Ballot Box

Feel-Good Politics

The therapeutic activism of

“I feel good about being here,” a member of the liberal online group told the San Francisco Chronicle last month, during one of the more than 1,600 house parties organized by MoveOn to determine what its members wanted to focus on after John Kerry’s defeat in the presidential election. The 27-year-old woman might as well have been speaking for all of the 18,000 MoveOn members who participated across the country. The ideas that emerged, at least from the San Francisco meeting, weren’t very practical—”including a boycott of all ATM machines from companies that produced the electronic voting machines, a national strike and changing the economic paradigm of the country from consumption and production by just ‘not buying anything,’ ” the Chronicle reported—but that’s because MoveOn, despite all appearances, has never been about practical politics. Rather, it’s an exercise in group therapy.

There are worse things to do in life than make people feel good, but most political organizations—especially ones that spend more than $30 million during an election and get called a left-wing Christian Coalition—have more concrete goals. MoveOn, however, isn’t an organization so much as an outlet. It’s a network of aggrieved liberals, connected by the central nervous system of the Internet, and it enables its members to convince themselves they’re “doing something” when they’re really not.

To be fair, nor are they really harming anyone, either. For more than a month, Democrats have been gazing at navels and searching souls in an attempt to figure out What Went Wrong. Was it the candidate? The message? Moral values? 9/11? Karl Rove? During all that time, MoveOn hasn’t come in for much of a beating, even though the group created the occasional distracting controversy for John Kerry, such as a short flap over a MoveOn ad that featured an American soldier drowning in quicksand. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart did target MoveOn, along with Michael Moore, as one of the elements that Democrats needed to purge from their ranks, but Beinart, like MoveOn itself, overstates the group’s importance. MoveOn doesn’t merit any blame for Kerry’s defeat. It just deserves to be added to the long list of Internet bubbles that were inflated by unrealistic media expectations and self-created hype.

The analogy to the Howard Dean campaign is irresistible: lots of money, lots of buzz, not a lot of votes. Beyond the presidential campaign, only four of the 26 candidates endorsed by MoveOn won their elections this year. Since its creation in 1998, it’s hard to come up with a single significant political achievement that can be credited to MoveOn. It did nothing to stop the impeachment of President Clinton, the event that galvanized the group into existence. Nor could it stop the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, the war in Iraq, congressional redistricting in Texas, or the election of President Bush. During the presidential campaign, MoveOn received its heaviest dose of publicity for a failure of sorts, when CBS rejected its proposed Super Bowl ad. Dean was mocked for placing a distant third in Iowa. MoveOn just keeps moving on.

The organization’s name derives from its impeachment mantra—”censure and move on”—but it describes the group’s ethos, too. Political campaigns are filled with busywork, to keep volunteers engaged with sign-painting and rally-going until the endpoint of Election Day. But MoveOn has confused the means with the ends. The group declares its actions to be a success when it organizes its members to call a congressional office every five minutes, or to circulate an e-mail, instead of when one of its political aims is achieved. MoveOn has turned itself into a perpetual motion machine, one that’s great at inspiring its members to engage in the political version of treadmill running but never goes anywhere.

“They say they want to mobilize Democrats, but it doesn’t seem like they have any infrastructure to do so,” an aide to one of the Democratic presidential candidates told me. “It seems that they run ads to build name recognition, so they can raise money, so they can run more ads.” If the goal is to energize the Democratic base, MoveOn isn’t even succeeding at that, the aide complained. They’re “just exciting a finite universe of hysterical liberals.”

In the days after Sept. 11, Americans wanted to do something, anything to help those who had been struck by tragedy. So they did something: They gave blood, and they went home feeling better about themselves, knowing they had done their part. Later, they found out that the country had given so much that, more than likely, their contribution was thrown away. During the therapeutic politics of the 2004 presidential campaign, MoveOn was the Red Cross: It made liberals feel better, but all those $50 contributions were wasted.