Berkeley Couple's Call to 'MoveOn' Starts Internet Phenomenon

Photo: In 1998, Berkeley couple Wes Boyd and Joan Blades started what would become the Internet movement MoveOn with a petition to Congress.
In 1998, Berkeley couple Wes Boyd and Joan Blades started what would become the Internet movement MoveOn with a petition to Congress.

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If the Monica Lewinsky scandal makes your eyes glaze over you've got friends in Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, a Berkeley couple who were tired of hearing about the affair long before it was old news.

On Sept. 22, 1998, Blades and Boyd sent an e-mail petition to 100 friends urging Congress to "censure President Bill Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the nation." Within a week they had 100,000 signatures.

Ten years and 4.2 million members later, MoveOn has become the poster child for progressive politics and Internet activism.

"We just started with a statement that most people could agree with," Blades said. "Very shortly we had half a million people on board and we just felt an obligation to keep going."

MoveOn is almost entirely virtual, with online members in all 50 states. Collectively they have raised millions of dollars through small-dollar donations and fundraising events such as bake sales. They use the money to finance newspaper and television advertisements that promote issues and candidates.

"I think people get involved around one issue or another and then start to find out about other pieces," Blades said. "They begin to realize that it is important to be part of the political dialogue."

While MoveOn has several token concerns, such as ending the war in Iraq and moving toward a clean energy economy, Blades said its members have mobilized around a myriad of issues, from making sure their neighborhoods have properly functioning voting booths to housing Hurricane Katrina victims.

But while MoveOn may be a useful path for energizing like-minded progressives, Sean Gailmard, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, said it is likely MoveOn hasn't changed the minds of any undecided voters.

"Quantifying MoveOn's success is difficult," he said. "But I think that it would be very rare to find instances where one of their ad campaigns actually swayed voters on an issue."

Gailmard, who researches individual choice and collective decision-making, also noted that MoveOn's ads may have undermined some of the issues and candidates they have supported.

"Several studies show that 'negative campaigning,' like the kind MoveOn engages in, depresses voter turnout," he said.

But Blades said MoveOn is constantly responding to the ever-changing priorities of its online activists.

"Because we are about serving our members, we are always listening to their priorities, not ours," she said. "As long as we are true to our base, I hope that it will continue to work well."

With the presidential election approaching, Blades said MoveOn has focused its energy on getting Barack Obama elected in November.

So far, members have made more than 500,000 phone calls on his behalf, and MoveOn has financed several television ads denouncing John McCain and the issues he supports.

As a political action committee, MoveOn's donors are allowed to give a maximum of $5,000 to the organization, but Blades said the average donation is between $35 and $50.

Most of MoveOn's ads are made by the progressive, Santa Monica-based political advertising company, Zimmerman & Markman.

MoveOn has endured abundant criticism over the years, primarily from Republicans who think their ads are dishonest and extreme.

Ryan Hatcher, the executive director of John McCain's San Leandro office, said MoveOn has been detrimental to the entire political system.

"All they do is create an echo chamber for people that already believe a particular thing, so their opinions just get more shrill," Hatcher said.

Despite criticism, Blades is optimistic about MoveOn's future.

"The idea of us being so far from the center is just very successful marketing by the right," she said. "MoveOn members know who we are. This is our collective future and these people have put so much care into helping us have a better voice."

See MoveOn commercials here.


Contact Anna Widdowson at [email protected]

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