By Kajsa Klein
from PlaNetwork Journal
Why shouldn't a group of Swedish activists use the Web and MoveOn to influence the U.S. elections?
More than perhaps at any time in history, this American presidential election belongs to the world. In the United States the electorate may be evenly split, but outside the U.S. we have reached consensus. We all want to get rid of Bush and, let's be honest, we want a piece of the action. The realization that the whole world is at the mercy of a small number of voters in a few swing states is painfully frustrating for many of us. This is the era of globalization. The great symbol of globalized communications, the Internet, has no borders. Why then should a political campaign that has such obvious global consequences not invite the participation of the majority of people who it will affect?
American friends have long argued that if you want to change the worldstart with the imperial center. Yes, there are worse regimes, but it is the U.S. that has the potential to make a real difference globally. Want to affect the situation in Israel? Go to Washington. Congo? Washington. This is something that I have always been ambivalent about. Perhaps it is realpolitik for the U.S. to dismiss the rest of the world in the short run, but where does this leave us non-Americans?
If the democratic institutions of the 19th and 20th century aren't capable of sustaining democracy in the 21st , how can they be modified so they do? What does it really mean to be a citizen in an interconnected world? Is it only possible to act like a world citizen in relation to multinationals and global organizations? These are some of the questions addressed by the Democracy Aid '04 web campaign.
The Democracy Aid '04 Concept
One of the revolutionary aspects of the Internet is that it facilitates cross-border political activism. At the end of October, 2003, I emailed some friends and suggested that we should do something in connection with November 2 (exactly one year before the presidential election). I've had enough, I said. Since we are all currently subject to the arrogant and dangerous rule of the Bush administration, shouldn't we non-Americans also have the right to try to influence the American electorate? I'm sick of leaving the foreign opposition to diplomatic diplomats and violent terrorists. Besides, they seem to have some serious problems with the democratic process.... Just think of the 2000 election. It's time for us, the people, to buy us a new president! The response was great ("Wow," I thought, "they took me seriously!")Anders, Fredrik and Hanna agreed to be co-founders. We decided to call ourselves Democracy Aid '04 and the slogan we picked was –"For the sake of the world, help save America!"
The Internet is throbbing with anti-Bush sites. How could we avoid doing the same old same old? Among the first ideas we toyed with was to set up a "Radio Free America." We would broadcast real-life stories from people, worldwide, who are subject to the consequences of U.S. policies. People in Tuvalu waiting for their islands to disappear in the ocean, for example. And ads, lots of ads. The idea of somehow using the Americans' own propaganda tool against them appealed to us. The ads would say things like: "Americans, you are not alone, have faith. Freedom will prevail!" But where would we get the resources to pull it off? We also discussed launching our own candidate as an antidote to Bush. Preferably someone unknown, brilliant, and, yesit would have to be a woman. But for some reason we couldn't think of a single suitable candidate. After much deliberation, we finally decided to leave the details of choosing a candidate to the Americans. This, by the way, is the approach recommended by most democracy aid expertslet the locals decide as much as possible. Support them, don't suffocate them. Following this logic, we consulted a local; I emailed a friend in New York.
MoveOn, he said.
Okay. That made sense. In fact, it had already crossed my mind. MoveOn.org might indeed be a suitable aid recipient. I started doing some research and discovered that they allowed foreign contributions to their main campaign site but not to their Voter Fund. Cool!
MoveOn seemed perfect precisely because they were neither a single-issue group nor partisan. Like many Europeans, I first learned about them through their email-based petitions. I was impressed by their net activist savvyness, the way they used the Internet to galvanize progressives. But I also thought that there was something interestingly vague about their self-presentation. Yes, there was a lot of talk about "your representatives in Congress" and "citizens" on their web site. But it wasn't entirely clear to me that they meant Americans only. Consider this declaration on their website from spring 2003:
"A CITIZENS' DECLARATION
As a US-led invasion of Iraq begins, we, the undersigned citizens of many countries, reaffirm our commitment to addressing international conflicts through the rule of law and the United Nations. By joining together across countries and continents, we have emerged as a new force for peace. As we grieve for the victims of this war, we pledge to redouble our efforts to put an end to the Bush Administration's doctrine of pre-emptive attack and the reckless use of military power."
MoveOn presented themselves as an international network of 2 million, including some 700,000 members from outside America. However, I had sensed from the conversation I'd had with MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades, at the Planetwork 2003 conference in San Francisco, that involvement by the international members was a delicate issue. They had been thinking of setting up some sort of European organization, but were focusing on other priorities.
The Democracy Aid '04 solution? Set up our own web site to encourage people to donate to MoveOn while refraining from direct contact with them, and to deliberately point out our complete independence. We also wrote an article, as a vehicle to sharpen our arguments and (inshallah) get some attention. A central issue we addressed was what a US world-friendly policy would look like. In the article, we chose not to go into specifics. Instead we pointed to the UN Millennium Development Goals and to the respect for human rights of all people. We also made some calculations:
"One dollar per EU-citizen would suffice to raise more money than the entire Bush campaign budget for the elections in 2000. Compare this price to the cost of having Bush in the White House." Did we only want EU citizens? No, we wanted everyone to contribute. Matching Bush's 2000 campaign budget would cost less than five cents per world citizen. But it didn't seem right to ask the poorest people on earth for money.
