End of the "big happy family"

In answer to critics of MoveOn, Wes Boyd says that mobilizing a vibrant opposition to Bush's policies was just the first step. And he doesn't blame Kerry for the Democrats' loss.

Published December 16, 2004 3:07PM (EST)

"When we started in 1998, Joan and I looked out at the world and said, 'What the heck is going on here? What's going on when the nation's life is being consumed by a sex scandal?'" says Wes Boyd, the co-founder, with his wife Joan Blades, of MoveOn.org. "And we came to the conclusion that it was because we'd left it to others, and they were screwing up. We knew that the real talent and resourcefulness in this party are not inside the Beltway. So how do we get people on the outside to tune in and pay attention?"

In the years since, Boyd and Blades seem to have perfected the art of getting outsiders to pay attention. And two months ago, you might have said that this was enough; indeed, many liberals saw MoveOn's capacity to mobilize millions at the drop of an e-mail as one of the main indications that Nov. 2 would be a happy day. But defeats bring sober reappraisals, and in the election's aftermath MoveOn has come in for quite a bashing. MoveOn, some have pointed out, has lost just about every major fight it has led; and worse than that, others say, MoveOn has turned the Democrats soft, distracting the party from the threat of terrorism. Yes, MoveOn can get people to tune in. But can it do any more than that?

On the phone Wednesday morning, Boyd offered an insightful, expansive response to the recent attacks on his group, as well as a plan for what liberals should do now. It must take a full store of optimism to do what Boyd does -- to fight, to lose and to keep on fighting -- and there was no lack of it in his comments. He believes, for instance, that the election went about as well as it could have gone given the opposition, given the circumstances. Indeed, Boyd says, during the course of the campaign, the left in general and MoveOn specifically achieved an important political goal:

After 9/11, "we had to assemble a viable opposition from scratch; we had to prove that there were a lot of people in America who were opposed to the policies of the Bush administration." At the very least, Boyd says, the group wanted to show that the opposition was not small -- that half of America disagreed with the direction in which the country was headed. "That was MoveOn's key mission," Boyd said. "Mission accomplished."

For Boyd to declare "mission accomplished" after the kind of bruising defeat the left suffered on Nov. 2 may seem to play into just the thing MoveOn has been criticized for recently -- being too satisfied with the strength of its cyber-presence while ignoring the piling losses in the offline world. But Boyd's not blind to the defeats. (He insists he's of the "reality-based" world.) He just has a different yardstick for assessing his progress. If you believe your society needs to undergo fundamental change, as Boyd does, and you understand that such change is not a short-term proposition, you fight your war as a series of battles, and you don't fret over every loss, because it's the fighting, not the winning, that makes you stronger. This, anyway, is Boyd's theory. "It's interesting, our way of doing business," he says. "We can build a vibrant opposition even if the machinery is owned by the other side because we're not afraid to lose. In fact, win, lose or draw, we get stronger."

Creating an opposition, mobilizing a large group of the dissatisfied and disaffected, was the necessary first battle in MoveOn's war -- and it's that battle that Boyd believes MoveOn has won. Now, he says, the opposition needs to "pivot" toward the next goal, which is winning America. This goal, he says, requires the left to put forward a positive vision, to create and fight for a set of "strategic initiatives" in much the same way the right wing has fought for its bedrock goals over the past couple of decades. Many of the right's strategic initiatives -- for instance, rewriting the tax code and privatizing Social Security -- now look as if they could become reality. "Many of us a decade ago thought these guys were a bunch of cranks, that they would be laughed off Capitol Hill," Boyd points out. "To think you could touch the third rail, it's absurd. But they made that investment" and now it's paying off.

Boyd says he would have liked to have seen the Democratic presidential candidate make the case for why progressives should be running the nation. But he says he doesn't really blame John Kerry for not having done that because he can't think of anyone else who could have. "Name a leader who can intellectually come up with a whole approach to governance during a campaign while in the opposition?" he asks. "Leaders are like the whitecaps on the tops of waves" -- they're stuck in a particular political context, and it's unreasonable to expect them to change that context. MoveOn's goal is to broaden the wave so that a future leader will have an easier time of it.

And the group plans to do that aggressively, in a way that is likely to alienate Democratic insiders. Last week, in a move that was criticized by many in the party (including Howard Dean), MoveOn sent an e-mail to supporters in which it declared, "We can't afford four more years of leadership by a consulting class of professional election losers. In the last year, grassroots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the Party doesn't need corporate cash to be competitive. Now it's our Party: we bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."

