“The MoveOn Effect” Looks at Advances in Online Advocacy

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Move On

August 24, 2012; Source: The New Republic

This article in the New Republic reviews a book by David Karpf, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, which was released in May and looks at how the use of digital platforms have disrupted politics and revolutionized, though not replaced, other mass advocacy efforts. Personally, we can’t wait to read it. Karpf studies digital/online politics and political engagement. His thesis is that online activist organizations have redefined membership and fundraising practices via innovative methods for consistently gathering the opinions of their communities and moving people from opinion to action—both in terms of mobilization and organizational support. He gives left-leaning organizations like MoveOn the credit for pioneering “nimble mobilization tactics that keep pace with the accelerated media cycle” and he believes that the left still has a leg up in that practice but he notes that these tactical innovations have not necessarily spread to more traditional advocacy organizations.

According to Paul Starr, the author of the New Republic review of the book, Karpf describes the history of more traditional advocacy organizations, which were sometimes criticized for their unwillingness to reflect the voices of more grassroots interests, seeking instead to appeal to the interests of checkbook members or those who could be counted upon to donate in larger amounts. Karpf knows this terrain because he did his time as a vice president and board member of the Sierra Club.

According to this review, Karpf contrasts traditional and new online organizational types, pointing out that the traditional are more expensive in that they rely on professional advocates and direct mail. They are also slow to change, Karpf argues, according to Starr. The new online-based groups can have “absurdly small” budgets because they operate virtually. They may have more luck keeping progressive people engaged because they move from issue to issue in response to participant interest and public events. They can also change quickly both in terms of engagement and fundraising strategies employed. Karpf does point out, according to Starr, that there is still a place for the old-line groups in staff-intensive strategies such as litigation.

One of the more interesting observations here is that the new online advocacy organization does not necessarily depend on patronage by the wealthy. Writes Starr:

“The new low-cost methods of organizing are especially important at a time when one of the central threats to American democracy is the entrenchment of oligarchic power. The new organizations cannot provide the impetus for a progressive revival, but they can help to supply the infrastructure. In an anxious season when too much of our politics is about money, this is at least one basis for confidence that we have not yet lost the means for making democracy work.”

NPQ would love to hear from any readers who have read this book or have thoughts about these changes in the landscape of advocacy and political action. –Ruth McCambridge