Welcome David Karpf (Yale) (DavidKarpf.com) and Host Nicco Mele (Harvard) (Nicco.org)

The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy

My first job out of college in the late 1990s was as the “webmaster” and online organizer for Common Cause. At the time, Common Cause was one of the largest grassroots advocacy groups in Washington, DC and had offices in almost every state capital. It was probably at the height of its power and financial resources. And just about every single dollar of its sizable budget was raised via direct mail. My job, as a young nerd, was to build an online advocacy capability that would augment the power of the “armchair activist” Common Cause could tap through phone banking and direct mail. Little did I know that at the time the internet would provide a massive disruption to both the fundraising model and the advocacy model that built Common Cause.

Dave Karpf’s exceptional book The MoveOn Effect examines and explains the rise of the Netroots, putting organizations like MoveOn.org, the PCCC, and DailyKos (and, I daresay, Firedoglake!) in historical and academic context. There is a rich study of political institutions and organizations that Karpf is able to tap into to better plumb the depths of what we have now, how it is different from what came before, and where we might be heading. Dave not only brings an academic and historical point of view, but he brings an activist point of view. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Sierra Club, serving on their National Board of Directors from 2004 to 2010.

The book is essentially divided into four parts: first, an examination of MoveOn.org and more broadly MoveOn’s model and its impact on political advocacy, organizing, and fundraising. He examines MoveOn.org in the context of an earlier generation of advocacy organizations, like the Common Cause I experienced just out of college, and the Sierra Club that Karpf was active in as a college student. How did advocacy and political activism work before MoveOn.org? How did MoveOn.org change things?

But MoveOn.org and the giant email list is just one part of the Netroots landscape, so Karpf deftly moves on to look at the role of blogs – and more specifically community blogs – as a new form of political association, one that shares characteristics with the old institutional Democratic Party infrastructure. Along the way, Dave invented something called the Blogosphere Authority Index, an academically rigorous and structurally coherent way of measuring the true community strength of blogs – not just their traffic, but the activity of a blog’s readers, comments, and contributors. The third major examination of the book is a look at the relationship between online and offline, taking a deep dive into the Meetups of the Howard Dean presidential primary campaign of 2004, and the political meetings that continue to persist long after the campaign ended.

Finally, Dave takes a deep breath and plows into an interesting and compelling argument about why the Republicans don’t have a MoveOn.org or an ActBlue.com, and why their blog communities don’t carry the same weight as the blog communities of the Left. He argues that the weakness of the Republican Netroots boils down to the fact that they were in charge in the 2000s, holding the White House and (for the most part) one side of the Capitol. As the political establishment, they didn’t need technology for leverage and political power – so they didn’t develop it.

I have done his arguments a disservice in trying to quickly sketch them out so as to encourage some discussion; you should buy the book and read it to reach deeply into his compelling arguments, interesting observations, and provocative questions. I am delighted to be able to join this discussion of Dave’s book. I have a heavily marked up paper copy (I know, so old school! But the old habits of blue bic pen notes in the margin die hard; see Billy Collins’ poem Marginalia for a chuckle  that I keep returning to, keeping notes with the ambition of sending Dr. Karpf a detailed missive peppering him with questions, observations, and the occasional complaint.

I am looking forward to this discussion with great interest. Thanks again for inviting me to do this, and for letting me a part of the discussion.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Nicco Mele

Nicco Mele

obsessed with poems, dogs, and my wife & sons; faculty at Harvard Kennedy School; nerd-futurist at EchoDitto.com; author of EndofBig.com out in the spring of 2013. Talk to me on Twitter @nicco