The Silence of MoveOn

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Crossposted with The Nation May 26, 2009

The Silence of is defeaning. Are we seeing here another sign of liberalism’s inescapable limits?

By Tom Hayden


The expanding wars in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—the so-called “tribal areas”—now threaten the very stability of Pakistan

The most powerful grassroots organization of the peace movement, MoveOn, remains silent as the American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan simmer or escalate.

Last December 17, 48.3 percent of MoveOn members listed “end the war in Iraq” as a 2009 goal, after healthcare (64.9 percent), economic recovery and job creation (62.1 percent) and building a green economy/stopping climate change (49.6 percent–only 1.5 percent above Iraq.) This was at a moment when most Americans believed the Iraq War was ending. Afghanistan and Pakistan were not listed among top goals which members could vote on.

Then on May 22 MoveOn surveyed its members once again, listing ten possible campaigns for the organization. “Keep up the pressure to the end the war in Iraq” was listed ninth among the options.

Afghanistan and Pakistan were not on the MoveOn list of options.

Nor was Guantánamo nor the administration’s torture policies. (“Investigate the Bush Administration” was the first option.)

MoveOn is supposed to be an Internet version of participatory democracy, but the organization’s decision-making structure apparently assures that the membership is voiceless on the question of these long wars.

What if they included an option like “demanding a diplomatic settlement and opposing a quagmire in Afghanistan and Pakistan”? Or “shifting from a priority on military spending to civilian spending on food, medicine and schools?”

This is no small matter. MoveOn has collected a privately held list of 5 million names, most of them strong peace advocates. The organization’s membership contributed an unprecedented $180 million for the federal election cycle in 2004-2006. Those resources, now squelched or sequestered, mean that the most vital organization in the American peace movement is missing in action.

What to do? There is no point raving and ranting against MoveOn. The only path is in organizing a dialogue with the membership, over the Internet, and having faith that their voices will turn the organization to oppose these escalating occupations. The same approach is necessary towards other vital organs of the peace movement including rank-and-file Democrat activists and the post-election Obama organization (Organizing for America) through a persistent, bottom-up campaign to renew the peace movement as a powerful force in civil society.

This is not a simple matter of an organizational oligarchy manipulating its membership, although the avoidance by MoveOn’s leadership is a troubling sign. There is genuine confusion over Afghanistan and Pakistan among the rank and file. The economic crisis has averted attention away from the battlefront. Many who voted for Obama understandably will give him the benefit of the doubt, for now.

Silence sends a message. The de facto MoveOn support for the $94 billion war supplemental reverberates up the ladder of power. Feeling no pressure, Congressional leadership has abdicated its critical oversight function over the expanding wars, not even allowing members to vote for a December report on possible exit strategies. In the end, a gutsy sixty voted against HR 2346 on May 14, but many defected to vote for the war spending, including Neil Abercrombie, Jerry Nadler, David Obey, Xavier Becerra, Lois Capps, Maurice Hinchey, Jesse Jackson, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Patrick Kennedy, Charles Rangel, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Loretta Sanchez, Rosa De Lauro, Bennie Thompson, Jerry McNerney, Robert Wexler and Henry Waxman. (Bill Delahunt, Linda Sanchez and Pete Stark were not recorded.)

If there were significant pressures from networks like MoveOn in their Congressional districts, the opposition vote might have approached 85.

Appropriations chair David Obey in essence granted Obama a one-year pass to show results in Afghanistan. If the war appears to be a quagmire by then, he claimed, the Democrats will become more critical. Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered the same message; according to the Washington Examiner, May 6: “There won’t be any more war supplementals, so my message to my members is, this is it.” Pelosi’s words were carefully parsed, saying that the White House would not be allowed another supplemental form of appropriation, which is different from an actual pledge to oppose war funding.

This one-year pass means that the grassroots peace movement has a few months to light a fire and reawaken pressure from below on the Congress and president. In the meantime, here are some predictions for the coming year:

Iraq: Will Obama keep his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Iraq on a sixteen-month timetable, and all forces by 2011? At this point, the pace is slowing, and the deadline being somewhat extended, under pressure from US commanders on the ground. Sunnis are threatening to resume their insurgency if the al-Maliki regime fails to incorporate them into the political and security structures. The president insists however, that he is only making adjustments to a timetable that is on track. Prognosis: Precarious.

Afghanistan: Will the Obama troop escalation deepen the quagmire or become a successful surge against the Taliban by next year? Another 21,000 troops and advisers are on their way to the battlefield. Civilian casualties are mounting, causing the besieged Karzai government to complain. Preventive detention of Afghans will only expand. US deaths, now over 600, are sure to increase this summer. Taliban may hold out and redeploy in order to stretch US forces thin. Prognosis: Escalation into quagmire.

Pakistan: US policies have driven Al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the United States is attacking with Predators and turning Pakistan’s US-funded armed forces towards counterinsurgency. Public opinion is being inflamed against the US intervention. Prognosis: An expanding American war in Pakistan with greater threats to American security.

Iran: With or without US complicity, Israel may attack Iran early next year, with unforeseeable consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prognosis: Crisis will intensify.

Global: The United States will fail to attract more combat troops to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan from Europe or elsewhere, causing pressure to increase for a non-military negotiated solution. Prognosis: Obama still popular, US still isolated.

Budget priorities: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will deeply threaten the administration’s ability to succeed on the domestic front with stimulus spending, healthcare, education and alternative energy. Prognosis: false hope for “guns and butter” all over again.

