Move Where?

by James Kirchick | July 24, 2008

The most tragic aspect of MoveOn.org is that it's a group with noble beginnings -- an online community for people frustrated by the circus that was the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton -- that has since transmogrified into a preserve of the radical, pacifist left. Christopher Hayes's cover story in The Nation this week attempts to argue that the organization's current agenda is a logical outgrowth of its originating mission and that it remains "squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic Party." That may be the case for its views on things like energy and health care -- laudable goals, certainly -- but those issues are not what has animated MoveOn since 9/11, foreign policy and America's role in the world are. And it's these views that, while increasingly popular within the Democratic Party, are hardly representative of most Americans.

After Clinton survived impeachment, MoveOn was largely dormant. Until 9/11. Recalling that dark period, Hayes shows us that the organization's approach to international terrorism and rogue states has always been one of "restraint" and deeply suspicious of American power:

The day after 9/11, [Eli] Pariser, then living in Boston, wanted to do something to help. When the local blood bank told him it was beyond capacity, he channeled his anguish and hope into an online petition he e-mailed to thirty friends. Earnest, plaintive and humane, it made the case for international leaders to use "moderation and restraint" in responding to the attacks, and called for employing "international judicial institutions and international human rights law to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks, rather than the instruments of war, violence or destruction."  

MoveOn has since denied that it officially opposed the war in Afghanistan, but Eli Pariser, the group's Executive Director, openly opposed the war in Afghanistan, a military conflict supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans, and was hired to lead MoveOn primarily due to this anti-war on the Taliban web organizing. In his 2004 TNR article, "A Figthing Faith," Peter Beinart argued that MoveOn and Michael Moore should be booted out of the Democratic Party by people serious about America's role in the world, just as anti-totalitarian liberals booted communist fellow-travelers out of the party 60 years ago. The analogy pertains, but the Democratic Party, at this point, is far from saving.     

Hayes purports to show that MoveOn.org is the modern equivalent of Richard Nixon's silent majority. To believe this, you have to believe that most Americans agree with the sort of pacifist nonsense above, and all the other assorted, conspiratorial, angry nonsense (like its demagogic "Not Alex" commercial) that appears on MoveOn.org on a daily basis. The group's claimed membership of over 3 million people, dutifully reported by Hayes, is surely inflated by the presence of people who signed up for their email alerts a decade ago, even the liberal blogger Hilary Bok admits that "membership in MoveOn means very little." To illustrate the group's galvanizing effect, Hayes finds a woman who was so absorbed by her hatred for the impending Iraq War that she "couldn't concentrate on her job" and became an active MoveOn participant. I don't for a minute doubt this woman's sincerity. But she's hardly representative of the average American. Reihan Salam gently concludes, "When people become so consumed by politics, there is usually a reason that is independent of politics," i.e. something psychological.  

Case in point:

"The idea that MoveOn is like some foaming-at-the-mouth, swinging-from-the-trees liberal interest group is kind of a joke," says influential blogger Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake.com.

This is a peculiar sentiment coming from Ms. Hamsher, she of the Joe Lieberman-in-blackface infamy.

To be sure, MoveOn has a significant, albeit baleful, influence on the Democratic Party. Their position on abandoning Iraq when al-Qaeda was in control of Anbar and Shi'ite militias ruled in the roost in the south was strategic malpractice and moral idiocy. What bloodshed would there have been had we followed the advice of Eli Pariser two years ago? (Remember when MoveOn, impervious to reality, vilified liberal Democratic congressman Brian Baird for the crime of reporting positively on the surge last year?) Their attempts to claim that their position was somehow in solidarity with the Iraqi people was ridiculous.

While Hayes is right to claim that MoveOn has taken hold of much of the Democratic Party, he has no ground on which to stand when it comes to trumpeting the organization's influence over the course of American foreign policy:

Or consider this: to manage its lobbying efforts and programs for its more than 4 million members, the NRA has a staff exceeding 500 and a $15 million, 390,000-square-foot office building in Virginia. MoveOn has a staff of... twenty-three. And no headquarters.

This would be a compelling point were not the conceit of the article -- that MoveOn has made any discernable headway on its key agenda item -- false. The NRA is an incredibly successful organization, the measure being that it has actually accomplished tangible goals on its legislative agenda. It's so successful, indeed, that the very talk of gun control in this country has largely become obsolete. It may be true that MoveOn, as Hayes claims, has "pioneered an entire approach to conducting politics through the Internet that has been replicated and spun off across the country and around the globe." But it has most certainly not "permanently transformed the landscape of American politics." The animating principle of MoveOn for the past 5 years, the issue that has dominated its energies to the exclusion of pretty much all else, has been Iraq. On this vital issue, what can MoveOn define as "victory" other than earning a bipartisan, overwhelmingly-passed congressional resolution condemning it "in the strongest  possible terms" for calling the greatest American military officer of his generation a traitor?

--James Kirchick

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/move-where