If Barack Obama wins the presidency in November, the United States will officially enter a new political era. We'll finally have a president who, like most Americans, opposes the "dumb" decision to invade Iraq, unapologetically insists on universal health care, and calls global warming "one of the greatest moral challenges of our generation." The climate of fear will give way to hope and a real opportunity to move the country forward.
This transformation is what so many of us have been fighting for over the last 10 years of Gingrich-Bush-Rove-dominated politics. But, ironically, a brand-new context could pose an existential challenge for the independent grass-roots forces that helped to get us here. Groups like MoveOn.org that were born and bred in an era of opposition will have to act fast to avoid a weakening of outsider progressive pressure just when we need it the most.
Around that time, I met an unnervingly mild-mannered software entrepreneur named Wes Boyd. We served together on the board of my old elementary school, where his two children were current students. Wes was no political operative. In fact, serving on the Berkeley Montessori School Board of Trustees was the high point of his civic leadership to date, and it was such a big leap that he was nervous to speak at meetings.
It turned out that Wes and everyone he knew was also wondering what those guys in Washington were thinking--and why Democrats seemed to be taking it lying down. So, 10 years ago this month, Wes and his wife Joan Blades asked friends and family to sign a simple, nonpartisan petition asking Congress to censure President Clinton and "MoveOn" to the pressing business facing the country.
Within a few months, nearly half a million people from across all 50 states signed the petition. Wes and Joan never intended to start an organization. But once all these people came together, the calls to do so proved irresistible.
I joined the MoveOn team in 2003, first as co-founder of the student arm and then as advocacy director. After watching the Bush administration in action, like millions of others my questioning shifted from "what are they thinking?" to "what can I do to stop them?" I've come to think of these first 10 years of MoveOn as the "Oh No You Don't" era of progressive organizing. In this era, the headlines have been consistently filled with one outrage after another: deception about Iraq, the illegal spying program, extremist judicial nominees, Social Security privatization, saber rattling with Iran--the list is endless. "Oh No You Don't" organizing responds to this environment by using the Internet to transform the quick, high-energy consensus about what we're against into rapid, coordinated action.
Unlike traditional single-issue organizations, where members generally sign up as environmentalists or civil-liberties activists to support the good work of their chosen group, the MoveOn model is based on members taking direct action themselves on whatever issue is most pressing. The model fit the moment; almost 10 million people have taken at least one action (signed a petition, written a member of Congress, voted in an internal poll) through MoveOn--and more than 3.2 million people keep an active membership today. Millions of others have acted through similar groups that expanded on the new model in their own ways.
In just a few months time, the "Oh No You Don't" era may come to an end and with it, the endless supply of blood-boiling, quick-consensus headlines that have largely fueled our work so far. But the task of creating progressive change has only begun. So what comes next, and what organizing model will fit the new moment?
Of course, in the new era, "Oh No You Don't" organizing will still have a place. Right-wing and corporate forces will do everything they can to block our agenda on things like universal health care and climate change. That's when we'll need the outrage.
But when the overriding political insanity that MoveOn.org was built to remedy has finally passed, what will remain? Profoundly serious and urgent real-world problems: the tanking economy, climate change, Iraq, national security, and poverty, just for starters.
If blocking efforts to make things worse animated the last era, initiating efforts to make things better must animate the new era: "Oh No You Don't" becomes "Oh Yes We Do."
The question for MoveOn.org and our counterparts is whether we can help America find the political will for solutions as huge as the problems we face.
No president can generate that kind of will on his or her own. As outsiders, our job will be to put maximum pressure on President Obama and Congress to be bold, to give them maximum support when they are, to hold them accountable when they aren't, and to be smart enough to know the difference.