About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd), The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in Iraq (2007) and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008).

Read’s response to this article here. An earlier version of this article mischaracterized a February 2009 conversation between President Barack Obama and Jason Ruben, executive director of According to MoveOn, Ruben did not say that the organization would drop opposition to funding the war in Afghanistan, to sending additional troops or to attacks on civilians.

2 comments on “The Silence of MoveOn

    MoveOn has also rendered its members voiceless on healthcare.

    For some reason they chose to join at the hip with Howard Dean from day one and totally compromise themselves. The predictable end to this game is that the healthcare companies will conveniently “snip out” any sort of “public option” at the end of the process.

    Result: Healthcare lobby gets everything they wanted. People get even worse and more expensive choices.

    Clearly there’s an MBA involved somewhere at MoveOn–or maybe a whole slew of them. They decide what is “realistic,” and everybody gets screwed in the process.

    MoveOn has run its course. They are so over! Just like every operation run by a bunch of MBAs.

    Claude Crider
    Atlanta, GA
    05/28/2009 @ 2:14pm

    Tom Hayden seems right on target with his assessment of MoveOn, and actually, the majority of the antiwar movement. Mr. Obama seems more interested in prosecuting his “good war” in Afghanistan than in ending the US crusade against the perceived Muslim enemies. Obama does not seem to have internalized the notion that Muslims might have legitimate grievances that, were they addressed honestly, might well isolate the most savage of the anti-American Muslims while bringing the Muslim mainstream back into a peaceful relationship with the US.

    John W McCarthy
    Jaffrey, NH
    05/28/2009 @ 1:44pm

    I have moved on from Moveon during the 2004 election, and have stopped supporting Commondreams before the 2008 election. It is difficult to fully support The Nation for many of the same reasons. Why?

    Because of their support for the corporate Democratic Party leadership candidates–the candidates who never said that they would stop the war in the Middle East; never said that they would decrease the military budget; never said they would investigate war crimes; and never said they would support single-payer healthcare.

    Continuous war under a Democrat should be just as unacceptable as under a Republican.

    In fact, Mr. Hayden’s endorsement of Obama seemed contrary (and irrational) to his stated positions prior to the election, and contrary to this article. He had an opportunity to not endorse the Democratic Party corporate candidate (and maybe even endorse a third party candidate). He didn’t.

    I guess “people” wanted someone “winnable,” but what did they win?

    There are not always do-overs, and sometimes you run out of time. The nature of society is not to stand up for truth but to lie down for easy, but false, marketing slogans.

    If there weren’t enough reasons to not vote for the Democratic corporate candidate this past year, then there never will be enough reason.

    So sorry. Hope is the opiate of the masses.

    Attila Gyenis
    Mad RIver, CA
    05/28/2009 @ 03:05am

    MoveOn put in place its current green jobs campaign, which now seems to be its principal emphasis, with a Stalinist type poll: the few Cheneyists who disagreed with its all-or-nothing premises could be swept aside easily.

    This is an organization that pretty much admittedly conflates flash mobs with democracy and, exactly like Tom Hayden writes, is a little oligarchy that is primarily concerned with managing its worker bees.

    David Smith
    Fort Lauderdale, FL
    05/27/2009 @ 8:25pm

    We appreciate Tom Hayden’s attempt to start a discussion here about the progressive posture on security issues, and we even understand his attempt to use MoveOn as a foil. We agree that it’s time to confront the organizing challenges of building an effective peace movement in the Obama era, and we expect MoveOn and MoveOn members to play an important role in this.

    In order to have a productive conversation, however, we have to make sure the facts are correct: Tom’s characterization of our democratic process is inaccurate, and in the lead of this piece he completely mischaracterizes Justin’s conversation with the president. Our executive director, Justin Ruben, never “indicated that MoveOn would not be opposing the $94 billion war supplemental request, nor the 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, nor the increased civilian casualties from the mounting number of Predator attacks.” And the article by Ari Melber that Tom referenced as a source does not say that Justin said this. That particular conversation was about MoveOn members’ current organizing focus on energy, health care, and the economy. And our belief that the administration should “go big” on progressive policies in these arenas.

    Ilyse Hogue (Communications Director)
    Washington, DC
    05/27/2009 @ 5:40pm

    I am addressing this personally to Mr. Hayden, as I have done with the same theme four times now, without an answer. What should America do to protect the little girls who are getting battery acid thrown in their eyes as a punishment for attending school? Do you care?

    Or would you prefer a “diplomatic” solution that says this behaviour is tolerable?

    Unless you can address this problem, you have no credibility and will accomplish nothing.

    John D. Froelich
    Upper Darby, PA
    05/27/2009 @ 2:46pm

    At least MoveOn does survey their membership to find out what the members think are priorities. Democracy for America does, as well. However, Progressive Democrats of America has never surveyed their membership for any opinions or viewpoints. It is the membership of an organization who should be deciding the stand that organization takes on policy and tactics.

    Doris Freeman
    Phoenix, AZ
    05/27/2009 @ 1:51pm

    Tom: The ironies are overwhelming. Aren’t you the one who promoted Obama because your son was impressed with him (along with the many progressives who got persuaded by their own children)? It’s heartbreaking that he’s betraying the trust of the progressive movement by sending our young to die slaughtering the people of yet another country. It’s insane that MoveOn isn’t putting this horror front and center. Tom, write your own open letter to Obama. Maybe he’ll listen to you.

    Lauren Coodley
    Napa, CA
    05/27/2009 @ 08:59am

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