Justin Ruben had a good meeting with President Obama last week.
As the new executive director of MoveOn.org, the 35-year-old Texan was invited to a small White House gathering for allies on February 18, where he brought a message from his five million members to the new president. "This is a moment to go big," he said, citing daily conversations with MoveOn activists. "We understand that's not going to be easy, but people are mobilized and willing to fight to make it happen. That's really what I carried with me into that room," he said. Ruben outlined MoveOn's goals, its Obama strategy and its mechanisms for grassroots accountability in an exclusive interview with The Nation this week, his first extensive discussion with the media since taking the helm of one of the largest progressive organizations in the country.
As executive director, Ruben must now take a network that has long battled bad ideas -- impeaching Clinton, invading Iraq, gutting Social Security -- and adapt it to supporting and broadening the administration's agenda. "We're in this amazing position now where we get to fight for stuff," he says. MoveOn's four "core" policy areas, decided by members during December house meetings, are economic recovery, universal health care, climate change and ending the Iraq war. "Finally our top priority," he enthused, "is winning real substantive changes that will make a difference in the lives of everyday Americans."
That change agenda tracks closely with Obama's, obviously, and excludes some popular liberal issues that the administration has sidestepped. Politico's Andie Coller noted, for example, that MoveOn's new agenda does not address "holding the Bush administration accountable; fighting for gay rights and LGBT equality; and reforming campaigns and elections." And while MoveOn loudly led the battle against the Iraq "surge," Ruben said he not expect ending the war Afghanistan, where Obama is deploying additional troops, to make the priority list. The "overwhelming priority" is still Iraq, Ruben explains, and while his members are concerned about Afghanistan, they tend to "differ on what ought to be done about it."
Some critics complain that the organization has already swapped its independence for incumbent boosterism. "Clearly MoveOn has completed its morph into an Obama Cheerleading Squad" said John Stauber, a liberal critic of the group and longtime corporate gadfly.
Ruben, who has organized for labor, trade and environmental groups, thinks people have the ability to back incumbents and hold them accountable.
"Having spent a lot of time with MoveOn members, I think folks are loyal first and foremost to their vision of the country. They are tremendously hopeful about Obama," he acknowledged, while stressing how netroots activists gather a rich range of views on policy debates. "In the end they will come to their own judgment, and it will be informed by what he says, and what we say, and what they read in the New York Times and blogs -- and certainly Moveon members are pretty independent. They're not going to believe it just because we said it, or because the president said it."
While MoveOn is more democratic and member-driven than many liberal interest groups and virtually all foundations, the decision to tap Ruben was still made by five people, without any input from the group's millions of members. The board, made up of MoveOn's founders and the group's popular outgoing executive director, Eli Pariser, simply tapped Ruben from his post as organizing director. In our interview, Ruben was sympathetic to the idea that the members who provide the labor and money that fuels MoveOn should have more influence, but he argued that they control important decisions in other ways. It is worth quoting at length:
Ruben: The thing that's so interesting that a lot of folks don't get -- it wasn't obvious to me until I came work for MoveOn -- [is that] you can only work on the stuff that is right on the tip of people's tounges, right on the forefront of their consciousness -- the things that people are looking for a way to have an impact on. As an organization, a huge part of our focus is just oriented on just trying to figure out what those things are -- what people want to work on and how we can give them opportunity to make biggest impact, much more so than any other organization I've ever been a part of. That's our DNA. It's our whole core operating model. In that sense, I've found MoveOn to be more member-driven than formally democratic institutions that I've been part of.
The Nation: Like unions?
Ruben: Yes, or other more local grassroots groups that work by consensus. Because there are always power dynamics in situations -- things are formally democratic but you can have leaders who aren't seeking out what the great majority of folks are most passionate about. That said, technology is a powerful tool for aggregating opinions and allowing people to make decisions together. I am really interested in how we can keep using technology to make MoveOn more member-driven....When I think about role that members play in the organization, I want to see more ways we can tap into ingenuity, skills -- a lot of them are smarter than me and know lots of stuff that I don't know. The question is more than just allowing people to click and sign a petition, make phone calls or organizing a rally... Can they be formulating policy? Finding opportunities for other MoveOn members to get involved? We have a small staff, [so] we tended to not be very process intensive. Historically, that's something that people like about us: "I don't have to do lots of meetings; I can do it right from my house; Let me know exactly when there's something to do." [We want] to do more, but without the trappings of process that an end up excluding folks.
In a blog post last August, Ruben wrote that he could envision MoveOn adding "more formal democratic mechanisms," noting that members could not "vote for the board" or "fire the staff" or "frame the questions" in emails, and such reforms might make the group stronger. For now, the focus is on trying to "devolve more responsibility to shape our campaigns on the ground," Ruben said, though he doesn't know if members will vote on the next executive director.
In the end, it is hard to balance moderated grassroots energy with coordinated national campaigns, or to toggle from White House meetings with the president to hammering the administration with independent pressure. But for a relatively young, self-organized political organization, these are good problems to have.