This mission requires a strong outsider force, but the new era poses challenges to our independence. For the first time in our short history, an activist progressive agenda will be put forward within the establishment. The temptation to come inside, to utilize our friends and allies who suddenly hold power in order to push from within, deferring to the agenda-setting power and bully pulpit of the new establishment, will be strong. Obama's credibility with grass-roots progressives will at least initially make any direct confrontation more difficult than challenging the previous administration. And Obama's own vast e-mail list will be attractive in itself--imagine those millions added on to MoveOn's base.
Part of what makes the MoveOn model so different from older, single-issue groups is that it is entirely member-driven--right down to the question of what issues we work on. The new temptation to work on the inside, bargaining with our friends and allies in the White House and Congress, is threatening not only to the outsider political strategy but to that crucial connection to the members. So how do we stay independent and energized in this new environment in order to push a friendly government to do more?
Fortunately, we're not the first country where progressives have gone from opposition to power in the Internet era.
For the last 11 years, Australians suffered under the Bush-like administration of Prime Minister John Howard. As in the U.S., a new generation of high-tech, action-based opposition emerged, including GetUp.org.au, which was based on the MoveOn model and now has even more members per capita.
In the 2007 election, GetUp members played a big role in toppling Howard and replacing him with the relatively progressive Kevin Rudd. Now our friends Down Under have had nine months to grapple with the challenge of pushing the popular new government to "go big."
After the election, GetUp members gathered in hundreds of local meetings to dream up their top priorities for a "People's Agenda," much of which found its way into the high-profile of several Parliament members' "maiden speeches." When GetUp hired an economist to cost out the major priorities, some of the findings were used in Rudd's first budget. It's a great example of how to form the harder, slower consensus about what we're for and of how to shape the agenda from the outside. The MoveOn "Positive Agenda" developed in 2006 sets a precedent for what can be done in the U.S. GetUp played an even more imaginative role in the campaign for reconciliation between white and indigenous Australians. Before the election, GetUp campaigned for the new Parliament to issue a long overdue apology to the members of the "stolen generation"--indigenous children taken by the Australian government as recently as 1971 to be raised in white society. And in February, that's exactly what happened. But after winning the capacity to do more, the group's members believed it was only the first step toward the greater reconciliation Australia needed. So GetUp members took the challenge into their own hands. First, they placed outside the Parliament building thousands of candles that spelled out: "Sorry: The first step."
GetUp members next helped fund travel to Canberra for stolen-generation victims who were too poor to make the trip on their own--contributing more for the effort than for any other fundraiser in GetUp's history. GetUp also produced a song drawing on clips from Rudd's address (similar to the will.i.am remix of Obama's "Yes we can" speech). The song debuted at No. 2 on the electronic-singles chart, second only to Madonna.
In April, GetUp members hosted a well-covered national round of "Reconciliation Get-Togethers," bringing white and indigenous Australians together in over 350 living rooms to begin weaving together the strained threads of Australian society.
Taken together, it was a brilliant piece of political jujitsu, an illustration of how independent progressives can take the momentum of a government position or initiative, pull on it, and use the participation of ordinary people to transform the moment into something much bigger. Done right, this can ensure the government's initial bid and establish the floor, not the ceiling, for progressive reform.
The best news from Australia is that by responding creatively to the challenges of the new era, GetUp's growth rate has increased since the election and the action rates have remained as high on average as during the height of the opposition. Only nine months after the election, the story is still unfolding, but the early signs offer lessons in independence and imagination that we should heed.
Of course, looking overseas is but one approach to addressing this challenge--just the start of a broader conversation that involves us all. Since MoveOn was founded in a humble living room far outside the Beltway, its course has been set by the members themselves. And so it must be; the choice of members to participate is the only real source of influence we've ever wielded.
Ultimately, this means the challenge of figuring out how to pull America forward in the new era does not belong to MoveOn or to another progressive group any more than it rests solely in the hands of Barack Obama. It belongs to all of us, and the movement we've built and the actions we take will rise or fall with the choices we make in the crucial months to come. As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty good reason to hope.