Speaking at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Monday, Tom Matzzie, the Washington, D.C., director for MoveOn.org, said his organization helped organize anti-war vigils supporting Cindy Sheehan this summer in all 50 states, in places as far away as Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Although the organization relies mainly on coastal and urban clusters of support for its fight to “defeat the right wing and elect moderates and progressives in 2006,” MoveOn.org also has members in the U.S. heartland, with at least 12,000 members in Kansas and other similarly-sized states with historically conservative majorities, he said.
“We are growing faster in red states than in blue states,” Matzzie said. “I think that is because progressives are under-served in red states, and we are providing opportunities to get involved because our organization is so ubiquitous.”
Matzzie spoke to a group of about 30 students at the tea, which was co-sponsored by the Yale College Democrats, about the future of the Democratic Party, how the Internet has changed the speed at which people can get involved in politics, and the importance of how the public perceives power.
Matzzie said MoveOn.org’s growth comes from individuals taking the initiative to forward e-mails to friends and family members. But he said the organization does not buy or sell its e-mail lists and intends for Internet campaigns to supplement but not replace traditional grassroots approaches.
“I hope it doesn’t replace person-to-person organizing, because there are huge amounts of people that aren’t on the Internet,” Matzzie said. “Progressives would lose their souls if they left out people not on the Internet.”
MoveOn.org can mobilize its members in 24 to 48 hours, Matzzie said, flooding the switchboards of Congress with phone calls when unpopular legislation is under consideration. Matzzie said Moveon.org members have contributed more than $50 million to the political action committee.
“Last week, Congress was working on budget,” Matzzie said. “We were able to swamp 25 moderate Republicans with pressure on their phones, faxes and offices back home so much that Representatives Roy Blunt and Tom DeLay had to pull the bill from a vote. This is legislation that would have cut tens of billions of dollars for student loans and Medicaid. It was a huge victory and scared them away. There is this story about the revolt of the moderate Republicans.”
The key to effecting political change, Matzzie said, is establishing unified public movements.
“Someone once told me what matters in Washington is not votes, not money, it is consensus,” Matzzie said. “It is the consensus that we are stuck in the mud in Iraq, that the President’s social security plan is done. That is powerful stuff. How do you shape that consensus? That is our approach to legislative advocacy, issue advocacy.”
Projecting an image of consensus may be the Democratic Party’s biggest challenge, Matzzie said, as upcoming elections will determine how well the party is able to communicate with the public.
“The intellectual discourse on the left is not as rich as it was at different points in history,” Matzzie said. “There has been a hangover from the Cold War to drone out more left-leaning thinkers. I guess Republicans just got to be more aggressive about setting up think tanks, policy institutes, and coming up with ideas. But Democrats have the challenge to think up ideas distinct enough from Republicans. They need to sell it like commercial marketers do, which is why MoveOn.org does so many TV advertisements.”
Some students said they enjoyed Matzzie’s talk and agreed with MoveOn.org’s organizing tactics.
“He makes an important point that it’s much less important to sway individual members of Congress than sway the entire population,” Kevin Bock ’08 said. “There’s the argument of the trickle-down effect when elites have an opinion, … but it also works the other way, and MoveOn.org really takes advantage of that.”
But Zachary Dennett ’06 said Matzzie’s talk did not help him understand why MoveOn.org chooses to focus on certain issues while ignoring others.
“I was a little disappointed he didn’t explain very much about MoveOn.org’s policies,” Zachary Dennett ’06 said. “I still didn’t hear exactly which issues MoveOn.org feels strongly about.”
Unlike other progressive political action groups, Matzzie said, MoveOn.org currently has no plans to run ad campaigns against Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito LAW ’75.
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