The untapped political power of the Web just got tapped—big-time.
In late September, two Bay Area computer professionals set up a Web site (www.moveon.org) calling for Congress to immediately censure President Bill Clinton and move on to more important issues. Their plan was to spread the word through e-mail to friends, who would then further spread the word over the Internet.
They didn't have long to wait. Censure and Move On got 350 petition signers the first day, 1,500 the second, 10,000 the third, 25,000 the fourth—100,000 within a week.
Like many Web projects, this was an effort to reach out and find like-minded individuals. Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, a married couple and founders of Berkeley Systems (creators of the After Dark screen savers), were disgusted with l'affaire Lewinsky and favored a quick censure for the president and early retirement for Washington, DC's sex police. Discussing the issue with friends, they found universal agreement; even while the scandal-hungry media seemed Starry-eyed at the prospect of impeachment. "We figured if there's this broad opinion out there, maybe we can use the Internet to help catalyze that," says Boyd. After deciding to separate petition signers by congressional district and present them to their representatives before the House vote, Move On sent a group e-mail to ask for volunteers; 3,000 people responded. By the time the House approved impeachment with a mostly party-line vote December 19, approximately 300,000 people had signed the Move On petition. Now, after a post-impeachment flurry of new signers, the number is at 470,000 and counting.
Although treated by political professionals as more of a curiosity than a trend, a nationwide e-mail database of almost half a million like-minded voters can't be ignored. After the House vote, notes Boyd, "we turned our sights to the election and did a Get Out the Vote campaign. We were able—through e-mail and word of mouth—to contact about 4 million voters." The effects of the moveon.org effort can't be accurately measured, but they shouldn't be minimized in an election where Democratic gains came largely through getting voters to the polls, when those gains were all but unprecedented in history, and when they are linked with successes outside cyberspace—like the December 16 anti-impeachment rally in Westlake Park, organized by four Move On members. "We were hoping for 50 people to show up—we got 2,000 to 3,000," says Drew Emery, a rally organizer and the 7th Congressional District Move On spokesperson. Emery, who until the event had never done political organizing or spoken at a rally, is typical of the Move On recruits—as is Edmonds resident Teresa Wippel, a freelance writer and editor, who considers herself more an independent than a Democrat and says her involvement is unrelated to party politics. "Concentrating on [the Lewinsky scandal] is getting us so far away from the issues we need to focus on in this country," she says. "I really believe if this had happened to George Bush, I would not have felt any different."
Although Move On organizers are easily stereotyped as political naifs, they realize that e-mail alone won't force political change, and they have widened their focus to include the most important force in politics—money. After the impeachment vote, Boyd and Blades posted a request for pledges for the campaigns of office seekers challenging pro-impeachment House (and potentially Senate) members in 2000. Already, more than 18,000 voters have pledged to donate $12.6 million. For once, transitory throw-the-bums-out passion might translate into something real and sustaining.
Boyd plans to help direct the money in typical Internet fashion. The Web site will provide information about which pro-impeachment incumbents might be most vulnerable, but make no recommendations as to where people should apply their money. "They can make their own choices," says Boyd. "We're an information source, not a conduit."
WILL THE INTERNET be the new electoral battleground? Might it become a potent political weapon that can counteract the formidable power of incumbency? Let's not forget that there are numerous impeachment Web sites, both pro and con, that didn't cause a national sensation. The Enough Is Enough Web site petition, for example, got just 15,000 signees; a host of anti-Clinton sites also managed to maintain their obscurity in the face of almost constant hype about the Internet.
In any event, Boyd hopes that Move On's successes can dispel the image of the Web as being the domain solely of the passive nerd hacker (even though people do get involved in this effort while sitting at their computers). And in an era when rabidly partisan Republicans such as Henry Hyde and Trent Lott are considered moderates, he wanted to stress the moderate face of anti-impeachment feeling. Impeachment, in Boyd's mind, is not so much a question of two opposite extremes as of sanity vs. insanity.
One possible factor in Move On's success is a dramatic, if still largely unperceived, shift in the Web's demographics. Before every business decided it was imperative to have an Internet presence, the Web was inhabited in large part by obsessives and extremists. Factor in the libertarian nature of the medium, the basic financial requirements of owning a Web-compatible computer, and a lot of free time, and you end up with an image of the average Web user as being more conservative than his unwired counterpart. And there is no question that online discussions on impeachment issues tend to be dominated by Clinton haters, and the instant polls used by new organizations such as MSNBC also skew anti-Clintonward.
