Life of the Party

MoveOn's Eli Pariser is confident that the Democrats can come back -- but first they have to stop cowering.

By Tim Grieve

Published May 9, 2005 7:45PM (EDT)

This isn't how Republicans talk.

They don't say that their agenda is something they're "working on." They don't admit that people in their party are having conversations about "what we stand for, who we are, what we do." They don't worry out loud that a description of their political plans might come off sounding like a metaphor for "empire building." And if Republicans had taken the beating that Democrats took last year, they sure as hell wouldn't put 2004 at the top of the list of their "significant political achievements."

But isn't the Republican Party, and Eli Pariser isn't Karl Rove.

Maybe it's his youth; Pariser, MoveOn's executive director, is just 24 years old. Maybe it's an outgrowth of MoveOn's decentralized, wisdom-of-the-crowd approach. Maybe it's the humility that comes from being beaten, or maybe it's just the realization -- the one that got John Kerry into so much trouble -- that politics may play out in red and blue but the road back to the White House doesn't always present itself in black and white.

Whatever it is, when Pariser speaks now, he speaks with a cautious introspection that's far removed from the swagger of George W. Bush or the self-satisfied braggadocio that marks some of MoveOn's public pronouncements. He hesitates. He hedges. He begins his sentences with "I think" and "I guess," and he's just as likely to finish them with a worry about "progressive self-loathing" as he is with a prediction about future electoral triumphs. In December, as Democrats sunk into the despair over their defeat and began making plans to choose a new party chairman, Pariser blasted out an e-mail declaration. The Democratic Party is ours, he said. "We bought it, we own it, and we're taking it back." Now Pariser says that all he meant was that the Democratic Party belongs to the people -- all of the people -- who support it with their work, their votes and their financial contributions.

It's not that Pariser feels defeated. He says he woke up the morning after the election and felt an "incredible opportunity" to start getting things right. He insists that MoveOn is stronger than ever, that Democrats are in a position to start winning back the White House through a strong showing in the 2006 congressional races. But he knows that the work ahead is going to require more than house parties and clever homemade TV commercials. Progressives, he says -- and maybe he's talking a little about himself here -- have got to get their "self-confidence" back.

"There's really a serious issue of internalization of the right's frame about us," Pariser says. "Progressives have begun to believe that they're fringy when in fact they represent a majority of the country." Iraq is Exhibit A in Pariser's diagnosis; the notion that the war was a "bad call still sounds to a lot of people like a fringy proposition," he says, even though the latest Gallup Poll has 57 percent of the public saying that the war wasn't worth the cost. But it's not just Iraq. It's Social Security. It's Bush's judges. It's a whole agenda that voters gave the Republicans the power to impose even if, as it turns out, they don't much care for the particulars.

Pariser says that progressives can turn things around, but only if they start remembering that however the Republicans might want to marginalize them, they're "regular people," and that a lot of other "regular people" share their views about the direction of the country. "We can't let ourselves get too cowed or too boxed in," he says, "by what our opponents want to portray us as."

Pariser spoke to Salon last week from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

U.S. News and World Report says that John Kerry is definitely running again in 2008. Is that something that you would be excited about?

Gosh, honestly, 2008 seems like a long time away. We're focusing on building toward 2006. On staff, we've always tried to avoid the sort of -- it's not even armchair general-ing, it's that everyone's favorite game in politics is who's going to do what when and how it's going to be. We prefer to defer to our members on this, partly because it's the nature of the organization and partly because you get better results that way. I honestly don't know how our members would feel about [Kerry] vs. the other candidates who may be running. Mostly, they're focused right now on Social Security and on judges and on other kinds of banner issues that are going down right now.

Are those day-to-day legislative issues important to MoveOn in and of themselves, or do they matter because they keep people interested, building momentum and money for 2006 and 2008?

I guess I think they're integrally related; they're part of the same thing. I think maybe the question stems from a little bit of a tendency on the left to segregate, in this sort of absurd and just totally awkward manner, the advocacy work that we do from the electoral work we do -- for the last 30 years, saying basically that electoral politics is junk, it's crass, we're going to focus on lobbying and setting up independent research arms and whatever, and we're going to ignore that stuff.