Of that memo, Boyd offers, first, a clarification -- the "we" in "we own it," he points out, refers to grass-roots contributors, not to MoveOn. As Boyd sees it, for too long the Democratic Party has ignored rank-and-file Democrats and has instead coddled moneyed interests. At one point, this made a certain kind of sense: The moneyed interests gave the most money, and consequently, during the Clinton era, the Democratic National Committee adopted one overriding mission -- to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in soft-money contributions. But since the passage of the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law in 2002, political parties have been barred from raising soft money.

Financially, the DNC has not suffered terribly under this new regime -- it raised $309 million this year, compared with the Republicans' $385 million. As Arianna Huffington has pointed out, however, the DNC raised its money from a much wider pool this year. In 2000, its donor base was 400,000, while in 2004, 2.7 million people gave to the party.

You would think that such a shift would, out of necessity, have caused the DNC to pay more attention to its grass-roots supporters -- they're the ones now paying the bills. But that hasn't happened. "I've met Terry McAuliffe just once," Boyd says, referring to the DNC's chairman. "It was as he was out scrounging for money, as he always is. And when I met him I got this deep sense of sadness. Here he was, doing the same thing he was doing four years ago. Only now, instead of getting a check for $250,000, it was for $20,000. And that's just damn depressing." Democrats, Boyd adds, "haven't reinvented themselves as a party. They're still thinking of themselves as the folks that raise money and then put on a show every four years. And that's a dead end."

Since the election, though, MoveOn's approach is the one being called the dead end. A couple of weeks ago, in an influential analysis of what went wrong for Democrats, New Republic editor Peter Beinart took particular aim at MoveOn. Beinart believes that Democrats have been losing elections since 9/11 because they have not taken much interest in defeating what he calls "totalitarian Islam." MoveOn, he says, does not put "the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of [its] hopes for a better world," and fosters a "grass roots that views America's new struggle as a distraction, if not a mirage."

"It's a really nasty piece," Boyd says of Beinart's assessment. "The idea that we should identify an entire culture as a totalitarian movement for Democrats to oppose, I think that's wrong and I think it's dangerous. And the idea that we must begin the purges so that Democrats can lead the way in this holy war -- it scares me." Boyd rejects Beinart's belief that MoveOn and its members don't really care about fighting terrorism. That's just the unfortunate reputation the group has acquired, Boyd says, because it has spent the past three years fighting what it considers bad anti-terrorism policies. "The dynamic is simple -- we've been in the opposition and on defense. So when the president says that the way to fight terrorism is to fight a war in Iraq, the opposition says, 'Wait a second, are you insane?' That's perceived as not caring about terrorism. We know that people here, the staff and the members, care deeply about it. But we do believe in the wisdom of crowds; we do believe that the policy elites get it wrong pretty damn consistently."

The policy elites -- of which Boyd includes editors of the New Republic, who supported the war in Iraq -- have a view of anti-terrorism policy "that doesn't connect with the truth in that part of the world and on the ground," Boyd says. There is something to this argument. Beinart, in his essay, congratulates Republicans for the "historical re-education" that 9/11 prompted in the party, a retooling that replaced "the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might." Beinart lambastes Democrats for their failure to similarly reeducate themselves -- but he ignores the truth "on the ground," which is, according to just about every empirical measure of progress in the war on terrorism, that Republican "reeducation" has not reduced the threats to this nation in any demonstrable way, and it may very well have increased it.

MoveOn is fighting against what it considers a dumbed-down terrorism policy. There may be many reasons to criticize the methods MoveOn has used in this fight (Beinart cites the group's opposition to the war in Afghanistan and its naive claim at the time that "a tribunal could even have garnered cooperation from the Taliban"), but it's hard to see how these missteps prove that it's MoveOn's fault that, in Beinart's assessment, Democrats have become a "soft" party that doesn't care about national security. Isn't fighting bad -- historically bad -- national security policy the very definition of caring about it?

Even as he disagrees with Beinart's thesis, however, Boyd does believe that now that they have developed a vibrant opposition, " Democrats need to get on offense, and that includes the development of a security policy that is strong and hard." As part of his call for a range of strategic initiatives liberals should aspire to, Boyd says that the left needs to spend time and money and intellectual energy on a comprehensive, long-term national security policy, "one that deals with the hard things that the administration doesn't ever touch," like "some of their friends the Saudis." There are also specific policy goals Democrats should fight for in the short term, Boyd says, citing as a quick example the need to bolster security at seaports (which, along with many other homeland security objectives, has been seriously ignored by the Bush administration).

MoveOn, Boyd promises, not only will call for these initiatives but will challenge both Republicans and Democrats who disagree with its goals. "We were very disappointed during the campaign in being part of one big happy family," Boyd says of MoveOn's status among Democrats who didn't necessarily share its views. "After an election that's not the case. It's more complex. And we will be advocates for the rank and file."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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