On September 12, 2001, Eli Pariser sent an e-mail to thirty friends asking them to contact their senators and representatives with a message that revenge and more violence weren’t the answer to the terrorist attacks. He provided the recipients with an online form letter that enabled them to act quickly. He was twenty, a recent college graduate living in an apartment in Boston. It felt like something he could do.
The e-mail set off a chain of events that would lead Pariser to devote himself to a new kind of political organizing, one that reaches people through their e-mail in-boxes. Through its antiwar efforts, MoveOn.org, the group for which Pariser now works, has grown to 1.6 million members in the United States.
I signed on to MoveOn.org last winter after hearing about it at an antiwar rally in Eugene, Oregon. Like a lot of people I know, I wanted to do more to voice my opposition to the impending war and to the Bush administration, but I was frustrated. What could we really do?
Then Pariser’s e-mails began showing up in my in-box. He gave me petitions to sign and asked me to call my Congressional representatives (and provided their phone numbers in case I didn’t have those handy). His e-mails made me feel connected to something larger than any single anti-war protest.
Pariser began his activist career at age five, when he picketed in his driveway in rural Maine with a sign that said, “Nature’s great. Don’t take it away.” He learned about activism from his parents, who had protested the Vietnam War and cofounded an alternative high school in Camden. (They divorced when Pariser was seven.) As a teen, Pariser attended Simon’s Rock College of Bard in western Massachusetts, where he and some other students convinced the school to compost its kitchen waste, and Pariser became involved in the anti-globalization movement.
After college, Pariser and ten of his friends decided to create a Web documentary called The American Story Project. Their plan was to take a three-month road trip to interview Americans about the way they perceive politics. They spoke with 150 people in fifteen cities, from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Oakland, California. Pariser still has the audiotapes in his apartment and hopes to get them online at some point. Since September 12, 2001, however, he hasn’t had much free time.
Within a few days, the e-mail he’d sent to friends had been forwarded to hundreds of people. Pariser created a website called 911-peace.org, which he later merged with an online petition calling for “moderation and restraint.” (The site is no longer active, but several sites with similar names exist.) By October, when Pariser sent the petition to George W. Bush and other world leaders, it had been signed by half a million people all over the world.
The petition caught the attention of MoveOn.org, an activist website established during the Clinton-impeachment hearings to urge Congress to censure Clinton and “move on.” MoveOn’s executive director, Peter Schurman, called Pariser to ask for his help with MoveOn’s “Justice, Not Terror” petition, then ended up hiring him to be the organization’s international campaigns director.
MoveOn seemed to be in the air during those spring months before the war with Iraq. Its membership tripled. Today the staff of five continue to get the organization’s members fired up about political issues through e-mail alerts and campaigns. Pariser spends ten-hour days corresponding with members, attending phone conferences with other activists, and setting up such events as MoveOn-sponsored speeches by Al Gore. A couple of times a week, he sends out an e-mail message to MoveOn’s 1.6 million U.S. members.
Like his e-mails, Pariser himself is direct and optimistic. He’s humble about being twenty-two and having such an important job. “It really is the best job I could possibly have,” he says. He’s a fast learner, but he admits that this doesn’t make up for lack of experience. “I sometimes compare it to walking a tightrope without any training,” he says. “But I have good support from my co-workers, especially Wes Boyd,” one of MoveOn’s founders.
Pariser and I talked by phone several times in August and September 2003. He answered my questions easily, and I quickly forgot I was talking to someone in his early twenties. He describes himself as an “idealistic pragmatist.” Sometimes his words carried the power of a passionate, sincere stump speech, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Though he’s focused on MoveOn for now, Pariser says he could imagine running for office in the future. He’s still got a couple of years to go before he’s old enough to run for a House seat.
Passaro: The other day, in downtown Eugene, I saw the words “Stop Bush” and “MoveOn.org” chalked on a sidewalk.
Pariser: Chalking the streets is not anything we ask people to do, but MoveOn does encourage people to take initiative. With a staff of five, it’s not possible for us to organize everything ourselves. But we believe that if you point people in the right direction, they will take appropriate action and be successful.
For example, we said, “It would be great if people organized candlelight vigils. Can you help?” Four days later, we had 6,700 candlelight vigils happening all over the world. Some vigils had hundreds of participants. They sent a very powerful message about global opposition to the Iraq war.
People drew the conclusion from the dot-com failure that there wasn’t much you could do with the Internet. It turns out that there are lots of things you can do with the Internet; it’s just not that easy to make a profit.
