On February 3rd, in the midst of my afternoon slumber, a violent coup shattered the core of American democracy and unleashed mayhem. Okay, actually, I got a “White Supremacist Coup Alert” email from MoveOn.org—a liberal advocacy group that’s been kicking and screaming since 1998 and, in recent years, has launched a myriad of digital petitions playing into Blue America’s worst anxieties. After clicking on the email, which had the subject line “Trump is crushing us,” I learned that the former president had built a “massive war chest: $122 million in political cash” to fill the coffers of MAGA congressional candidates so they would help him overturn the next election. Unwilling to “chip in $5 a month” to entrust the fate of the republic with MoveOn.org, I closed the message and went about my day.
But I couldn’t bring myself to unsubscribe once and for all.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I sacrificed the sanctity of my Gmail inbox to MoveOn.org. Maybe I signed a petition during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech, not bothering to consider how this act of virtue signaling would result in years of being bombarded with requests to give $5 to various deranged lackeys of the Democratic Party. Whether it’s a Republican congressional candidate passing a fundraising benchmark, or a Fox News host spewing his latest reactionary rant, to MoveOn.org, it’s a five-alarm-fire. Over time, the organization’s emails have become my guilty fascination, offering a window into the paranoid insularity of political discourse and absurdities of liberal righteousness.
I wish I could get rid of this digital clutter, but what’s life without a daily dose of impending doom?
Let’s do an exercise in the Butterfly Effect. If President Bill Clinton possessed a dollop of self-control while in office, I wouldn’t get MoveOn.org emails. In 1998, at the height of his impeachment scandal, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, a Bay Area-based progressive couple who cofounded a software company that marketed screensavers of flying toasters and aquarium fish, started an email petition encouraging Congress to “Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.” The tech-savvy duo then launched MoveOn.org, gathering over one hundred thousand signatures from people who agreed that Clinton’s sexcapades didn’t warrant regime change. In June, 1999 MoveOn.org became a Political Action Committee (PAC), donating directly to Democratic candidates and eventually, due to tax reasons, splitting into two separate entities.
Raising millions of dollars, MoveOn.org spearheads online mobilization initiatives. Their Civic Action group has, apparently, millions of members who can make their own petitions. Alas, I’m one of them.
MoveOn.org’s penchant for hyperbole is indicative of a larger trend in political marketing. A 2020 Princeton study analyzing over one hundred thousand campaign emails found that across the aisle, “sensationalism” and “urgency” were common tactics. Trump has emailed his supporters about how they need to help him stop the Democrats’ “voter fraud” plot. Even if MoveOn.org doesn’t spread baseless lies like Team MAGA, their tone—I’ve received multiple “White Supremacist Coup” alerts that turn out to be news about another Trump-backed Republican running for statewide office—comes off as either alarmist self-actualization, or a cynical ploy to create a lucrative conspiracy of their own.
Since addressing anything on a structural level is too opaque for an email blast, it’s easier to set goals that may not matter that much in a few months. Sifting through my archive, it may seem like the organization’s outreach initiatives are either trivial or apocalyptic. Admirably, in the past, MoveOn.org denounced the invasion of Iraq and turned against the establishment by endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. However, despite any gestures towards inner-party critique, the advocacy group ultimately carries water for mainstream Democrats and feeds into pointless discourse cycles.
In 2004, when conservative groups tried to ban Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 from theaters, MoveOn.org told its members to buy tickets for the film’s opening weekend, later claiming 116,649 pledges. Moby posted their letter on his website to get his fans to go pay to see popcorn propaganda.
But to what end?
Fahrenheit 9/11 shattered box office records, Bush was reelected, and then, during the 2006 midterms, MoveOn.org refused to support primary candidates running against Democrats who voted for his sadistic foreign policy.
Now, in 2022, still aimless, incompetent, and perpetually plagued by messaging disasters, the Democrats can’t come up with a slogan that matches the rallying cry of Make America Great Again. Build Back Better sounds like your overworked father telling you for the umpteenth time that if you stand up straight, the school bully won’t greet you with a swirly.
Please welcome to the stage, MoveOn.org.
Last November, I received an email advertising a “Pro-Science, Pro-Health, Pro-Vaccine” cardholder—Keep your vaccine card safe with this free cardholder! Another email describes it as “a unique way to spread the message” and “share your values.” I’ve received other messages reminding me that “Republican politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene have compared mask wearing to the Holocaust” and dangling an ever so tempting offer: Can we send you a pouch for your masks?
Out of everything sitting in my inbox from MoveOn.org, it’s these emails that most illuminate the pitfalls of liberal righteousness and fill me with the greatest dread. Hesitancy around vaccines and masks isn’t solely the fault of charlatans spreading misinformation, and it’s not just a matter of having the right “values” you can flex with ugly tchotchkes. Our low vaccination rate is also a product of our dysfunctional, privatized health care system, which the Democratic Party can’t fix because they are enmeshed with the corporate sector. Instead of using this moment as an opportunity to reflect on societal failure, these tit-for-tats exacerbate the problem by relishing the fact that “science,” “health,” and the “vaccine” have become partisan signifiers.
As we remain unprepared for the next pandemic and impending environmental crises, one of the biggest progressive organizations is hawking plastic cardholders in exchange for your data. And if you’re looking for any actual solutions, shut up and Move On. Didn’t you get that alert about the coup?
Though MoveOn.org technically consists of millions of people, many are probably like me, passively letting their email inboxes get flooded with this content, telling themselves that in two days, three days, okay, definitely next week, they will finally take a stand and say, “enough.” But I will never unsubscribe. MoveOn.org’s emails aren’t a reflection of what the average Democrat thinks or feels. Rather, these messages demonstrate political operatives trying to address voters’ concerns with bizarre and often comical results. That’s way too tantalizing to ever give up. I’ll be getting their emails until Armageddon.