I think it also has to do with the balkanized structure of the left until recently. A lot of groups have a single-issue domain, and there isn't as much of an argument for being involved with electoral politics a lot if [their single issue] isn't on the front burner. But in the end, I think that distinction really hobbles us. People out in the real world don't draw that kind of distinction -- you try to influence your legislator to do the right thing on issues that matter, and if they don't, you fire the guy and pick a new one. Hopefully not a guy, actually.

People in the real world or people who are involved enough to be on MoveOn's e-mail list?

You know, I think the distinction is smaller than a lot of people imagine. I think one of the fundamental problems of the progressive community is this issue of self-loathing -- that we assume that people in the real world are different than us, that we're not members of the real world somehow. I think that [MoveOn's] members and the people who make up the core constituency of the Democratic Party are real people. They have real jobs; they do real things; they look and act a lot like the rest of America.

But how can you look at the 2004 electoral map and conclude that progressives represent a "majority of the country"? The latest Gallup Poll says that 57 percent of Americans think the war in Iraq wasn't worth the cost, but how do you back up that characterization more generally?

Well, I guess the strong and simple message that I draw from the experience of the last six months -- which was not the message I expected to draw -- is that whatever [reasons] people voted for Bush, they didn't vote for him because of [his positions on issues]: They didn't vote for him on Social Security. They didn't vote for him on judges. They didn't vote for him on the agenda he's pursuing. Bush was able to mobilize his base and cast the pallor of fear over enough of the electorate to cobble together a win. But I think we have to be careful about reading too much into it because if a football stadium full of Ohioans had voted a different way, we'd all be talking about the pluses and minuses of President Kerry.

So would you be happy to just replay the Democrats' 2004 campaign against a different Republican at a time when we're not three years out from 9/11 and in the middle of a war in Iraq?

I'm a little tired of the hypothetical -- I don't know what the right word is -- agonizing, hand-wringing over what we should or shouldn't have done. When I woke up on Nov. 3, the feeling that I had was that while it was a real blow, it was also a moment of extraordinary opportunity to get some of the things right that the campaign showed were wrong. One of those things is that Kerry not only had to cobble together a presidential campaign but actually make the ideas for that campaign, all in the space of the six months leading up to the election.

All while under attack from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Exactly -- while responding to the president's punishing assault. I think he may have done the best job he could given what he had to start with. The opportunity we have now is to recognize that there's an infrastructure that needs to be built, a movement that needs to be fed and nourished and tended to that will ensure that whoever is the candidate in 2008 or 2012 doesn't end up in that same predicament.

Is having Howard Dean in place as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee important to that work?

Admitting that there are some problems is the first step to recovery. I see Dean's chairmanship as a tacit acknowledgment that the party really needs to do some work. But, again, I think it's dangerous to look toward one person or a handful of people, whoever they are, to build a strong progressive movement. A movement requires a lot of people and a lot of joint responsibility if it's going to succeed.

How do you draw the lines of responsibility between what the DNC can do and what MoveOn can do in that movement?

I do draw a distinction between a movement and a party. One of the books I've been reading recently, which I found really interesting, is Richard Viguerie's book "America's Right Turn." If you simply substitute "progressive" for "conservative," it offers a pretty good road map of how to think about these issues. His basic point is that the job of a party is to get elected and the job of a movement is to promote ideas and an ideology. And unless the movement kind of understands that that's its role -- and not getting elected -- and unless the party understands what its relationship is to the movement, you kind of end up with a muddle. Which is not to say that it may not be strategic sometimes for the movement to back candidates who are not precisely in line with its ideology.

At MoveOn, we're the outsiders. We're definitely on the movement side of the equation. We don't want to be the party. We want to be the people on the outside keeping the party accountable to its best self.

But how do you square that with what you said in that infamous e-mail message about "buying" and "owning" the Democratic Party? Would you like to have those words back?