Passaro: What is it about e-mail that engages people?
Pariser: E-mail’s an interesting medium because, on the one hand, it allows the five of us in MoveOn to reach out — virtually for free — to an enormous number of people at once. Though it’s essentially a broadcast medium, it’s also a personal one, because people get e-mail mostly from friends and acquaintances. The relationship we have with our members is significantly different from the relationship fostered by direct mail. People say to me, “I feel like I know you.” It’s partly a function of the direct and honest tone we use. We don’t treat people as consumers or a target market.
E-mail also allows us to coordinate and organize with unprecedented speed. The 6,700 vigils are a perfect example. Another advantage is being able to speak to our members in the present emotional moment. When something big happens, we’re able to react in hours as opposed to days or weeks. Just when people are thinking, I need to do something, our e-mail appears and says, “Here’s something you can do.”
And there’s the ease of use. E-mail allows people to sign a petition or e-mail their congressperson with the click of a button. Once people take that first step toward getting involved, it’s much easier for them to take the next, bigger step.
The way MoveOn grows is that members pass e-mails on to their friends. Every new member comes to us through the endorsement of a friend or colleague. It’s a different experience to receive an e-mail from someone you know than to get an impersonal invitation to participate in a rally or join an organization.
The kind of stature that MoveOn has attained over the last few months is surprising to us. We hadn’t expected to draw a large-enough constituency to be taken seriously by presidential candidates. Politicians are shocked to find out just how large our organization is. That makes sense, because this is about the political leadership being out of touch with what the people want.
Passaro: MoveOn continues to gain momentum where other activist groups have self-destructed over disagreements. How do you account for its success?
Pariser: Part of it is that we listen to our members. In the advocacy world people can easily become too concerned with “inside baseball” and stop listening to the grass roots.
At the same time, we try to lead. Many movements attempt to have direct democracy, with everyone doing the decision making. I think most people who participate don’t want to make decisions. They’d just as soon trust us to figure out the strategy and let them know what to do. That’s the key service MoveOn provides: to tell people, “This is a time when it’s important to take action.”
All of our actions are essentially ad hoc. It’s rare for us to have any standing volunteers. We don’t want to be another chapter-based organization. We like the idea of offering every-one an opportunity to get involved, even if they don’t have the time to do it on a regular basis.
It’s taken a while, but we’re beginning to realize just what the capacity of the Internet is. It’s ironic that MoveOn is booming two or three years after the dot-coms went bust. People drew the conclusion from the dot-com failure that there wasn’t much you could do with the Internet. It turns out that there are lots of things you can do with the Internet; it’s just not that easy to make a profit.
Passaro: A part of me questions anything that contributes to people spending more time alone at their computers rather than talking to their families and friends and neighbors. Does cyberactivism contribute to isolation and complacency — the idea that I can sign this petition and then go back to watching TV?
Pariser: MoveOn does just the opposite. It connects people rather than isolates them. Sure, you might spend five minutes at your computer finding out where there’s a vigil in your area, but then you’re off to meet new people. Cyberactivism can bring people with common interests together in a way that’s not governed by social restrictions, but is fundamentally democratic. It’s open rather than closed.
Your comment about complacency implies that people are choosing between taking a direct action and just signing an e-mail. The truth is that the majority of people who sign e-mail petitions are not the ones who lie down in the street. For many people, the choice is not sign the petition or do something; it’s sign the petition or do nothing. Once they sign the petition, they’re in the loop, and they might develop an interest in doing more.
Passaro: Two years ago today, on September 12, 2001, you sent an e-mail to thirty friends asking them to contact their representatives in Congress with the message that war wasn’t the answer. What were you thinking about when you sent that e-mail?
Pariser: It was a difficult time, because many people felt they had to stand behind the president no matter what, and here I was, asking them to tell him what to do. It was encouraging for me to discover that hundreds of thousands of people agreed we were heading down the wrong path. People still come up to me and say how important it was to have their feelings affirmed.
Passaro: At a peace rally in New York City last February, you said, “For each person who’s here, there are a hundred who weren’t able to make it. I know: I get e-mail from them. They’re ordinary, patriotic, mainstream Americans.”
Pariser: The media keep wanting to portray the opposition as radical activists, when in fact MoveOn is mostly made up of people who are part of the political mainstream. Some of them don’t even consider themselves left-wing. These are people who think we’re a country that does good, that we jump in and save the day. In this case, though, we were attacking a country that posed no threat to us and that we could easily have defeated through other means. It just didn’t fit with their vision of America.
