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MoveOn’s Decline

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Kristin Rawls has an interesting piece at Global Comment on participating in MoveOn.org actions and the lack of vision from that organization. In part:

On their own, they’re not terribly complicated, but even our highly educated group, which included university professors and others with advanced degrees, found it hard to parse all 40 of our choices and decide upon priorities within the allotted two hours. After the meeting, Moveon.org promised to tally the national votes to determine the issues that we found most galvanizing—this way, they would determine the focus of the movement just in time for a nation-wide protest scheduled for August 10. Organizer Myra Schwartz of North Carolina says, “I do agree that [message-creation is] a challenge, since we do not have our own news network or deep pockets of corporate sponsorship… One challenge will be to present a unified message…because simple is often better, and yet we know as progressives that real concerns are hard to pin down to a bumper sticker.”

But the debt ceiling agreement angered liberals and progressives throughout the country and ultimately put an end to this nonsense. Progressive Americans went reeling in response to this legislation, which includes massive spending cuts but no catalyst for new job creation. “Jobs not cuts” provided a straightforward, understandable rallying cry, and we were all spared the burden of creating slogans based on things like imposing slight taxes on Wall Street trades or taxing hedge fund managers.

So, Moveon.org dodged the message problem, but judging from news reports, it still failed to present a unified, nation-wide cause to the media. Reports of modest local rallies abound, but they mostly fail to communicate that these local gatherings were part of a nation-wide day of protest.

These news reporters are certainly guilty of simplistic, under-researched reporting, but Moveon.org surely shares some of the blame. Better attention to press release distribution and a better-publicized call for nation-wide action would have gone a long way to fix this problem. Instead, small protests are framed by the media as local gatherings that are operating on their own—and completely outside of any kind of national campaign. Yes, Moveon.org is said to be involved, but these are just local affiliates doing local actions. This was careless and negligent planning. Progressives should have learned this from the Tea Party—that is, while various actions happen in local contexts, movements gain political influence by casting themselves as a unified, nation-wide political force.

While most of us probably still receive MoveOn e-mails, it hasn’t seemed very relevant since not long after the Dean campaign. One would like to think they developed a potentially workable model, with a decentralized structure around local groups and then a central organization coordinating the whole thing. But that sort of thing is also awfully hard to get right and Rawls’ experiences are about what I would expect–centralized or decentralized in all the wrong places.

Her ultimate point is whether MoveOn has the potential to become a left-leaning Tea Party, but that’s not going to happen. And I’m not sure any progressive movement has that potential outside of a fighting mad and aggressively activist labor movement. Liberals don’t act like conservatives and while we might certainly engage in our share of group-think, the standards of evidence are much higher on our side.

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