Speaking with Eli Pariser, who has rallied hundreds of thousands in protesting US military action in Iraq
By Sam Pfeifle
Stories about the power of the Internet have long since become clichť. Itís impossible, however, to write of Eli Pariserís accomplishments without using that tired phrase. He has, quite literally, harnessed the power of the Internet, to the tune of more tŁan 700,000 online signatures on a petition he originally posted at www.9-11peace.org and now can be seen at http://peace.moveon.org. Written just after the September 11 attacks, the petition implores the US government and world leaders ďto use moderation and restraint in responding to the [September 11] terrorist attacks against the United States,Ē and ďto use, wherever possible, 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.Ē
Rather than just a list of names, Pariser and the people with whom he joined forces at MoveOn.org ó an online progressive campaign originally designed to move the country beyond the Monica Lewinsky scandal ó encouraged people to write notes of explanation. And these 700,000 testimonials made one seriously impressive stack of papers when delivered to world leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, and US President George W. Bush.
From there, as US sights shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, Pariser ó who became MoveOn.orgís international campaigns coordinator ó and his colleagues targeted their efforts on the vote for the authorization of force against Iraq. After setting up meetings with every senator in the United States prior to the vote, and orchestrating thousands of emails and phone calls, MoveOn was widely credited with influencing enough representatives and senators to make the vote interesting.
They continued this effort right up through the election, actively campaigning and raising more than a million dollars in small contributions for candidates who stood up to say they would not support unilateral attack on Iraq. One of them was Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a tragic plane crash. The others were House Representatives Rush Holt, Jay Inslee, and Rick Larsen. They all won their races.
Pretty impressive stuff from a guy, in Eli Pariser, whoís 21 years old and grew up in Camden. When the Phoenix got him on the phone, he had just stepped out of an anti-war organizing meeting with representatives from the National Organization of Women, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO.
Phoenix: So I take it things havenít slowed down since the election.
Eli Pariser: Well, weíre definitely in a period of reflection: What are the next steps? How do we move things forward from here? But, certainly, there are sort of big plans afoot and I think the early part of December is going to be very exciting across the country, there are going to be lots and lots of things going on, especially on a religious front, which is pretty cool as well.
Q: So, I know that you came into MoveOn through 911-peace.org. Is it still all about the anti-war movement for you or have you found yourself getting involved in more political issues?
A: Well Iíve always been involved in a whole bunch of things. I guess I got my start as an activist in Camden as an environmental movement guy, and in college I worked on some anti-corporate stuff, and I worked on socially responsible investing, and Iíve been doing all sorts of things for a while. You know, 911-peace was not by any means the product of a long history with the peace movement. It was more of an instinctual response based on where I thought things looked like they were going. You know, doing foreign policy peace work ó it came to me, I didnít go to it exactly. But, over the last year Iíve certainly come to really be excited about it and, for me as an organizer, thatís certainly where my center is right now.
Q: I kept abreast of a lot of the fundraising campaigns you were behind in supporting anti-war candidates. I know you were heavily behind Chellie Pingreeís campaign. What sort of impact do you feel like you had on the most recent election, and is there anything now, looking back, where you might have liked to have targeted your efforts differently?
A: I donít really have a whole lot of regrets [he kind of laughs]. Right after the Iraq [use of force] vote, we did an outreach that was sort of a ďreward the heroesĒ campaign, and it was directed toward four people who had really taken a stand. They were in tight races, and they did the right thing: Paul Wellstone and three representatives. You know, the three representatives won and Paul would have. So, in that respect, I feel really good about that initiative.
I think one of the most significant things about the election is that no one lost on their vote against the Iraq resolution. Not a single person. In fact, the poster boy for being tarred as anti-patriotic was [Georgia Senate Democrat] Max Cleeland, who voted for the resolution. So, I think one of the messages that the elections definitely gave was that when the Democrats split and ran scared on that vote, they were only hurting themselves by doing that. They werenít picking up an electoral advantage.
So, coming out of the elections, one of the things that Iím excited about is the fact that the Democrats have had their wake-up call. They know that they canít accommodate any more, and there are real signs that, as a party, theyíre beginning to actually take a stand, get a backbone, you know, fight back. And Iím very excited about that.
