Recently the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice asked me to write an article for them with my ideas of how grassroots activists could better use the internet for real change. As a member of the group, I was happy to tackle that assignment, and here are my thoughts.
Barack Obama owes his election in no small part to his brilliant use of social networking websites, email, cell phone texting and blogs, all utilized in unprecedented ways by his campaign staff to promote, organize and fund his unlikely victory. He employed techniques pioneered by online groups such as MoveOn and took them to an entirely new level. Thanks to Obama’s use of the Internet, politics in America will never be the same. It’s crucial that peace and social justice activists at the state and local levels understand and harness these new technologies in organizing for fundamental social change.
The grassroots movements for peace, economic justice, environmental sustainability and other fundamental reforms — representing millions of individual political progressives who helped elect Barack Obama — are for the most part delighted that the Bush/Cheney regime has been vanquished. However, disillusion and disappointment is rightly building among activists who are now seeing Obama and the Democratic Party cutting deals with corporate special interests and backing down on commitments to change US foreign policy.
The main online activist efforts that elected Obama — his own Organizing for America and the liberal lobby MoveOn — have become cheerleaders and lobbyists for his legislative agenda, policies that in many instances betray his rhetoric of change. I am referring to Obama’s refusal to quickly end the war in Iraq; his military escalation in Afghanistan; his support for Wall Street bailouts; his endorsement of tax subsidies for the coal industry (“clean coal”) and the nuclear power industry (saving us from global warming). Obama is about to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on health care subsidies that cater to the insurance industry and undermine the only real solution to the current crisis, the adoption of a single payer health care system such as that enjoyed by the Canadians and most other western democracies.
Yet my email box is filled with missives from MoveOn and other liberal online campaigns that spin these dismal policies as “real change,” or ignore them entirely to dampen criticism from the Left of the Obama Administration.
What are grassroots activist organizations to do to avoid marginalization? Peace and justice organizations at the local and state level need to learn and adopt the new media tools of MoveOn and Obama, but use them to give birth to fundamental change that empowers people rather than seeks accommodation with powerful corporate interests. Rather than organizing for an agenda determined by a handful of partisan Democrats at the top, this new organization should work to empower and represent people from the bottom up.
Obama’s Online Coup
Barack Obama is president of the United States for a number of key reasons including his political positions and image. During the Democratic primary he was able to position himself as the anti-war alternative to Hillary Clinton and this helped him beat Clinton at her own money game, raising much more in contributions from both wealthy donors and smaller contributors than she did. Polls show that during the race against John McCain he benefited from the sudden collapse of the U.S. financial system, as voters turned to the cool and calm Obama and away from the brash McCain.
But arguably the most important key to the success of President Barack Obama was his use of the Internet and his ability to harness it for publicizing his campaign, among young voters especially; mobilizing enthusiastic supporters by the millions via email, websites and text messaging; raising tens of millions of dollars from these online supporters and organizing them successfully at the grassroots level to actually turn out and vote in primaries and the general election.
In using the Internet so effectively, Obama and his campaign staff built upon the previous successes in 2004 of Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who came from nowhere and rode his wave of anti-war Internet supporters to become the leading Democratic candidate for the Presidency, until his campaign crashed and burned in the not-so-virtual reality of the Iowa Caucus. Dean was unable to translate his army of online supporters into a grassroots force that could turn out voters and win elections on the ground. Succeeding where Dean failed, Obama was able to marry his online “netroots” mobilization to an effective old-style campaign of getting out the vote.
The Obama campaign carried online and digital activism to a new level of fundraising and political organizing through its “Obama for America” campaign, which built a massive email list complete with phone numbers for simultaneous text messaging. When Obama moved into the White House this political machine was moved into the office of the Democratic National Committee to become a coordinated lobby force for the new administration, renamed Organizing for America. No previous president has ever come into office with his own electronically-networked grassroots lobby of over ten million Americans, able to be activated to support the goals of the Administration.
Obama’s victory has forever changed how electoral campaigns are run and it underscores the necessity for both candidates and social change organizations to harness the power of the Web, whether to stop a war, gain national healthcare, or win electoral office.