There's also little question that these interactive surveys (known in the business as "slops") are the bastard stepchildren of Web news organizations striving for legitimacy. Joan Connell, opinions editor at MSNBC, says the "live votes" have to be distinguished from "legitimate polls," which MSNBC also participates in. While there's nothing to stop multiple votes or conservative groups from organizing to skew the vote, the slops are little more than the site's obligatory interactive feature. Even on the archive-happy Internet, MSNBC doesn't bother to save the results of its live votes.
Although many Web experts seem to accept the common assumption—fed by the impression conveyed by slops—that the Internet is a white male conservative bastion, a study by David King of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government indicates that growing access to the Net has erased much of the presumed demographic skewing. Using late 1997 data provided by the Pew Research Center, King found that the documented (in 1994) gender gap among Web users has disappeared and that whites are no more likely than non-whites to use the Internet. He also found no evidence of an anti-government bias among the test group.
THERE'S EVERY INDICATION that the Clinton impeachment effort touched off a revolution—although in this case the Internet is the medium, not the message.
The American public has made its own judgment on Clinton's affair and its aftermath, and is rudely refusing to knuckle under to the twin dynamos of media and DC politics. Simply put, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr completed an expensive investigation of Arkansas financial monkey business and found nothing compelling enough to sink the president. He did, however, discover an affair with a young White House intern, and arranged for the president to be questioned about it at two legal proceedings specifically aimed at inducing Clinton's political demise. Much to Starr's delight, the president cooperated and lied.
In this sense, the September 11 release of the Starr Report effectively ended the information-gathering process. The blow-by-blow-job chronology was completely convincing—the president had an affair and denied it under oath and before a grand jury. The case then went to the political jury, which was asked: Were Clinton's sins serious enough to warrant ejecting him from office?
Public opinion polls say no. Although his support slipped after the release of the Starr Report, its saucy revelations proved a one-day wonder. Since then, the rate of those who feel Clinton should not be removed from office has held steady at about 60 percent. While the Constitution allows a president's removal for "high crimes and misdemeanors," the two examples provided, bribery and treason, seem a bit more serious than lying about a short-lived sexual relationship. "The elected members of the House and the Senate are not listening to what people are saying," says Katherine Bourdonnay, another organizer of Seattle's anti-impeachment rally. "Clinton's actions, even if he lied under oath, did not rise to that level."
With people across the country unreasonably asserting their right to make up their own minds, it is worth noting that so much of the impeachment "coverage" consists of other folks announcing their decision on the Clinton matter. A panel of distinguished historians proclaims that the president's crimes fall short of the removal standard; a panel of theologians and ethicists accuse Clinton of "manipulating religion" and being a lying toad (we paraphrase here). Republican "moderates" in the House announce their brave call to vote with their party leadership. Philadelphia cab drivers side with the president. (One Haitian immigrant hack driver told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the scandal is no big deal; "a big deal is when you kill somebody or you take money from the country." Good point.)
But let's not be so high-minded: If a sense of proportion limits public interest in these proceedings, the sheer lack of drama has killed it. The House vote almost exactly mirrored the Republican/Democratic numbers. The Senate vote will almost certainly be 55 Republicans for impeachment and 45 Democrats against it. Widespread anti-impeachment sentiment may be less a matter of Internet-mediated political awareness than of disinterest in a long-foregone conclusion. Suppose everyone knew the final score of the Super Bowl a month before the game. Think that would affect the TV ratings?
Given that impeachment is a non-story, is it any wonder that the sex scandals are the only thing anybody cares about? If we are going to impeach our president over 10 blow jobs (to borrow the words of noted ethicist Geraldo Rivera), how could the extramarital sexual exploits of pious windbags such as Rep. Helen Chenowith, Sen. Henry Hyde, and Rep. Bob Barr not be considered a story? And how about the hilarious Salon expos頯f Rep. Dan Burton, one of Clinton's most vicious and moralistic critics? The president would have to work hard to match the numerous tales of Burton's affairs, one-night stands, and propositions (not to mention his alleged fondling of a Planned Parenthood lobbyist as she tried to leave his office). For years, the married champion of family values kept a female friend on his campaign payroll as "campaign manager" (in a safe Republican district); after an investigation was threatened, she joined him in Washington, DC, where presumably she will campaign by telephone.