Q: Do you think Nancy Pelosiís becoming the House Minority Leader is part of that correct direction, that direction youíd like to see the Democratic Party going in?
A: Absolutely. She was one of the lead organizers of the vote in the House against the resolution, and she really did an incredible job of getting a majority of Democrats to vote against their congressional leader [Dick Gephardt]. The thing thatís exciting to me about Nancy is that itís not just Iraq, she actually is a leader with a vision and with all sorts of principles and concerns that sheíll be working on. I think weíve not seen enough of that in the Democratic Party recently.
Q: What about Tom Daschleís announcement that heís going to stay on as Senate Majority ó well, now, Minority Leader? Do you feel thatís a maintaining of the status quo or do you think he can work with people like Pelosi to keep going forward?
A: I believe that Tom Daschle can be a good leader for folks concerned about Iraq and a whole bunch of other issues. I think what happened that was really critically wounding in the run up to the Iraq vote was that, apparently without consultation with Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt went ahead and said, ďYeah we agree to this resolution.Ē That left Daschle as the only leader in Congress who was not giving the resolution the thumbs up, and, ultimately, thatís a very difficult position to be in. Do I wish that he had stuck it out anyway? Yes. But I believe that, working with Pelosi, he has the vision and he has the leadership to get some good stuff done.
Q: You guys have focused a lot of attention on trying to reform the Democratic party. What about the Green Party as an alternative to the Democratic party. Do you think itís a viable option for people?
A: We certainly have a lot of members of the Green Party on our list, and we welcome that. I believe that on a national level, the way the system is currently structured, the Greens end up being the spoiler. I think, basically, the Greens and the Democrats need to work together. They need to figure out how they can pull together around what I think are primarily common values. I believe the base values of the core constituencies of both parties are more or less the same. And the question is, ďHow do we work together to forward our progressive agenda for our country?Ē Rather than squabbling over slight differences in platform.
Q: Coming back to Maine. We watched polling numbers for Collins and Pingree from the very outset of the race. People voting for Collins never really dipped below 60 percent at any time during the race. Why wasnít Chellie Pingree able to chip away at Collins voters at all?
A: Susan Collins plays a very good game of triangulation, moving to the center when itís convenient. It was a very difficult campaign in that respect. Also, Chellie didnít have the name recognition, the credibility from the get-go, that Susan Collins did. I was talking to [Pingree] two years ago about this, and then, and ever since then, she said this would be a very difficult campaign. But what I think is very exciting is that a lot of people did get out there on the streets, they did work on that campaign, and they did engage in that campaign, and I do believe that momentum wonít be lost going forward and in other campaigns in Maine, hopefully, if she runs again.
Q: Itís been perplexing for me that weíve had Allen and Baldacci, and now Allen and Michaud, Democrats, as our Congressmen, and Snowe and Collins, Republicans, as our senators. How do you explain to yourself that Maine can go the Democratic route with the congressmen every two years, but then stay Republican with the senators?
A: I donít watch Maine politics close enough on that level to have a really great answer for you. But we all know that Maine voters are notoriously independent, and for a lot of people it really isnít about the party, itís about the candidate.
Snowe and Collins have both played their cards well and accommodating enough so that the argument about why they should go just isnít very strong once theyíre in there. And thatís really what the Democrats are going to have to work on in Maine: making the case that, ultimately, no matter how these folks vote, their first vote is going to be for Trent Lott. And that agenda runs entirely counter to what I feel a lot of Mainers think theyíre voting for when they vote for these people. If thatís the case, what really needs to come across is that the party really does matter, and I donít think Mainers want to mess with a party thatís all about corporate tax giveaways to the very rich, and global militancy.
Q: Now, youíve had a chance to witness the anti-war movement on a national scale. Iím seeing it mostly here on the Maine scale. How does the 2500 people who showed up in Augusta to protest the war, or the 300 people who have gathered twice in Portland to protest the war, go along with other states around the country? Is Maine a very anti-war state, or is it similar here to other places around the country?
