The geek organizer, Mr. MoveOn.org, the Ralph Reed of the left: Sept. 11 dove parlays progressive Web politics into Democratic powerhouse.
Days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 20-year-old Eli Pariser launched the Web site 9-11peace.org., which featured a petition that called for “the perpetrators to be brought to justice,” but in a way “that was multilateral and made sure that more innocent civilians weren’t going to die.”
Mr. Pariser sent it on to 30 friends, who sent it on to their friends. Within days, the server was crashing because too many people were trying to access it. More than 500,000 signed the petition in less than two weeks.
Now, as campaign director of MoveOn.org, the political Web site and progressive Democratic political-action committee, Mr. Pariser is harnessing that same power to dramatically change the mainstream political landscape.
The advocacy group has grown to more than two million members, organized hundreds of thousands of young people around the 2004 Presidential primaries, provided a youthful, uppity alternative to the Democratic Leadership Council, and even mobilized disgruntled Republicans who think the Bush administration has drifted too far to the right. MoveOn.org can deluge Congress with e-mails in a matter of minutes, as well as organize protests and assault hot political contests. It’s the kind of thing that propelled conservative and Christian political forces to the forefront of the Republican Party in the Reagan era. If MoveOn.org is the liberal version of Christian Coalition, then Mr. Pariser is the Ralph Reed of the left.
Founded in 1998 by millionaire techie couple Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, MoveOn.org has raised more than $6.5 million in support of sympathetic candidates in the coming election cycle. Its online Democratic “primary” gave Vermont Governor Howard Dean the nod and is cited everywhere as the force that pushed Dr. Dean into the forefront of the race, and continues to generate-for free!-a massive political-support network for the candidate that his opponents pay dearly for, and don’t often get.
MoveOn.org so impressed mogul-philanthropist George Soros and Ohio billionaire Peter Lewis that they pledged $5 million to help the organization’s Voter Fund air anti-Bush campaign ads. In a recent speech to MoveOn members, Al Gore thanked the group “for using 21st-century techniques to breathe new life into our democracy.”
Mr. Pariser told The Observer that he was “the geek organizer.”
“It’s because I’m using the Internet to get people involved politically,” he said in his casual baritone. “It’s about connecting people with their leaders in such a way that they have a real impact.” Insiders called Mr. Pariser the genius architect of MoveOn’s most successful campaigns. Last fall, he spearheaded the antiwar campaign that tripled MoveOn’s size and hurled it onto the national radar. And in June 2003, he launched its effort to roll back the F.C.C.’s controversial media-consolidation rules-convincing Congress to consider repealing some of the changes. More recently, he’s been working with Moby, Al Franken and other progressive celebs on the “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest, according to MoveOn.org’s Web site, “to help us find the most creative, clear and memorable ideas for ads that tell the truth about George Bush’s policies.”
“Eli seems to be very creative at finding ways to empower people to do things that they never would have imagined they could,” said Robert Borosage, a Democratic strategist who runs the Campaign for America’s Future. “What MoveOn has done which is so extraordinary is to take people away from their computer screens and get them to meet and do a political action.”
“I have no idea how he got it so together at 22 years old,” said Wes Boyd, laughing. “I certainly wasn’t together at 22 years old, I can guarantee that.”
But Mr. Pariser seems to have been one of those always-together kids. At 15, he left home and parents-founders of an alternative high school in Camden, Me.-and headed off to Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., where he studied law and political science and wrote a thesis on the 14th Amendment. At 19, he graduated summa cum laude and, with a few friends, started the American Story Project, a kind of Studs Terkel–meets-the-Internet documentary of the national political soul. They raised more than $100,000 and recruited filmmaker Michael Moore to the board of advisers.
After Sept. 11, Mr. Pariser’s Web site, 9-11peace.org, caught the eye of Mr. Boyd and his MoveOn colleagues, who offered Mr. Pariser technical support. “We learned very quickly just how talented he is,” Mr. Boyd said, “and I think Eli appreciated our approach as well.” In November 2001, the Web sites merged; Mr. Pariser went to work full-time for MoveOn.org in April 2002.
“Honestly, this is my dream job,” said Mr. Pariser. “I have a lot of friends who, at 22, are working at the local pizza shop or whatever. So, yeah-I guess what I’m doing is a kind of success. But, you know, the big success would be to actually win for our issues, and we haven’t gotten quite there yet.”
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