The first time I met Eli Pariser, I had to stand in line to get to him. It was at a June book signing in Portland for progressive author David Sirota. Pariser had joined Sirota during a question-and-answer period about corporate power and had, consequently, outed himself as the newest power-liberal to call Southern Maine home. Pariser, the lanky 25-year-old wunderkind who runs MoveOn.org — arguably the most influential progressive political-action group in the country — didn’t get very far after the event ended and the crowd rushed him. I found him backed into a corner, his arms crossed over his chest, straining to listen to a septuagenarian from the audience who rambled over the din of the crowd about youth and why they aren’t involved and whether we can get them involved.
NO SLEEP TILL PORTLAND: MoveOn.org’s executive director Eli Pariser left New York in May. He’ll run the cross-country staff of 15 from Maine.
“So what do you think?” the man said.
“I don’t know,” Pariser replied. He smiled awkwardly.
“Well, that’s what you guys do, isn’t it? Move on?”
In fact, politicizing America’s youth is something MoveOn lives and breathes; after all, when Pariser himself was hired as executive director, in 2004, he was the ripe young age of 23. While Pariser is quick to point out MoveOn’s membership spans the generations and is not dominated by youth, the online organization’s flashy campaigns and ad contests judged by the likes of superstars Moby and Jack Black are clearly designed to jump-start his peer group.
Established in 1998 by a tech-centered couple from Berkeley, California, (self-described “accidental activists” who still sit on the board), MoveOn initially launched a small, bipartisan petitioning campaign against the Republican-led movement to impeach Bill Clinton. Not surprisingly, given the growing electoral power of the right in the late ’90s, it quickly morphed into a grassroots PAC and nonprofit focused on electing progressive candidates to public office. MoveOn has since raised (and spent) millions for advertisements, campaign contributions, and online polling. During the buildup to the Iraq war, MoveOn moved into the national consciousness with its first big campaign — a peace effort that included online petitions, anti-war television ads, and thousands of house parties across the country. Its membership spiked from a pre-war total of about 600,000 to a March 2003 total of 1.4 million, though this year some anti-war activists have lamented MoveOn’s shift in focus from the war to issues such as “net neutrality” and domestic spying.
MoveOn’s membership now stands at more than 3.3 million, though the organization remains anchored in the virtual world: it is run by 15 staff who communicate via the Web from offices around the country. According to Phil Noble, the founder of PoliticsOnline, an international consulting company in South Carolina that specializes in the use of the Internet in politics and public policy, MoveOn is “still the biggest kid on the block” when it comes to online progressive political organizing. Despite competition from advocacy sites like TruthOut.org and WorkingForChange.com, Noble calls MoveOn “one of the strongest and boldest.”
A native of Lincolnville, Maine, Eli Pariser moved back to his home state from Brooklyn in May. A graduate of Simon’s Rock College of Bard, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at the precocious age of 19, he joined the MoveOn staff in 2001, after his online petition for “moderation and restraint” in post–September 11 foreign policy attracted more than 500,000 signatures and the attention of MoveOn’s founders. Pariser became the executive director of MoveOn in November 2004. The Phoenix talked with him earlier this month, over the phone and at Breaking New Grounds Café, in Portland.
Why did you move back to Maine?
Well, people in New York can be pretty conceited and people in Maine mostly aren’t. That was a big piece of it. Also, being near the water and the trees and that other stuff . . .
A political pundit has referred to MoveOn as the “Christian Coalition of the left,” thanks mainly to its reputation for raising millions online in flash fundraisers to pay for prime-time ads lampooning conservative candidates and policies. Why has the internet been such an important galvanizing tool for people, both politically and otherwise?
In a lot of respects, people are very busy. I don’t believe in apathy; I don’t think that people are uninterested in politics. I think they mostly make the rational assessment that there’s very little that they can do. And the Internet does two things. One is, it allows you from where you are, from where you’re working, to have an impact on hundreds of thousands or millions of other people. So, instead of writing one letter to your congressman and feeling correctly that it’s a drop in the bucket, you can join 10,000 or a 100,000 or a million who are doing that, and all of a sudden you’ve got a deluge.