A: I think that demonstration in Augusta, in particular, was outstanding because every time I looked at press coverage of that day they mentioned the demonstration in Maine. And I think, yeah, thereís a lot going on in Maine and there are a lot of people in Maine who are doing some serious organizing.
The other piece of this is that thereís a whole lot of this movement that you donít see represented at those rallies. So, if there are 2500 people coming out into the streets, there are 25,000 who are staying home and making their phone calls and giving money to Chellie and doing all of these other things as part of that anti-war movement. And so, yes, it seems to be a hotbed almost.
Q: Youíd label it a hotbed, huh?
A: Well, it amuses me to say that, because it sounds almost like a contradiction in terms. But one of the things that I love about Maine is that people give these issues some actual thought. And anyone who gives the issue of invading Iraq some real thought will quickly realize that the numbers donít add up and that thereís something wrong here. I think thatís probably whatís happened.
Iíve certainly run into all sorts of Mainers who are not the usual suspects, who have not been involved in political stuff before, and who are saying, ďI was just thinking about this, and what the heck are we doing?Ē
Q: How much impact on the thought process of elected officials do you think a demonstration like the one on October 26 in Augusta has? Do Senators Collins and Snowe look at that and really pay attention in their voting, or do you think, in the end, it all comes down to whatís happening in Washington?
A: Susan Collins was a tragedy for us. MoveOn had a meeting with her office in late August, she invited a number of folks to meet with her personally in September, and, it appeared that she, well, I believe that she did give it some thought. And part of the reason that she gave it so much thought is because when we had this meeting with her in September we brought along two registered Republicans who had voted for her. And those people said, ďListen, on a lot of issues, Iím in agreement with the Republican party, but, on this one, you really got to think about this.Ē So, she was definitely listening.
The tragedy, of course, is that, in the end, she folded, and I think she folded against her better judgment, which is one of the reasons we supported Chellie. Collins needs to have more leadership, more of a spine, than that. I think her instincts on this might have been okay, but she didnít listen to them, she listened to the president.
Q: That same day as the Augusta rally, there was a giant rally in Washington, DC. The press coverage, I thought, was pretty minimal for that event, considering it was, I have been told, the biggest anti-war rally since Vietnam. Have you talked with people who are in DC about that, and do you think the amount of people who showed up for the protest had an impact on the legislators who were in Washington?
A: It has to have some impact. But, personally, I think thereís a lot more to be done than rally, although I think the rallies play an important role in the movement. I do think that the level of grassroots agitation on this issue is absolutely percolating up, and itís one of the reasons why you do see people like Nancy Pelosi coming to the fore of the Democratic Party and saying ďWeíre mad as hell, and weíre not going to take it any more.Ē
Q: Obviously, itís combined with lobbying, organizing, petitions, and the online petitions that you are putting together. It seems to me that the Internet allows you to get in touch with a lot more people a lot faster, but do you think that the online petitions are given the same legitimacy as standard petitions?
A: Well, when we presented the petition for Maine, which had about 2200 signatures on it, to Susan Collins, her eyebrows went way up, and she was really digging through it. I think part of what gives it legitimacy is that itís not just a list of names, or, worse yet, just a list of email addresses. Itís peopleís comments as well, and we really encourage representatives and their staff to look through those comments, many of which were very heartfelt and very articulate.
So, I think thatís part of how itís effective. The other part is that when we do have these meetings with representatives, we can say ďHereís us, and hereís what we have to say,Ē but hereís also these 2000 people that we represent, and you need to be listening to them as well.
Q: Iíve made the comment that this most recent Senate campaign ignored everyone under the age of 60 almost entirely. Do you think, working online, itís possible that you might be able to energize more of these younger voters because they tend to be more internet savvy?
A: I think thereís definitely a possibility. You know, youíre right that people who are running these campaigns need to wake up and realize that this is a very potent resource they have in younger voters. And itís not just a source of votes, itís a source of energy, itís a source of where the future of the party and where the future voters are going to be. Thereís only so much that we can do on that online, but it certainly makes me happy when I get an email from a 15-year-old who says ďThis is the first thing that Iíve ever done, coming to this meeting, and it was really exciting and I felt like my senator, my representative, really listened, and Iíll be there the next time you do it.Ē Thatís what we hope to build again and again and again with folks who are tentatively entering the movement.