The Rise of MoveOn
A seminal moment for online activism was in 1998 when a liberal millionaire couple from Berkeley, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, launched MoveOn as an online petition to condemn President Clinton’s White House philandering while urging the Congress to move on to other more pressing matters than the Clinton impeachment.
MoveOn’s petition campaign failed to dissuade Republicans from impeaching the President, but it was wildly successful in building for MoveOn a list of contributors that has since provided tens of millions of dollars for political ads and liberal candidates. In 2002, MoveOn used and grew this list into the millions of people, becoming the most visible organizational opponent of the war on Iraq. In 2008, MoveOn’s members endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and today MoveOn claims a list of more than 5 million contributors.
It has become a powerful cheerleading force and lobby for the policies of the Obama Administration, yet it has no office, phone, or mailing address, functioning virtually online off its website while raising millions of dollars and organizing rallies, media events and launching advertising campaigns in support of President Obama.
The Blogosphere and the Rise of the Netroots Nation
“Blogging” refers to writing web logs or journals, a style of online speech and advocacy that has become a powerful political movement in its own right. The online world of liberal bloggers — the “liberal blogosphere” — was crucial to the resurgence of liberalism during the Bush years.
Two youngish Democratic consultants, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas (founder of Daily Kos blog), wrote the book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics in 2006. Armstrong earlier coined the term “netroots” to describe the liberal blogosphere. Moulitsas’ popular blog has inspired an annual conference now called Netroots Nation that next occurs in Pittsburgh beginning Aug. 13, 2009. Thousands of people including Democratic Party activists, liberal think tanks, public interest organizations, lobby and PR firms, celebrities and citizen bloggers are certain to attend, and the event will receive attention in the mainstream media.
In their book, Crashing the Gates, Armstrong and Moulitsas use the term “netroots” to describe the “online grassroots community that has grown dramatically in the past five years … By late November 2005, the top 70 or so liberal blogs, led by Daily Kos, garnered about 60 million page-views every month …The netroots activist, much like the new generation of grassroots activist, is fiercely partisan, fiercely multi-issue, and focused on building a broader movement. It’s not an ideological movement — there is actually very little, issue-wise, that unites most modern party activists except, perhaps opposition to the Iraq war.
The rise of MoveOn, the emergence of the liberal blogosphere and the revival of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party during the darkest years of George Bush were chronicled by New York Times reporter Matt Bai in his 2007 book titled, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics. Bai’s book was the first to examine the new power alliance within the Democratic Party composed of the organizations referenced in his long subtitle, an alliance that is now mostly united behind the Obama Administration. These players include billionaires such as George Soros and other wealthy members of an exclusive group of funders called the Democracy Alliance; the major liberal bloggers like Armstrong and Moulitsas; and the organization MoveOn, whose political action committee had become one of the top money contributors to Democratic candidates.
The Essentials for Netroots Organizing
The heady success of Obama and MoveOn is impressive and has created a new liberal power structure. But the power of the Internet is available not just to them, but to individual activists and thousands of small progressive organizations whose supporters have the basic computer hardware, software and Internet Technology (IT) skills to raise money, promote ideas, and launch and conduct successful online and grassroots campaigns for candidates or causes.
Indeed, it’s imperative that grassroots organizations learn to better utilize the Web to become a more progressive counterweight to the slick marketing and mainstream politics of MoveOn and the Obama Administration. Grassroots organizers need to understand and adopt the new tools that propelled Obama into the presidency, that have rejuvenated the Democratic Party, and allowed the emergence of MoveOn. Below are some of the online tools that are available and should be studied, used and adopted by activists. Let me say that I am not a geek, I don’t write computer code and I have no Internet technology skills. Luckily many people do and every organization of more than a few dozen people likely has within it or among its extended network people with skills to build the nucleus necessary for online activism. Here is the basic toolkit.
Many grassroots organizations already have one, and every organization needs one. If no one in your organization has ever built one, look at the websites of organizations you belong to and work with and talk with them for advice. Ideally a website should be built with using an “open source” platform made for activism and marketing, such as Drupal. “Web 2.0” is a term coined to describe making anything online as interactive and useful as possible, and is good jargon to keep in mind because interactivity and user-friendliness are crucial to successful web activism.