No. The mistake I made wasn't saying, "We, the people, bought it, own it, are taking it back." The point of that statement was that the Democratic Party is in a transformative moment right now where it can shift its allegiance from the large donors and corporate special interests that have been a part of it for some time and back toward the small donors who are really now the primary funders of the party. So the "we" there was -- someone had to speak on behalf of all these people who put $300 million in small donations into various entities to help elect Kerry, and who were being dismissed or ignored by some of the powers that be.

And with Dean's election as DNC chairman, do you feel that the "we" have taken the party back?

I do think that the "we" -- almost, the "they" -- have started to do that. But it's a long process. Taking the party back happens partly at the DNC chair level and partly at the grass-roots level in local meetings in towns across the country. And unless you work it from both sides, I don't know that you get there.

To the extent that the job of "the movement" is about ideology, what is MoveOn doing to build a positive agenda now? Obviously, so much of what's going on now is negative -- opposition to Bush's judicial nominees, opposition to his Social Security proposal ...

Let me just say first that a positive agenda is really important -- it's something we're going to devote a lot of time to with our members this summer. But we also need not be ashamed of stepping in at a moment when the nation needs us to stop some of these basic assaults to democracy and to the New Deal. Another part of the Republican frame that I think folks are to some degree internalizing is that opposition is inherently bad. I don't believe that's the case when someone is attempting to dismantle the basic functions of a democracy.

I think that the fact that [Democrats] have been holding the line on Social Security and judges is an accomplishment that we ought not dismiss. We could find ourselves in a much bleaker situation now had things gone slightly differently. What the last four months have been about is [like] Mongol hordes at the gates and a lot of people stepping up to man the barricades.

I know that you haven't talked with or heard from MoveOn's members about what the affirmative agenda ought to be, but in your mind, what does an agenda that is meaningful and can win elections look like?

A lot of people are having these conversations in different places -- about what we stand for, who we are, what we do. One of the problems is that most of the power brokers having those conversations aren't really having them with anyone who's out there in the country actually trying to live. So our plan this summer is to get people together in house parties across the country who are real Americans, and who can help figure out and polish some of these questions in ways that people locked up inside the Beltway can't.

My gut [tells me] that at the heart of what the party stands for is sticking up for the little guy in a bunch of different forms. And part of what has caused the Democratic Party to drift away from that is the influence of corporate money.

But how much of the problem is that the party has drifted away from the concerns of "regular people" and how much of it is -- as Thomas Frank would argue -- that the Republicans have been so successful at persuading people that the Democrats aren't with them, that it's more important to vote for someone who drives a truck or goes to church like you do than it is to vote for someone who has your economic interests in mind?

We ought not to be afraid to go on the offensive on the cultural front as well. I actually think it's kind of a noble thing if you put the morality of your country ahead of yourself.

But that would suggest that you're going to have to find enough people who agree with your vision of morality.

Well, right, but I think Democrats have a lot of space to work in there. They've mostly been totally petrified to be there. The Terri Schiavo case is a perfect example of a cultural issue on which the overwhelming majority of the country would have sided with Democrats if Democrats had had anything to say about it at all.

But isn't that a case where it made sense for Democrats to just get the hell out of the way and let the Republicans hang themselves?

You know, Josh Marshall made a point recently that I think was great. Democrats often get too strategic; they overthink. What comes across to the public when you're opposed to something like that but you strategically decide to defer is that you're either cagey and untrustworthy or mealy-mouthed and you don't know where you stand. So I think the place you have to start on every issue is what you actually think about how to resolve the issue, not what is politically the best position to be in at that particular time. I think the trust you build with the electorate that way more than compensates for the fact that they'll sometimes disagree with you.

In an article in Slate in December, Chris Suellentrop wrote: "Since its creation in 1998, it's hard to come up with a single significant political achievement that can be credited to MoveOn." Do you accept that?