Q: What do you think is the most important entry point into the political process for young people, both pre-voters and people in their twenties and thirties?
A: At some point, we have to take over the party, the parties, and Iíd rather see that happen sooner than later. In some ways itís indicative of the party culture that in the race in New Jersey and in the race in Minnesota the people they could find to take the place of Toricelli and Wellstone were septuagenarians. There werenít any young rising stars that they could tap and say, ďHereís your chance, go for it.Ē Theyíre going to need to take over the party. Thatís a daunting task. I hope that we can make this movement against Iraq something that feels welcoming and feels energizing and effective for young people.
I hate saying that because it sounds so condescending.
Q: I know, it sounds like an insult.
A: And given that I am, uh, them. I am one. A young person.
Q: So am I.
A: Actually, the young people that I run into apply more discretion to what they get involved in than any other group. Not because theyíre lazy, but because they donít want to be involved if itís not going to be effective.
They still remember that itís supposed to be about being effective.
If you make that case, they will be there and they will do very hard work and they will make things happen, but you have to say, ďWeíre not just going to sit around and have meetings, and twiddle our thumbs, and elect subcommittees. Weíre going to go out and do stuff.Ē Itís my hope that we can provide that within the context of this movement against war in Iraq and have it both be an end toward stopping the war but also have it be about engaging a whole new generation of activists.
Q: Do you find yourself constantly combating a cynicism in our generation, the feeling that no matter what we do weíre not going to be able to make a difference?
A: Yeah [he laughs], and itís not just in our generation. Itís across the board. There are real problems. People are talking and people are not listening on the national level. It is not a misperception to think thatís a problem.
The real problem, though, comes when people say, ďMy representatives arenít listening to me, I better just give up.Ē When you do that, you cede the debate to the people who have an agenda that they want to push through, and maybe itís about oil, and maybe itís about US domination of the world. Youíve basically lost at that point.
So, itís about reminding people that cynical road doesnít go anywhere, it doesnít lead anywhere. It isnít helping in any way. If we can all engage and get involved, things will happen. We do see that. We do know of representatives who voted another way because they got 2000 emails and 300 calls and all their best friends were calling them on the phone and telling them they had to do this. Every now and then it still works and you have to mobilize around those opportunities.
Q: We recently did a story on the National Initiative for Democracy, a program started by former Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel, which would bring the citizen initiative process, like the one we have here in Maine, to the national level, so that citizens can initiate federal law. Do you think thatís something the US should have and do you think that itís viable in making government more responsive?
A: I donít know enough about it to offer an informed opinion. There are certainly some legitimate reasons behind having a system of representatives instead of direct democracy. I shudder to think of what could happen in cases like right after September 11, because people would be acting on their emotions rather than having a layer of discretion. Itís not that I think the representatives are doing a terrific job, but I think there is some structural value to that. Thatís about as much as I could say.
Q: What about being a representative yourself? Are there any political aspirations in MoveOn, whether itís Wes Boyd or yourself or someone else in the organization? Are you going to try to start running candidates, and start to try and win some elections, or are you going to stay more on the PAC level?
A: Weíre definitely trying to win elections. Thereís no question. And the PAC is definitely more than just money. Itís volunteers. Itís time. Itís energy. I think we demonstrated that in this go around. We did the first-that-we-know-of national phone bank for a Senate candidate and we did that for [Oregon Democratic candidate] Bill Bradbury, and we made about 65,000 phone calls in about five days. Getting people around the country pitching in on campaigns where we have a great candidate, and they stand for the things that we believe in, weíll be doing that more and more and more. Ultimately, we hope that the Democratic party will, and all of the parties in power, will take what our members are saying very seriously. Because, as it grows and as it grows, this is the group of people that vote and this is the group of people that gives money, and they damn well should be listened to. We see ourselves as trying to facilitate that kind of communication between our members and representatives, and, ultimately, weíre at their service, we donít have an agenda beyond serving them.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.