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||Pariser is the twenty-two-year-old campaign director of MoveOn, the online grassroots political organization that generated a million phone calls and emails to Congress protesting the Iraq war, 6.5 million dollars for progressive candidates, and a Congressional legislative victory against media deregulation. We talked to Pariser at MoveOn's executive office a desk and a laptop in the midtown Manhattan apartment he shares with his four roommates.
INDEX: How did you get into activist politics?
ELI: After September 11th, I was thinking, "Is there a way to respond to this that won't just create more violence?" I started a website called 9-11Peace.org, from which I sent out an email petition to a bunch of friends. Over the next two weeks, about half a million people signed that petition on my site.
INDEX: I'd say that you have a way with email.
ELI: MoveOn had already been helping me organize my site, so I thought we'd make a good match.
INDEX: You merged your site with MoveOn in 2001 and became its director of international campaigns. Since it started in 1998, MoveOn has been mobilizing its members around specific issues, and as a result, winning legislative victories in many cases.
ELI: It's probably just a by-product of President Bush showing everyone just how bad things can be, but right now people are feeling very pragmatic. A lot of people are thinking, "How do we actually win?" To win, we have to go beyond the usual suspects, which is exactly what MoveOn does.
INDEX: The usual suspects meaning political junkies?
ELI: Ordinary people are coming back into politics. Fifty years ago, you won an election through your precinct captain and your block captains this enormous infrastructure rested on the talent and goodwill of regular people. With the rise of TV, that fell apart. Campaigns today raise as much money as they can from big donors and put it into TV advertising. There's no humanity in it now. There's no give-and-take, no dialogue, no grassroots activity. We're bringing all that back into the system, so people feel as if they have a role and a stake in the election.
INDEX: How many people belong to MoveOn?
ELI: Our membership is about 1.7 million.
ELI: It's a very broad group from teenagers to seventy-year-olds. People always tell me, "My uncle is in MoveOn," or "My grandmother is in MoveOn." They'll say it with a note of confusion.
INDEX: As if it's unusual for ordinary citizens to be interested in the democratic process.
ELI: These are generally people who have never been politically involved, but they've decided that now is the time.
INDEX: So what are you doing that appeals to the average citizen? How is it that MoveOn excites people where others have failed?
ELI: MoveOn offers a first step. You get an email that's passed along from a nephew it all spreads by word of mouth. Let's say we send out a petition. It's directed at Congress, and it's about the FCC. So the uncle reads the email and says, "Oh, I agree with this," and signs the petition. Once he's done that, he becomes part of the process, and we go back to him and say, "That's great, now can you make a phone call?" You can get your feet wet without having to jump in.
INDEX: Sometimes people don't want to get involved because they're afraid it will take up too much of their time.
ELI: Yeah. We try to provide a way for people to participate without having to be involved twenty-four/seven. It's not like you have to go to a meeting every week. But, if an issue is on the Senate floor, we'll ask you to spend two minutes making a phone call to your Congressperson.
INDEX: You're just twenty-two years old, and you're making such an impact. Does your age have any bearing on your position in the political world?
ELI: It's not something I even think about anymore, except when people ask me that question. The only real problem is that no one I work with is within five years of my age and probably only a couple are within ten.
INDEX: Generation Y, as a whole, seems disillusioned with politics.
ELI: It's not unreasonable for them to feel that way. No one ever asks them to participate, and no one has made a good case for why they should. Politicians and interest groups don't reach out to them. But we try to tell young people, and everyone else, that by getting involved they can get something done.
INDEX: MoveOn has many initiatives going on simultaneously, yet you operate with no central office and a minimal staff. How do you all stay on the same page?
ELI: We come from a very similar place, and we all have a pretty good sense of strategy. We meet by telephone for an hour every week to figure out the schedule. I don't talk to the other team members more than once a day. It's a lot of independent work. You don't have that office friction, you know, "Who left the dishes in the sink?"
INDEX: Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?
ELI: People wonder how we can do all of this with such a small staff. I think it's actually because we have such a small staff it alleviates the need to develop a whole bureaucracy. There also isn't a lot of time for any of us to debate the fine points. We all just take projects and run with them. Zach's off doing the Kentucky election, Peter is working on the energy-reform bill or whatever, I'm doing this ad contest "Bush in 30 Seconds."
INDEX: For the contest, you're inviting people to create TV ads about Bush's policies?
ELI: Our members and a panel of judges that includes Michael Moore, Michael Stipe, and Margaret Cho will choose the winner. The ads will be shown where it really matters, in swing states around the country. The point behind this ad campaign is, "The president may have cowed the media and his political opponents, but he's not telling the truth. So let's spend ten million dollars to get the facts about Bush's policies in front of voters."