Absolutely not. I think there are a lot of achievements that we can point to, starting with the election. We were more rigorous in our testing of our ads than virtually any group that I'm aware of, and then spent through the MoveOn Voter Fund $20 million and through the PAC another $10 million to put those ads on the air in key states. During that program, we saw statistically significant declines of support for Bush in some of the key battleground states, especially early in the spring and early summer.

But still, Bush won.

Right. OK, so I think that this is a dangerous kind of lens through which to look at it. The problem with it is that it doesn't necessarily attribute cause correctly. So the statement that "Bush won" as a repudiation that those ads had an impact doesn't follow because Bush could have won for a lot of other reasons.

Sure. But when you're talking about your "significant political achievements," to then talk about 2004 ...

OK, I would say that we helped stall the energy bill for the last few years. On the FCC, we helped turn back the regulatory rule change. We have been involved in a lot of the signature progressive battles over the last few years, and our members have supported dozens of candidates who have won and made other races that were walks for Republicans competitive.

Following that line of logic, you end up in some pretty weird places, right? Because if you assume that everything that was done for the 2004 election was wrong because [we] lost, where does that leave you in terms of what to do for 2006?

But there's a difference between saying "it's all wrong" and you lost and acknowledging that your side didn't win.

Right. I guess what I would say is that in every one of these battles, our members have gotten more involved and our base has grown bigger. That means we're better prepared to fight now, in 2005 and in '06, than we were in 2004. If we're serious about winning by 60 percent or 70 percent on our issues and not squeaking by on 50, then we have to get serious about building a movement. And if it was the only thing we had done -- get 3 million people involved in politics on the progressive side and help them take action on issues that matter -- I think that would be an important thing to have done.

Looking back at 2004, what do you take away as lessons about what MoveOn should have, could have, would have done differently?

The only regret I have really is that we didn't exist in 1990, so that by 2004 we would be further along in our development. Our field program in 2004 was amazingly successful. It turned out 470,000 confirmed unlikely voters for Kerry in key battleground states, and more people than Kerry won by in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But next time we're going to do it bigger than that.

Is the candidate the Democrats run in 2008 critical to your ability to "do it bigger" in 2008?

That choice is very important, and we'll certainly be engaging our members in that process, as we did in 2004.

Can you see your members coming together around someone who is moving to the center on abortion or national security or talking a lot about Christianity? Or do you see resistance to a "centering" of the Democratic candidate?

There will be great concern about anyone who is trying to have it both ways. A candidate who does not speak in a principled way and is changing their positions for political convenience will not resonate. Call me crazy, but I always thought that Dean was a pretty centrist kind of guy. So at some point those labels become not very useful.

The thing that will mobilize our members and other key Democratic constituencies most is someone who is proud of what they are and who is not afraid to talk about that. Ultimately, that's going to be the winning formula for 2008.

But won't MoveOn's members expect the Democratic candidate to be against the war, in favor of protection for gay rights, unyielding on abortion rights ...

I don't think it's a contradiction to be pragmatic and progressive. I think we can do both. To think that by necessity the person who is most electable will not be with us on the issues -- I just don't agree with that. And that's where our members are too. They understand real politics, and at the same time they're going to fight for a progressive America. How that comes down in terms of a particular candidate is something I leave to them.

But you're obviously not a person who follows this only casually. Who in your mind are some of bright lights for the party in terms of candidates? I know that you're not speaking for MoveOn's members, but for yourself.

Hmm. I don't think I can not speak for our members on a question like that. And honestly, I don't have a horse in the race; I'd like to see how things shape up.

In my mind, 2006 is more important than trying to read the tea leaves about 2008 right now. First, 2006 has the potential to be a 1994, a watershed moment in which the electorate soundly rejects the politics of power, abuse and radical right-wing conservatism. But I also think it can be a 2002 in the sense that before the president had the full run in 2004, there was a dress rehearsal in 2002 where he proved to the Republican Congress that by running on scaring the daylights out of people and war you could do OK.

