Political activism: A Conversation with Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Political activism: A Conversation with Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org

Joan Blades and husband Wes Boyd, fresh from the sale of their software company Berkeley Systems (of Flying Toaster fame) in 1998, started MoveOn.org based on the reaction to their one-line Internet petition aimed at re-focusing Congress's attention from the impeachment effort: "Censure President Clinton and Move On to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation," it said. Hundreds of thousands of people signed on. Since then, MoveOn.org has been the focus of progressive grass-roots activism for millions nationwide. Blades was in Pittsburgh on April 27 to accept the 2005 Hollander Award for Women's Leadership from Chatham College, where she spoke.


What are you planning to talk about?

The message is fundamentally that we're doing well, that people that haven't been involved in politics are getting involved and that's going to be good for the system.


Will MoveOn be focusing some of its efforts against Sen. Rick Santorum's reelection?

I would be very surprised if we didn't. We've already started Operation Democracy, which is neighbor-to-neighbor organizing nationwide. What we learned last year is that people like making these connections in their communities. It's very powerful, so that on issues like the filibuster or Social Security, people are engaged, so that when it comes to be election time, people can focus on electing candidates who share their values.


So what the heck happened on Nov. 2?

More people showed up at the polls than showed up for decades, and that was good. I admit I was shocked that more people showed up to vote for this president than previously. I understand it more when I understand we didn't even share the same facts. Better than half of them believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Better than half of them believe there was a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. That is deeply troubling to me.


What should the Democrats do now?

Stand up and fight. Many of them are doing it and doing it very well, thank you. Some of them have momentary lapses. I figure it's our job to let them know what's important to us and they need to represent that in Washington.


Should Dems move to the center?

I don't believe in the center. You have to have beliefs, what's right. We've got a fight right now about the filibuster: Should a minority party have some say in what judges are appointed? Some Republicans are standing with the Democrats and saying this is absolutely a fundamental role of the Senate. I think no one's wavering there and the message is very clear. On the issue of Social Security, private accounts do nothing to strengthen Social Security and they deepen our debt that is already very troubling. It's a burden on the future. And the cost of Iraq was originally at $50 billion, and now it's what? At $280 billion? The realistic assessment of costs is not happening here.


Should Democrats learn to profess more faith?

Al Gore just gave an eloquent speech on the filibuster today [to a MoveOn gathering]. I can't think for a moment that he's not a man of faith. The values I hold, I think I share with the vast majority of Americans. The center is either where I am or it's something I don't believe in. Take a look at MoveOn. If you look at the issues that we have gone to the mat on, they're very mainstream issues. The message on Iraq was, let the inspections work. Do not engage in pre-emptive war, where there was a lot of creativity on the intelligence.


How are you going to reach people who aren't already focused on the latest e-mail from MoveOn or, for that matter, ConservativeAlert?

Certainly it's easier to send an e-mail to a friend you know is like-minded. On the other hand, many people can agree that if we have the capacity to clean mercury out of the air we should do it, or [that] eliminating the estate tax from multi-millionaires is a bad idea. The "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad [funded by MoveOn members to run during the Super Bowl] was called "Child's Play." That shows children working at blue-collar jobs. The last line was, "Who's going to pay for the $3 billion deficit?" The MoveOn members want to speak on the issues that cross party lines.

That deficit is hanging over our heads. It's kind of interesting that we're not addressing it at all. The amount of taxes corporations pay has just been in a steady decline over the last couple of decades. We have the growing need for the middle class to pay for [a greater proportion]. We're running up this huge credit-card debt, essentially. You can see the dollar getting weaker in the world economy, yet there's no credible approach for addressing the debt. We don't have a balanced budget. We're increasing our military budget. Raising taxes on anyone or anything is such an anathema at this point I'm afraid we're going to push our credibility to the point where we suffer some sort of painful reverse. Aren't I sounding like a fiscal conservative there? It's this strange role reversal that has happened. The environmental issues we all share. The fact that one in four women of childbearing age has more mercury in her bloodstream than is safe to have a child -- that's horrendous. Clean air, clean water, we need them for the health of our children. To make them partisan issues seems counter-productive. We should be working on them collaboratively. Energy independence seems like an area where there's huge potential.


Will the right ever be seen as going too far?

I do think the right is overreaching. [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay is a poster child for practices we don't want to see. To have ethical charges brought and that cause a rule change? With the Terri Schiavo case, that's very personal matters that have been worked through painfully. To have it become a national display is very ugly. And the filibuster is the threat that goes to deep structural integrity of our system. It's horrifying, in fact, that there's not consensus that it's a bad thing that we are so divided.


Often it's predictable where a group will fall on the issues. Do you expect MoveOn will surprise us any time soon?

We see our job as listening to our members. It's a combination of very active listening and looking at the political landscape and helping them to be effective. That does not imply surprise. The places where we have grown most quickly are cases where there has been a vacuum of leadership.

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