House party! regroups in a nationwide brainstorming session, and finds not everyone is quite ready to just move on from November's election.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published November 22, 2004 10:51PM (EST)

At political singer and satirist Laramie Crocker's place in Berkeley on Sunday night, the forest green Subaru Outback parked out front still bore a "Dean for America" bumper sticker and another said, "It's up to the women ... vote! Kerry/Edwards." A scrawled, taped-up sign on the door of Crocker's wooden front gate read: "Party On at Laramie's." The "party" was one of more than 1,600 house parties across the country designed to shape the future of what's arguably the country's largest progressive organization, Sunday's get-togethers linked thousands of MoveOn's more than 2 million activists by speakerphone and computer and had a simple goal: to identify issues the group should focus on and strategies it should deploy to "move on" from the defeat in November's election.

But not everyone at Crocker's house was convinced that Bush really won -- and they're not ready to move on. Fliers circulating through the party urged Crocker's 50 guests to call Sen. John Kerry's Senate office and demand that he "un-concede immediately" and "Demand a recount, and in suspicious counties a re-vote with a paper ballot." Another handout decried a "news media blackout" on the Nader-requested recount in New Hampshire and another recount effort in Ohio: "It's up to us to spread the word -- if nothing is done about this -- why have another election at all?" the flier exhorted. Whether because of outright fraud, voter intimidation or electronic voting machine irregularities, many of Crocker's guests believe the president may have stolen the office -- again. The mood among attendees as they munched a polyglot potluck of Red Vines licorice, hummus, carrot sticks, blue chips and pasta salad was both mournful and urgent.

"Things are so bleak now. I feel like it's prewar Nazi Germany here," says Arianna Siegel, who campaigned for Dennis Kucinich and teaches English as a foreign language. "There's a fascist government in control. There are a lot of angry people out there," she said, while waiting for the nationwide conference call to begin. An African-American woman from Emeryville, Calif., who refused to give her name for fear of government reprisals, said that since the election: "I don't even read the news anymore. I can't handle it. I don't want to listen to news about him every day." No one had to ask to whom she was referring.

Alan Davis, a salesman who says he made between 800 and 1,000 get-out-the-vote phone calls to swing states before the November election, thinks he knows what went wrong for the Democrats: The party's base has been eroding for the last 20 years. "If you think of the party as a brand, we're not able to communicate the brand effectively," he said. He thinks that's in part because of the conservative TV and radio where most Americans get their news. "We can't frame the discussion." Davis partly blames the consolidation of the media, which his wife, Norie Clark, says has her even more worried about federal appointments to the Federal Communications Commission than even the Supreme Court.

As everyone packed into the small Berkeley living room, sitting on the hardwood floor and standing, crowding around the conference call, Eli Pariser from MoveOn came on the line from a New York house party. He started by acknowledging the big loss in November: "It really was a blow, and we don't pretend the next four years will be easy." But he reminded those assembled: "More people voted against George Bush than voted for almost any president in American history," adding, "We should be winning 75 percent of the vote."

Then MoveOn field director Adam Ruben got on the call to list the group's accomplishments, such as raising $50 million and sending out 50,000 volunteers on Election Day alone. A heartwarming story about a committed dad who knocked on doors while pushing a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a day's supply of pretzels and cookies drew appreciative laughs. But even while these impressive collective efforts were being commended, everyone knew all too well that they weren't enough.

But it's no use wallowing. After Pariser and Ruben spoke, the Berkeley group broke up into smaller groups to discuss issues and strategies for the future. The host, Laramie Crocker, strapped on a guitar and donned a cowboy hat decorated with a crown, and a sign taped on it that says "W 'O4 Emperor," to perform a short ditty with lyrics like "Mr. Ashcroft says dissent is just treason" to get everyone in the mood.

