK, what’s next? What’s the next action? Let’s get back to MoveOn. It was founded by 1998. They worked on the impeachment, and then they wanted to continue. We connected those people.

Exley: Imagine that happening before the Internet. Imagine 911 happening in 1989 or something, and Eli having the same reaction, sitting down on his desk, writing a letter to his friends, taking a whole day to write all these letters, licking a whole bunch of envelopes, and asking his friends to do the same thing Obviously that wouldnt work, not because they didnt have the same mindset, that they didn’t care. It’s just a technical thing. Now it’s just so damn simple.

Pariser: Simple and fast. That letter would have reached my friends a week later. Their letters would arrive two weeks later.

Exley: It’s interesting to step back and think about what’s actually happening. There’s a change happening to the physical structure of what we call the people, as in we, the people. The petitions aren’t what’s interesting, but what we can use the petitions to make happen. There are 2.1 million people on the MoveOn list. They care about these issues and want to take their country back.

I got into this in an accidental way myself. I used to be a union organizer, working with low-wage workers in nursery homes, poultry factories, and little auto sweatshops. Our goal in getting a union campaign going was to get all of the leaders together in a room to make a collective decision. To get them into that room together, we had to go knock on all these doors. That was tremendously time consuming.

Before the war, we had the idea of staging a candlelight vigil. We set up a site where people could type in their ZIP code and select a location saying where a vigil would be. Then we sent out a mailing to people encouraging them to go find where the vigils were. We had maybe 500,000 people show up to the vigils.

Pariser: The vigils literally came together in five days. These were big vigils with hundreds of people. In New York, there were vigils almost every 20 blocks along the island. It was a very emotional moment. There are ways to do this that are also very political. One way we did this was with the movie Uncovered. We asked people to hold house parties and show the movie. People would open up their homes to absolutely anybody who went to the Web site. One person in a small town thought that they were the only people in their area who felt the way they did. There were 20 people, 30 people.

A lot of MoveOn members are totally new to politics. They’re not activists, a lot of them. But in this current moment, they find that it’s important to speak out. MoveOn is a way to take a baby step to being active. Politics has been destructive over the last few years because it’s very fractured. People say one thing to women, another thing to black men. You make these assumptions that turn out not being true. We try to not know too much about who’s in our membership so we can just talk to people as people, intelligent people.

Exley: This kind of thing is sort of new. Lots of communities and interest groups still exist. But people gathering together for politics? Local and national? That’s almost been completely squashed out with what it used to be. We’re just rebuilding something that used to exist. Scott Heiferman of Meetup talks about this all the time. There used to be political social clubs that criss crossed the country. The vestiges of this still exist in the Elks Club and the VFW, but even those barely exist. This used to be incredibly important. This used to drive politics. The Democratic party and Republican party used to have local chapters. This isn’t an Internet thing. But this new technology is counteracting whatever forces went on. People really want this.

Pariser: There is also a kind of aversion going on. It manifested itself during the Dean campaign. The structure of politics over time tends to decline into an inside culture and an outside culture. As this organizing technology allows people to get involved, you have this inside-out phenomenon with candidates like Dean, the governor of the small state of Vermont, propelled into the center of Washington. There’s a possibility to stop dividing things up that way. The insider culture will evaporate as people in Washington remember that in the end they’re responsible to us. Constant interaction will help revive democracy.

Another part of our experience is that we’re accidentally here. We could not have been. Zack and I have done lots of projects that didn’t take off. We all have stories about setting up Web sites and nobody came.

Exley: We’ve stressed this accidental aspect because people are going to be held up as geniuses. That happens in every institution. If there’s some way for us to avoid that, that’d be great.

Molly ivins: I promise to never call you a genius.

Pariser: We wanted to close on something that will also work for the 0% Republicans. You’ve just got to go out there and do it. The potential of this medium is huge, and I hope that out of this thing comes a million things we can’t imagine.