Looking for Democracy's Next Big Thing Former software entrepreneur Wes Boyd is rallying MoveOn.org's members with the promise of unseating George W. Bush. But what happens to the group if it succeeds?
(Business 2.0) – When the history of the Internet's role in U.S. politics is written, the chapter before the one on Howard Dean will belong to MoveOn.org. Founded in 1998 by a married Berkeley couple, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, the liberal advocacy portal has blazed a trail that nearly everybody in politics, on both the left and the right, is barreling down these days. Online fund-raising and organizing, Web-based petitioning and lobbying--all were pioneered by Blades and Boyd and their crew of virtual rabble-rousers. With more than 2 million loyal, rabidly engaged members and a PAC that's proven ruthlessly effective at tapping them for cash, MoveOn has transcended its digital roots to become one of the country's most influential interest groups, online and off. As more than one expert has observed, MoveOn seems to be emerging as "the Christian Coalition of the left."
And so when I went to visit Boyd at his home in the Berkeley foothills, I expected to meet a Web-savvy version of Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin--the maximum leader of an army of laptop-toting, Bush-hating antiwarriors, poised to storm the barricades armed with Wi-Fi connections and IP addresses rather than placards and bullhorns. What I found instead was a balding, low-talking, crunchy-granola software coder and former CEO who's more at ease with the lingo of enterprise than with that of movement politics. A guy, that is, who calls MoveOn a "service business" providing "connection to the political process, using technology as a lever." And who's prone to make statements such as "We're really consumer marketers at heart."
Like any self-respecting entrepreneur, Boyd is pragmatic and paranoid. As MoveOn moves beyond its startup phase, his concerns are many and acute. He worries about the Republican attack machine, which has been firing at MoveOn for months. He worries about cynical journalists like me, who he believes are aching to write the story of its rise and fall. And he worries, of course, about the possibility that MoveOn will fail to achieve its goal of unseating President Bush.
All these fears are reasonable, but I think the bigger issue for MoveOn lies in a different direction--in a set of risks that have been confronted by countless other meteoric startups. Put simply, the question for me is this: Can MoveOn survive success?
Boyd has tasted success before. In the many articles about MoveOn, he and his wife are frequently described as "Silicon Valley millionaires." But this turns out to be severely misleading. Although Boyd and Blades ran a software house--known for a line of screensavers that included those famous flying toasters--they have never lived or worked in the Valley. And though they may qualify as millionaires, having sold their firm for a reported $13.8 million in 1997, their lifestyle resembles Larry Ellison's as much as mine resembles Danielle Steel's. And then there's Boyd's view of Silicon Valley's politics, which is best summed up by a story he tells about a visit he made to a meeting of TechNet, the Valley's über lobbying outfit: "Marc Andreessen was up there talking to a group of Democratic congressmen. The room was packed, and here was this young guy who didn't know shit about politics telling them what's what. I found it quite embarrassing."
While no one will ever confuse Boyd with a member of the tech elite, the lessons he took from the industry have formed the basis of MoveOn. Unlike the people at the helms of most traditional advocacy groups, he and Blades don't see the Internet as merely a cost-efficient way of talking at their constituents. They see it as a unique means of hearing from their customers. As Boyd points out, every MoveOn campaign so far--from protesting the Clinton impeachment and the relaxation of media ownership rules to organizing candlelight vigils against the Iraq invasion--has percolated from the bottom up, as opposed to being dictated from the top. "We do deep listening to our base; we know where they are and what they want to do," he says. "We live and breathe response rates, is what it comes down to."
Now Boyd and Blades are trying to apply this approach to traditional media. With the backing of billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, MoveOn has raised over $15 million for issue-based TV and print ads. (Its PAC plans to raise $20 million more for ads in support of liberal candidates.) In developing these ads--the most prominent of which has been a much-praised TV spot criticizing Bush for spending $87 billion on Iraq instead of America's domestic needs--MoveOn essentially uses its members as a giant focus group. The campaigns are fashioned first online, and only then, if they prove resonant, are they translated into video and ink. Boyd says he was skeptical at first about doing TV at all. "From what I'd seen in business, I thought most advertising was vanity," he explains. "But now I'm a true believer in the efficacy of TV advertising in politics--if it's done right, that is, and I know a lot of it isn't."
As Boyd began to burble on about gross ratings points, my head was filled with an image of him as a man on a very thin tightrope. MoveOn's credibility with its members rests on its outsider status--and on its association with the Internet as an insurgent, grassroots medium. Boyd is aware of the perils of the perception that MoveOn is being co-opted by "the system," and he's taking pains to maintain some distance between the group and the Democratic hierarchy. When the party gathers for its convention in Boston, he and Blades will be home in Berkeley. And when two MoveOn staffers in Washington recently proposed sharing an office, he shot the idea down instantly: "For us a D.C. office would be the beginning of the end."
These maneuvers are, of course, transparently cosmetic, and they do nothing to mask the fact that MoveOn's leaders are increasingly playing an inside game. As long as Bush is in office, however, no one will give a damn, so intense is the loathing for the president among the group's members. Indeed, for all Boyd's talk about how MoveOn represents a broad-based "silent majority," the truth is that its constituents are aligned around a single issue. Even Boyd admitted as much when I pressed him on the matter. "One of the most frustrating things," he said, "is that when we try to ask people about a broader range of issues, getting rid of the Bush administration is the answer that comes back to almost every question."
Which returns us to the issue of how MoveOn would cope with success. My guess is, not well. Think about it in business terms, as Boyd is wont to do. Listening to your customers is a powerful, if elementary, insight. But it's a vastly easier undertaking when all of them are asking for the same thing. The trouble comes when the market for your core product is saturated. The next step is diversification--and as any flourishing niche marketer will tell you, that can be a bitch. If MoveOn and its liberal brethren manage to dethrone Bush, Boyd and Blades will soon come face-to-face with an eternal verity in American politics: Their left-leaning customer base isn't merely fragmented but positively fratricidal, and often unable to agree on anything except what it's against.
None of this is to suggest that MoveOn's legacy is fleeting. Its innovations are likely to be imitated in politics for years to come, especially by advocacy groups and campaigns united around a single purpose. For Boyd and Blades, the challenge will be to define such a purpose broadly--and so far they seem befuddled about what that definition might look like. As Boyd said to me, "We're strong on the short term, and we're strong on the big picture--we're about participation. Where we're weak is on the medium term--about what happens immediately after Nov. 3."
I wish Boyd luck in figuring it out, but maybe he won't need to. Though a Bush victory would be a bummer for him, for MoveOn, it might prove to be a blessing.
John Heilemann wrote "Pride Before the Fall." His next book is "The Valley."