Outside in the chilly Berkeley dusk, the darkening yard lit by a string of white Christmas lights, 15 partygoers made a circle of plastic lawn chairs, and got down to their strategizing. As everyone went around the circle naming their top personal issue, the challenge for MoveOn became glaringly clear. If in the last months, if not years, the goal has been singular and unifying, enough to build a progressive army of literally millions around defeating George Bush, now what this same group wants to accomplish is considerably more murky.

Here's the short list of "top" issues the group of 15 named: election integrity; dismantling the electoral college; the war in Iraq; foreign policy; developing allies; the environment; education; separation of church and state; the economic crisis/coming stagflation; corporate takeover of the media; the rising theocracy ruling the country; building relationships with our very own "red" family members; and picking a few issues that "we can easily sell to voters in the Midwest."

But voter fraud is the one issue that most, if not all, of the group has heat for. "People are getting the feeling that it is all rigged," says one gray-beard. "Who knows? Maybe 100,000 votes got lost somewhere."

"I hope I don't sound like a nut, but we are living in the process of becoming a one-party state," added another. "The goal of the Republican Party is to turn this into a one-party state." By a quasi-consensus, election integrity/voter fraud emerged as the biggest issue, and the group then turned to devising strategies to address it. This was tougher, despite the list of suggestions the organizers handed out, including "transform the Dems," "move to the center," and "focus on winning back Congress." There was a lot of interest in "crafting a clear progressive message," but this provoked immediate calls for "media reform" since communicating a retooled message seems impossible without it. Returning to the living room to caucus with the other groups, another strategy -- "incarcerate the people who stole the election" -- drew chuckles.

It turned out all three breakout groups at the house party named election reform as one of their top issues, so that was the party's vote in the vast instant poll on priorities that MoveOn is now conducting. And it turns out that the rest of the house parties around the country mostly agreed, too.

In the preliminary results of the instant polling, some 200 house parties voted for election reform, with the war in Iraq coming in a close second at 170 votes. This pleased the organizers, since they're already circulating a petition calling on Congress to "investigate the integrity of the voting process in the 2004 election." I can't help wondering if "election reform" qualifies as one of those "few issues we can easily sell to voters in the Midwest" that one participant called for earlier. The house parties voted, with an overwhelming 428 votes, for "crafting a clear progressive message," as the best strategy for achieving MoveOn's goal. (Apparently, almost no one thinks a "move to the center" would be a good idea.)

Remarkably, in just a few hours, the MoveOn agenda was set with input from thousands of members: Craft a clear progressive message to bring about election reform. With a rousing quote from Thomas Jefferson, the gang on the speakerphone signed off, and Crocker picked up the guitar again to perform his ditty "Weapons of Mass Destruction," which he claims was a big hit among delegates to the Republican convention when he sang it on the streets of New York, while wearing an orange Guantánamo Bay-style jumpsuit.

As the party wound down, Siegel, the English teacher, said the night got her fired up. Davis, the salesman, says he still doesn't know if MoveOn will use all the strength it's developed in the run-up to the 2004 election to become "kingmakers" funneling money to candidates, like an EMILY's List, or rally around single issues. "I have no idea," he said.

What's clear is that reforming the election process -- whether that means ferreting out outright fraud and voter intimidation, reducing long lines at polling places or demanding a paper trail for all electronic voting machines -- now trumps all other issues for most MoveOn members at this house party and parties around the country.

A Berkeley woman, who gave her name as M. Wertheimer, argued that without "election integrity" all the work on the other issues just seems futile. "There was so much fraud in this election, if we don't do something, every election will be stolen," she said. "There is absolutely no reason that there shouldn't be a paper trail."

Brian Gardner, a 31-year-old MBA from Pittsburgh, Pa., who just moved to San Francisco, said: "I think that people really struggled to try to get Bush out of office. And I feel that they almost did -- if not did. These are people who believe in democracy. It's not just that it didn't produce the results that they wanted." He added: "I'm really iffy on whether or not the election was stolen. It's that it could have been. That's what gets to me."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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2004 Elections