INDEX: Is the ten-million-dollar cost of running the ads going to be paid by members of MoveOn?
ELI: Yeah. We launched the ad contest on a Wednesday, and by Friday night we had two million dollars in the bank. Every time we do a campaign I think I know how much money we'll raise and how fast we'll raise it, but our members always exceed my predictions. What was so great about it was that the average donation was fifty dollars. Some people gave ten bucks and some gave a hundred.
INDEX: I've also seen MoveOn ads in the New York Times addressing Iraq and the FCC. How does MoveOn decide which issues to target?
ELI: Usually, our strategy is to pick an issue that should be getting more coverage in the media. Then we try to present that issue in a way that will encourage reporters to cover it. There was the FCC issue last year should a few big companies be allowed to mono-polize local media outlets? We were hearing a lot about it from our members, but there were no stories in the media. So we developed an ad with a guy sitting in front of his TV, clicking channels and every channel had Rupert Murdoch on it. Then the press had a story to cover.
INDEX: Did it work?
ELI: It blew the issue open. It was on the front page of the business section of the Times. It was in the Washington Post and on the A.P. wire.
INDEX: Were the articles about the MoveOn ad or about the issue itself?
ELI: They wrote about the ad as an indication of the unprecedented grassroots concern about the issue. The fact that our ads are paid for by MoveOn members sent a message to Congress that media ownership is a serious issue, and that there is a mobilized constituency of Americans who are concerned about it.
INDEX: I never thought politics could get so meta-political. MoveOn targets an issue that isn't being covered by the press, then the press covers not the issue, but the lack of coverage of the issue. And then the issue finally gets attention. In the case of the FCC, you won. The Senate voted to overturn the FCC ruling, didn't it?
ELI: Well, it's complicated. Maybe we'll win this year, maybe we'll win next year. But Congress now knows that it's going to be scrutinized, that people are watching. And that's what MoveOn does we remind Congress about the people it represents.
INDEX: There's a nice parallel there. You remind both the media and Congress to do their jobs.
ELI: Sometimes they forget. When you start to get a sense of what these institutions are like, you realize how isolated they are. People in Congress basically talk to other Congresspeople and their staffs. People in the media talk to other people in the media. That creates a herd mentality. I remember speaking to journalists about the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even though there wasn't any proof, I could see the idea spreading.
INDEX: Al Franken says that the mainstream media isn't biased left or right, it's biased negative, sensational, and lazy.
ELI: I think he's probably right. And once that conventional wisdom spreads in these isolated communities, it's very hard to point out that there's nothing backing it up. Our role is to act as a bridge between Congress, the media, and everybody else. We want to remind people in those two institutions what's happening in the real world.
INDEX: It sounds like MoveOn is also trying to combat the right-wing media machine.
ELI:Yes. And we're trying to do it without cheating, because, on the Right, they do cheat. The whole culture of the Right says, "We have to get power, and it doesn't really matter how we do it. The ends justify any means." Our challenge is to gain power and do it in a way that's consistent with the democratic process.
INDEX: So in an election year, what does that mean? Will you endorse a candidate for president?
ELI: Well, we don't plan to. But I say that with a caveat we don't plan even three months ahead. Three months from now, the situation may look very different and we may just say, "Let's go for it." In any case, it's something that we'd ask our members about.
INDEX: When you talk about asking MoveOn's membership, you're talking about asking upwards of a million people. How do you measure their responses?
ELI: We just set up a survey "Here's the idea, should we do it?" And we get instant feedback. People also make individual comments on exactly what we should do.
INDEX: How do you read the comments of a million-plus people?
ELI: We skip around a lot. [laughs] You know, you read a comment here and there, comments start repeating themselves, and it boils down to about twenty different thoughts. That doesn't mean that we don't lose a few brilliant thoughts, but we get a sense of where people are.
INDEX: How does it feel to be in that kind of contact with so many people?
ELI: When I write my emails, I always have the idea that I'm talking to someone. It's a personal appeal, direct and emotional, rather than a promotional piece. For some people, that establishes quite a strong connection. People don't know anything about Eli Pariser for all they know I'm a forty-year-old woman. But people will often come up to me and say, "I feel like I know you," or "You write me more than my mom does."
INDEX: So are you developing a radar for the 1.7 million MoveOn members?
ELI:You realize how many people that actually is. It's one out of every one-hundred-seventy people in this country.
INDEX: It's the population of a small state.
ELI: It's bigger. I'm from Maine, and Maine has 1.2 million people.
INDEX: Do you think it's enough to impact the next election?
ELI: Oh, yeah. Elections are usually decided by dedicated groups of tens of thousands of people. I have no doubt a lot of our members are going to be up for it.