The Dream Movement’s Halting Start

by Zelda Bronstein on August 4, 2011

It was disturbing, but not surprising, to read Leslie Savan’s story about the wildly disparate coverage of conservative and liberal rallies on Capitol Hill last week. Both events addressed the debt crisis deal. Exemplifying the mainstream media’s right-wing bias, CNN puffed the 60-person gathering held by the Tea Party Express, while ignoring the gathering of 450 to 500 people (the legal maximum) assembled by the American Dream Movement, a coalition of over seventy groups, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU and the Sierra Club, led by MoveOn and the Campaign for America’s Future.

But here’s what I find equally disturbing: though I attended one of the 1,500 house meetings around the country sponsored by the Dream campaign over the weekend of July 16-17 and then participated in a follow-up, hour-long nationwide conference call on July 21, I didn’t know that the Dream rally had taken place until I read Savan’s report.

The American Dream Movement would seem to be off to a stumbling start. One problem is a lack of coordination between the campaign’s two lead organizations, MoveOn and the Campaign for the American Future.

Combing through my emails, I see that on July 27 I got a message from MoveOn that mentioned planning for “an emergency rally on the Capitol steps” but said nothing about the Dream campaign. The reference to the rally was accompanied by a request for a $350 donation to MoveOn and the statement “Yes, I can contribute to keep up the fight.” Barraged by MoveOn solicitations, I ignored the presumptuous request and forgot about the rally, about which I never heard another word from either MoveOn or the Campaign for America’s Future.

On July 28 a friend who had attended another house meeting received an email from Robert Reich inviting her to register for the Campaign for America’s Future “Take Back the American Dream” Conference to be held in Washington, D.C. on October 3-5. I’ve yet to receive that invitation. My friend, for her part, never got the MoveOn ask.

Issues of coherence and continuity were apparent during the July 21 conference call, which was run by MoveOn staff as a follow-up to the previous weekend’s house meetings. The subject line in the last-minute (July 20) email invitation to join the conference call said: “Let’s keep our momentum going.” The invitation itself appeared as a postscript under the heading “Next Steps: American Dream Movement.” Former house meeting participants were told they would “learn more about how to stay connected locally and August organizing opportunities.”

As it emerged during the conference call, the only way to stay connected locally was to join, or if necessary to form, a MoveOn local council and to meet again in a council context by July 31. After over one hundred callers-in indicated that they had never heard of the councils, the staffers spent a good part of the hour to explaining how to set up and run one (basically, go to MoveOn’s website and download council operating instructions).

One caller-in said that she “was happy that MoveOn exists” — she’d donated money to the organization — but that it “sounds as if you’re kind of recruiting just for MoveOn,” whereas she was “interested in the Dream” — and understandably so, given the conference call’s billing. A long pause. Then a MoveOn staffer informed us that “the councils are the American Dream Movement.” Oh.

Nobody said a word about the Campaign for America’s Future or its October conference about reclaiming the American Dream.

Far more more troubling, nobody said a word about intervening on the ground in the battle that was then raging over raising the nation’s debt limit, an epochal struggle that would be resolved in the coming week, and whose resolution would weigh heavily on Americans’ actual dreams and real prospects. The only action cited by the MoveOn staffers, other than getting involved with a local council, was an August 10 National Day of Action focused on the slogan “Where are the Jobs?”

The silence about the debt limit struggle was mystifying, and not only because the stakes in that struggle were so high and its resolution so near at hand; or because (presumably) hundreds of would-be progressive activists were right there on the line, waiting for a summons to act; but also because MoveOn had been urging its members to visit the offices of their Democratic representatives in Congress and tell them to — I quote from a July 19 email — “hold the line against Republican efforts to default on the American dream” by cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.

MoveOn’s Justin Ruben told Leslie Savan that his organization had gotten 20,000 people to protest “the various debt deals” at more than 800 Congressional offices across the country on July 26. (But on August 1, the day after Savan’s piece appeared on The Nation’s website, MoveOn emailed out an “URGENT” request asking its members to indicate if they were for or against the debt deal Obama had just cut with the Republicans and then advising them to “make your voice heard” — failing however to tell them what to say.)

Purportedly intended to maintain the momentum generated by the house meetings, the conference call was further mystifying in that the people running it ignored the work that had been the focus of those gatherings — what MoveOn described as “a grassroots agenda-creation process that we’ll use to drive the American Dream movement forward.”

When Van Jones announced the Dream campaign on June 23, he invited people to submit ideas for possible inclusion in a Contract for the American Dream (a name that, regrettably, evokes Gingrich’s Contract with America). The ideas would be posted online for review, and the best ones — chosen exactly how, he did not say — would be presented to house meeting attendees for their assessment. On July 9, MoveOn sent out an email over his name stating that 16,000 ideas had already been submitted, and that “together we’ve rated them more than 3.5 million times.” Ultimately the number of ideas would top 25,000.

Thankfully, house meeting participants were presented with only forty ideas divided into four categories — “Working Democracy,” “Strong Communities,” “We All Pay Our Share,”and “Good Jobs Now.” We were asked to rate the top three in each category. The eight people at the meeting I attended in Berkeley took that task seriously, giving both the ideas and each other’s ideas about the ideas careful consideration.

One issue that repeatedly came up was our uncertainty about the purpose of the exercise: were we supposed to be looking for slogans that would get people into the streets or for long-term policies? MoveOn’s instructions didn’t say. We also grappled with the redundant character of some of the forty ideas. But we soldiered on and finished our assignment.

Toward the end of the conference call four days later, a woman asked, “What’s happening with the Contract we were all working on? When will we see the collated results?” “In the next week or two,” came the reply. “We continue to get input.” And indeed, MoveOn was still accepting online reviews of the idea, thereby discounting the value of the work done at the house meetings.

Today, nearly three weeks after the July house meetings, the results of the ratings have yet to be published. What with the wonders of crowdsourcing and modern techology, the heart and soul of MoveOn’s operations, you’d think that by now a preliminary calculation could have been made.

Don’t hold your breath. Robert Reich’s July 28 email contained this bit of disconcerting news: “the best of [the more than 25,000] ideas … honed down to the planks of a Contract for the American Dream” at the 1,500 house meetings will “be released at the Take Back the American Dream conference” in October. No mention of MoveOn’s local councils.

MoveOn and the Campaign for America’s Future need to get their act — and acts — together, or a prime opportunity for mobilizing progressives is going to slip away.

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