Email Sign Up
A website should invite, cajole and encourage visitors to sign up for email messages from the organization. Building and maintaining the email list is the key to publicizing the goals and work of the organization and to developing a paying membership of online contributors. Constantly growing and expanding this list should be an organizational objective.
Put a Big Honking Donation Button on Your Website
Organizations like Groundspring make it easy for anyone visiting an activist website to click and contribute funding. This is essential and important especially during an economic depression when foundation and major donor funding is hard to come by, or at election time when funding is often too tied to a partisan agenda. Put a prominent graphic on your site so anyone can easily click and donate.
Blogs essentially turn a website into an engaging online source for information and debate, and the more and better information that appears, the more visitors will attracted to the website. Blogs can be brief informative articles, opinion pieces, stories that point to other people’s online writing or websites, or in-depth journalistic analysis. The organization should decide who within it will write articles on the website. Blogs can also be offered for free reprint on other websites such as Daily Kos, Common Dreams, AlterNet, and Counterpunch, spreading the views of the writer to a much larger audience.
Most activist organizations work on specific issues, like stopping the spread of industrial hog factories in rural communities, ending the war in Iraq, or pressuring a politician by organizing a protest at his or her office. Your website should make it easy for people to: endorse your campaigns through online petitions (which also build your email lists); download information about your campaigns; and mobilize attendance at specific events such as rallies, vigils, lobby days, and conferences that advance your work through old-fashioned grassroots activism and organizing. Obama had a great online campaign, but his real genius was in linking it to his on-the-ground, get-out-the-vote efforts. The same should be true of activist campaigns.
The blogosphere has given rise to the citizen journalism movement. For instance, on your website you can write a factual, informative, documented article on an issue important to your group, and if you have a digital still camera you can attach a photograph. You can make an online video and upload it free to YouTube, where anyone online can see it.
At the website SourceWatch, a high-traffic online “encyclopedia of the people, organizations and issues shaping the public agenda,” you can easily create accurate, fair and documented articles, or edit and expand existing articles, then link to them and link them to your website. Two-thirds of the 2 million monthly visitors to SourceWatch arrive through Google searches, so SourceWatch articles on your issues are likely to drive traffic back to your website.
MySpace, Facebook and Twitter
These social network sites are now getting lots of TV media attention and are likely already used by individuals in your organization. They should be woven into your online activism. Obama used social networking sites very successfully. Some organizations have created activist networking sites such as WiserEarth, but you should also use popular existing sites.
Uniting the Grassroots with the Netroots: Beyond MoveOn
In early 2007, I began publicly criticizing MoveOn for co-opting the peace movement on behalf of the agenda of Congressional Democrats. The Democrats gained control of the U.S. Congress in the fall of 2006 based primarily on public revulsion over Bush’s war in Iraq, a war that was endorsed from the start by leading Democrats including John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, and many others. In early 2007, the Democrats had an opportunity to cut off funding for the war, but blinked. MoveOn, an organization considered by the mainstream media the leader of the peace movement, sided with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an effort that marginalized the Congressional Out of Iraq caucus and gave Bush all the funding he wanted to continue the war.
The peace movement has never recovered. Although Obama was elected as the peace candidate, his Iraq withdrawal plan is anemic and would leave 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, while he has ramped up the U.S. war in Afghanistan. MoveOn has declared Obama’s Iraq strategy a success, even as the war continues, and is refusing to oppose Obama on Afghanistan. Meanwhile the grassroots peace movement that consists primarily of the scores of groups that make up the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) coalition are disorganized and dispirited and UFPJ is in danger of going broke.
It’s likely that all these groups that comprise UFPJ have among their own existing email lists a total number of peace activists in the millions. Yet they have never figured out how to mobilize these lists to create the sort of mega-list that is wielded by MoveOn. Hopefully down the road a network of non-partisan, web-based local and state activists will come together and create state and national email lists of millions of mobilized activists. Until these grassroots local and state groups learn the tricks of online activism and marry it to powerful grassroots organizing campaigns, real change will be deferred.
JOHN STAUBER is the co-author of six books including Iraq: Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever. His anti-war activism began in high school in the 1960s opposing the war in Vietnam. The opinions in this article are his alone. His email address is: stauber AT tds.net .