If we can make 2006 a referendum on the progressive issues that we care about -- maybe it's economic populism, or maybe it's something else -- if we can send a message to Democrats that this is a formula that works, then I think that's the best way to get them where we want them to be. In turn, I think that's the best way to get to a candidate in 2008 who is representative of progressives and self-confident in that.

I'm loath to leave our salvation to a person or the small group of people who are considering running for president. Ultimately if we're going to win in 2008 and establish a broad majority in the years to come, we have to start working right now to prove that this approach is viable. And that means focusing on 2006 and waiting before you start chattering too much about whether it's [John] Edwards or [Hillary] Clinton or who.

But to the extent that you can make 2006 a referendum on the Bush administration or the nature of a progressive government, what is the reason to hope that you can do it more successfully in 2006 than in 2004?

Well, there are a number of reasons. The dynamics of an off-year election are totally different. We will want [to win] a lot more in 2006 than the other side will because "stay the course," especially when your leaders are corrupt and failing to get done what you want them to get done, isn't a very appealing rallying cry to conservatives. But "kick the bums out" will resonate with our members and far beyond.

The second reason is, Republicans really are in the midst of a classical overreach at the moment. I think Tom DeLay's arrogant influence peddling and the battle over judges and Schiavo all are part of a narrative that is becoming more and more resonant for the public. So the time is right. And 2004 equipped progressives with tools and coalitions and information that we just never had before. At MoveOn, that means that the 10,000 precinct leaders and 60,000 other volunteers in our Leave No Voter Behind program are still moving forward. We have a lot of key pieces to the puzzle that we didn't have leading up to 2004.

People sometimes look at me weirdly when I say that we're stronger than we've [ever] been. But I really believe that. We've got millions of people involved who have never been involved before. We have leadership that's been tried and tested, and we now know what methodologies work and what ones don't.

One can't ignore the threat of all three branches of government being controlled by the opposing party, but from an organizing perspective, we're on the right course to win things back.

Do you see MoveOn's role to be one of reaching out to people in the middle who may be coming to terms with these issues now as opposed to rallying, and collecting money from, the base?

I don't know if you've ever played the board game Risk. With Risk, the way you win is to build out from your base. You get a heck of a lot of armies on Australia, or whatever it is, and then you reach out. And if you spread yourself too thin, you kind of implode from all sides because there's no center of gravity. At some point, absolutely, you reach out, but progressives are too quick to skip over the first step. There are a hell of a lot of people who are low-hanging fruit -- who agree with us, who are ready to work on behalf of these issues if they're given an effective way to do so. Why not start there and ... and ... and build -- I'm trying to say this without using some kind of empire-based metaphor.

It's the curse of progressives.

[Laughs.] I know I'm going to catch hell for it. But to the extent that right-wing evangelicals did unprecedented things in 2004, it was because Karl Rove and those folks understood that the passion of the grass roots was the greatest asset that the campaign had; they understood how to deploy that. I think progressives still sort of think that you can get by without that, but I don't think it's true.

How do you persuade the people in the middle? You get their neighbors to talk to them. If you don't start with their neighbors, then the vehicle just isn't nearly as compelling. To have your neighbor come by and say, "Hey, I want to talk to you about who you're voting for in Congress for 2006" is just a totally different experience than being yelled at in a TV ad. You've got to do both, but you have to start by building the core of people who are going to do that outreach.

Is it ultimately about convincing people that it's OK to be a progressive?

Right. Circling back to the beginning, I think you just have to have some self-confidence, goddamn it. What you believe about how the world should be is something that a lot of other people believe as well. I think this is easy to forget right now with a president who has the bully pulpit and a media that mostly caters to him and adopts his way of thinking about things.

What's been kind of wonderful about the last five months is that despite the president's best Iraq-war-show-esque presentation on Social Security, people just don't buy it. And on tearing apart the filibuster, people don't buy it. So I think that we've got some data that should make us self-confident.

It's not that we don't have work to do on the ideological underpinnings, on how to articulate the story and the ideas, on building the infrastructure. There's a heck of a lot of work to do. But I believe, and I think most of our members believe, that fundamentally we're starting from the right place.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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