Relevant? Why not? If the Lewinsky scandal is best dubbed "Fornigate," the fornication-ridden Republicans make unconvincing accusers. And while Clinton's misdeeds have drawn comparison with the great skirt chaser John Kennedy, has everyone forgotten that Slick Willy admitted to marital infidelity on national television and still got elected? With the US economy entering its 93rd consecutive month of growth, the American people have a right to forgive Clinton's intern trespasses. Maybe conservative commentator William Buckley had the right idea when he blamed the '60s generation and its diminished moral standards for Clinton's continued survival. (He subsequently accused the president of "epistemological nihilism," which sure sounds awful.)
So, anticipating the foregone conclusion of the "historic" Senate debate and vote is an exercise that may make Clinton haters drool, but is just plain boring to ordinary folks. Will Henry Hyde be statesmanlike or sleazy? Can Strom Thurmond stay awake?
NOTHING DRIVES THE political process like righteous anger. And nothing dissipates faster.
That, at least, is the political pros' take on the numbers generated so far by Move On. "The life of a sitcom on a modern TV network is the only thing shorter than voters' attention spans," says Eastside-based political consultant Brett Bader, who does most of his work for Republican candidates. Bader sees the election of a new president, not the impeachment of the last one, as the defining issue of the 2000 race. "Frankly, this sort of information will be just background noise."
Cathy Allen, a Seattle consultant known for working with Democrats, isn't so sure about the political direction of the aftermath, but agrees with Bader that the movement, in whatever direction, will be insignificant. "I think the House and Senate guys are under more scrutiny than the presidential candidates," she says. "They end up looking really bad in terms of the time and money they've spent on this." One possible political Y2K scenario has Republicans taking a hit in Congress (with the uniformly mediocre first-term senators from the "Contract with America" Class of 1994 among the victims; see "Impeachment 2000," p. 27), but the GOP taking back the White House. "It could be a reversal of roles," notes Allen.
Although the speed of Internet communication made Move On a significant national political group, its continued success will be tested by the glacial pace of politics. Will the angry impeachment critics who pledged $250 in donations to candidates be mad enough to actually sign the checks in early 2000? Most think so. "I pledged $500 and I am going to spend that money," says Drew Emery, who cites Rep. Jennifer Dunn as heading his list of targets. "I absolutely will not forget this."
Lori Hughes of Mercer Island, 8th District Move On spokesperson, argues that impeachment opponents need to come through with their donations or risk being ignored in the future. "We have to make sure they know we have money behind our actions," she says.
Given that Move On's donation campaign, if successful, will largely benefit Democratic candidates, it remains to be seen if the group can maintain its nonpartisan image. Founder Boyd reports that a survey of petition signers shows that about 60 percent are self-declared Democrats, 30 percent independents, and 10 percent Republicans. As is always the case, the battleground of party politics is the middle—in this case the growing number of Americans who spurn affiliation with either major party. The Clinton scandal seems to be creating independents—two years of ABC news polls tracking party affiliation show the number of voters claiming Republican Party membership at a low point.
In a medium whose greatest advantage is the ability to communicate at lightning speed, Internet politics has yet to demonstrate staying power. Move On's short-term results, though, are impressive enough to breed copycats. Its pioneering use of a large e-mail database for a Get Out the Vote campaign worked well enough that both parties will have e-mail lists of their own before long.
This is where the Move On story, which reads at first glance like a classic and inspiring empower-the-grassroots tale, turns out to be something more dire. The real political pros are now weighing the Internet as a technological voter-targeting tool. In a recent paper posted on the Web, Harvard's David King envisions the modern campaign organization for a House of Representatives seat purchasing the names and addresses of district voters from the major Internet search engines (the real purpose of those free e-mail boxes having been to obtain your home address). Any politics-related search will be able to easily identify a likely voter, local newspapers can reveal which stories you've been reading on their Web site, and companies like Amazon.com may be happy to identify what political books you've been ordering. While we have been trumpeting the benefits of the Internet to citizens and activists, Big Brother has quietly been reaping the real benefits of high-speed, interactive, searchable, and sortable communication. A tool that looked at first like an antidote to an incumbent's fund-raising power eventually will prove a further extension of that power.
That, as they say, is progress.
In the final analysis, Move On's success may one day be remembered as an important milestone on the Internet's inexorable journey into the mainstream. Here's hoping that by the time targeted group e-mail and other efficiencies become a permanent addition to the standard American campaign, the Move On head start will have helped rid Congress of all those right-wing Clinton haters.