Passaro: Do you believe the U.S. has been “a country that does good”?
Pariser: I think we do both good and harm, like most countries. It’s just that, with the power we have, the harm and the good are much greater.
Passaro: Do you think MoveOn’s antiwar campaign was effective?
Pariser: It depends on how you define effective. We didn’t stop the war. But it’s the public’s job to voice its opinion, and it’s the president’s job to listen. Our actions gave the president and the nation’s leaders the opportunity to show what kind of listeners they are. They decided to ignore the call for peace.
It was a defining moment for the Bush presidency. Though hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were speaking out, the leadership paid them no mind. That gave people a clear sense of why George W. Bush is a fundamentally poor leader for our country: He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t care about representing the populace.
Marching in the streets certainly has an effect, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of making a heartfelt case to someone in power. . . . It’s hard to ignore real people telling you that you’re doing something wrong.
Passaro: Some people would say that he was listening to the majority who ended up being in favor of the war.
Pariser: But that was after it had begun. Initially, people were against it. The only way Bush got a majority to grudgingly support the war was by feeding them what we now know was an endless stream of misinformation.
Passaro: But Bush’s popularity polls remain high.
Pariser: I think people like him as a person. He appears to be an earthy, compassionate guy. But if you were to present the president’s policies to the public, minus his rhetoric, people wouldn’t like them. The president has mastered the art of saying one thing and doing something else.
The true test of a president is, when he asks the American people to do something difficult, do they do it? This president hasn’t asked us to do anything. Even in his tax policy, he’s putting the real burden on future generations.
Passaro: In 1976 Howard Zinn wrote that the United States will “go from spectator democracy to real democracy when we understand that the future . . . doesn’t depend, mainly, on who is our next president. It depends on whether the American citizen, fed up with high taxes, high prices, unemployment, waste, war, and corruption, will organize.”
Pariser: Marching in the streets certainly has an effect, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of making a heartfelt case to someone in power. Even when politicians get calls that are obviously part of a grass-roots campaign, even when they know rationally that these calls are not a representative sample, the calls still have a psychological impact, because it’s hard to ignore real people telling you that you’re doing something wrong.
Of course, no action is effective in a vacuum. Whether you’re calling or e-mailing or writing letters, it has to be connected to a larger campaign. If you contact a member of Congress now about the $87 billion bill for rebuilding Iraq, it has weight and context. If you contact them about aid to the Sudan, your message is much less likely to be noticed.
Passaro: In college, you had a change of heart about using in-your-face tactics to get your message across. What happened?
Pariser: I was at the April 2000 rally against the World Trade Organization in Washington, DC, and we were trying to block some of the attendees from getting into the meeting. I began talking to some policemen, and I realized that they were just people trying to do their jobs, rather than anonymous agents of the state. Suddenly, pitting people against police officers didn’t seem the most effective use of everyone’s time and energy.
That’s not always the case, and an argument could be made that civil disobedience was necessary to get press coverage. I just felt uncomfortable with a knee-jerk protest as opposed to finding other ways of approaching the problem.
Ultimately it’s just people over there on the other side, people who are not necessarily any better or worse than you or I, people who are susceptible to appeals to honesty and compassion and truth. If you come at it from the position that it’s not good versus evil, you can step away from combative tactics.
My parents protested the Vietnam War, and they encouraged me to have a humanistic view of activism. I remember my mom telling me about having thrown a rock at a policeman who was beating some of her fellow protesters. She said it was wrong to do regardless of the circumstance: the ends don’t justify the means.
Passaro: I recently heard a sixties activist say that people today believe that the world is frozen in place and politics are hopelessly corrupt.
Pariser: I think that’s beginning to change. As people see groups like MoveOn having an effect, they realize that such attitudes are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, it’s possible that you’ll put in a lot of energy and lose. But if you don’t put in the energy, you’ll definitely lose. The cynicism in this country may be widespread, but it’s not very deep. If you show people that something’s possible, they quickly become excited.
Passaro: MoveOn seems very concerned with beating Bush in the next election. How can one person make a difference?
Pariser: Besides volunteering for a campaign or raising money, you can talk to friends and family about what the president is doing. People make their decisions largely based on information they receive from people they know. It seems like a small thing, but when you’re dealing with a country of 290 million people, you can’t know what will create a ripple effect. In such a complex system, a conversation you have may turn out to be just as important as a million-dollar advertising campaign.
Passaro: I love the sound of that, but many of us aren’t comfortable having political conversations with our co-workers or friends.
Pariser: It’s hard. It’s much more taboo than talking about money or sex — which is strange, because politics affects us all so much.
There’s a definite trend among Republicans to brand dissent as unpatriotic, which leads people to feel uncomfortable talking about important issues. You worry that your next-door neighbor is a terrorist or an informant. The president’s trying very hard to foster a nation of worriers. We have to break out of that. It infuriates me that they’re willing to quell the debate for political ends. In the long term it’s not going to be a good strategy for the Republican Right. While this rhetoric scares people, it doesn’t convince them. People believe America is about freedom of speech.
Passaro: Does MoveOn have members from across the political spectrum?
Pariser: It does. I’ve run into MoveOn Republicans and Libertarians. I think that as the current administration gets more extreme in its actions (and I say “actions” because I think it will stay moderate in its language), we’ll see principled people of all ideologies coming together to oppose the abuse of power. There used to be a rallying cry in the Republican Party: “Government out of my pocketbook and out of my bedroom.” That second part — “out of my bedroom” — is no longer part of the Republican Party platform. I think people will see that this isn’t about ideology. It’s about integrity.
Passaro: Yet MoveOn has a progressive agenda. How do you reach out to people on the Right?
Pariser: We try not to spin. We take a reasonable, common-sense approach to the issues and let the facts speak for themselves. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my time here. You can write an alert that’s heavy on rhetoric, but it’s much more powerful to say, “Here’s the situation. The president said this on January 28, and now he’s saying this. And if you think those statements are irreconcilable, ask Congress to investigate.”
Passaro: What do you think the future is for e-mail activism?
Pariser: We’re already seeing it being adopted by the labor movement and the women’s movement and Planned Parenthood. Presidential candidate Howard Dean has used it for his campaign. I think it will expand as more groups use it — and not just for organizing. E-mail could create richer and deeper connections between constituents and their representatives. Right now, members of Congress tend to see e-mail as a nuisance. Once they realize the degree to which it can connect them with voters, they’re going to start using it as well.
The cynicism in this country may be widespread, but it’s not very deep. If you show people that something’s possible, they quickly become excited.
Passaro: It seems that the Democrats and the Left have made better use of the Internet as a fundraising and organizing tool. Why do you think this is?
Pariser: I think it’s partly because many Republicans aren’t interested in listening to the grass-roots base. The idea that regular people have positions that are worth considering doesn’t work for a party that’s mostly concerned with placating corporate donors and the wealthy. I think this kind of organizing is just alien to the Right in general, although they certainly can understand its merits and are working toward putting it to use.
Passaro: How do you stay so upbeat?
Pariser: Part of it’s just constitutional. I’ve always been an optimist. But you’d have to try very hard not to feel optimistic with the thousands and thousands of e-mails we get. I just sent a message today asking if we could get 250,000 signatures by the end of the week on a petition to ask Congress to make President Bush face the facts on Iraq. We already have 190,000 signatures, and it looks like we’ll have the rest in the next couple of hours.
One of the things I love about this job is that I know I’m not fooling myself that it’s working, because 250,000 people have to respond in order for me to reach my goal. A lot of activists have a sense of speaking into a void. At MoveOn, the void talks back.
Passaro: In a recent Mother Jones article, you say, “I don’t want to be part of the Great Left Martyrdom Story. . . . I don’t want to be on the losing side.” Do you think activists on the Left set themselves up to lose?
Pariser: I think a lot of activists don’t sincerely believe we can win, and a number of others just don’t pay much attention to winning. But I think we can win. I think we’re right. The polls show it. My everyday experience shows it. Americans are generous, compassionate people. They care about community. They care about trust and respect. Those are the values of the Left. The radical Right has been able to gain control of the country by saying it holds those values, but then doing something very different. Our mission is to explain to people that they’re being deceived. It’s as simple as that, and yet it’s an extremely difficult task.
Passaro: How do you deal with losing when it happens?
Pariser: Wes often makes the point that even when you lose, you win if you organize in the right way. Because the war in Iraq took place, you could make a case that our campaign lost, but our organization tripled in size, and now we have clout that we would never have had without it.
There are people who don’t pay enough attention to winning, and then there are people who think winning is everything. The real answer is somewhere in between. You’ve got to focus on winning the big fight. On the little skirmishes, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
Passaro: What is the big fight for you?
Pariser: The big fight is about answering the basic question: Is this a country that’s concerned with community and compassion, or is it a country of individuals scrambling for power with no safety net and a lot of people getting left behind? That’s the big fight.