Campaign Launch: November 2, 2003
We celebrated the launch in Hanna and Oskar's home by donating one dollar each to MoveOn.org and by posting the English language version of our article in the openDemocracy.net American Power and the World forum: "Sick of Bush? Here is our proposal: Democracy Aid to the U.S.!" We also honored American culture by eating junk food, listening to Elvis Presley, and registering a free web site. It was admittedly a little hysterical.
Three days later, the Swedish version of the article was published in Aftonbladet, Sweden's largest circulation newspaper. Champagne! Interviews on major radio and TV shows followed. First Hanna appeared on the morning news radio show P1 Morgon (the producer confessed he couldn't find a single Bush supporterthe intended debate would have to be changed into an interview). Then at lunch it was my turn to jump into a taxi for the more youthful "Folkhemmet" on P3. We worked non-stop. By the time TV picked up the story we were so exhausted and excited that much make-up was required to cover the stress. We had apparently hit upon a topical new angle. Our web site was not even on Google yet, but political commentators expressed their support for the idea, and teenagers were talking about us in the streets.
When people visited our website, they read on the front page:
"One year from now, on November 2nd 2004, the next American Presidential elections will be held. For the first time ever, because of the Internet, it is possible for non-American private citizens to participate in the campaign process.
"We claim this unique opportunity should not be wasted. Isn't it embedded in the very meaning of the word democracy that the individuals who are affected by a decision should also have the right to influence it? What the world needs is an American President who favours multilateral solutions, and who actively supports the UN's Millennium goals. George W. Bush is not that man.
*** Donate a dollar to MoveOn.org! ***"
Within a week our web site had visitors from Egypt, Nigeria, China, Thailand, Venezuela, plus the U.S. Senate, Congress, and Army. Friends at openDemocracy helped us distribute a press release through their channels, and a diplomat in New York passed on the news to Katrina vanden Heuvel. We started getting email, including invitations from people associated with the Dean and Clark campaigns. The more Americans we reached, the more important it became for us to avoid being cast as anti-American. We wanted to help the America we loved! Our next move was to claim the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, especially the first amendment, as campaign foci alongside the UN Millennium Development Goals and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A debate spread across the Internet. Is it right to interfere in the elections of other countries? We were accused of breaking the law, of being extremist pro-Al Qaeda peace hippies who blame every conceivable problem on the USA. Were we really so provocative to justify accusations of subversion and extremism? We just wanted to give our money to a good cause.
Someone defended us by pointing out that there is a difference between governments interfering in the internal politics of other states and the Democracy Aid '04 campaign based on small contributions from private citizens: "It is more akin to taking up a collection for famine relief. We in the U.S. can more surely and quickly disable the plutocrats and pseudo fascists and return to our basic principles of governance if we have such help; and of course we would be obliged to return the favor."
Another posting suggested that perhaps our campaign could highlight the ridiculousness of American campaign financing, where a lot of money comes from multinational corporations with profits from overseas: "Corporate interests are profit motivated. I'd rather my dollar went to private citizens whose aims I agree with, instead of Enron."
Someone else suggested we should collect money to get rid of North Korea's dictator instead. Besides, how would we feel if the U.S. Christian Right got involved in Swedish election campaigns? We responded that perhaps the most efficient way to unseat regimes like North Korea's would be through a different U.S. policy. America under Bush, we argued, is not like other countries. It has a unique position of power, an arrogant attitude, and insane amounts of WMDs. If the Swedish government started to act like the Bush administration, then, frankly, we'd be happy if someone from the outside took action.
It is strange. Why are peoplein the U.S. and elsewherewho are appalled by the idea of financial influence from abroad, still perfectly comfortable with financial, economic, political and military influence when it originates from the United States? Often our critics seemed to be the very same people who supported the war in Iraq.
There were also some quite idealistic contributions to the debate: "If what is best for me, is worst for 1,000 people in Africa, I would like that majority to be able to prevent 'what's best for me'." Not everybody would be quite as generous, but to not even let the 1,000 people at least have a chance to voice their objections...?
Another person wrote: "What an amazing act...Do you have any idea how much hope just the thought of this brings to so many of us? We have been cowed by the Patriot Act, called 'Saddam Supporters' and forsaken by our national media."
And another: "Here I've been sitting pondering just how far down this country will have to go before enough people wake up to the reality as opposed to the televised soma, how much damage will be done globally, and getting thoroughly depressed and disgusted. I'd forgotten all about the fact that most of the rest of the world has not been fooled as so many Americans have been..."
Disillusionment, isolation, fear. Some emails and postings made me recall my experiences in Serbia in the mid-nineties.11 There was talk about how America was only safe for greedy, hateful people and also the fear that Bush would start yet another war. "Feelings of 'patriotism' will again be aroused in the masses and ultimately, will be turned against many well-meaning Americansused as a weapon to enforce blind obedience and stifle dissent," offered one email.
But the reaction to Democracy Aid '04 wasn't just talk. Other web sites, in Europe and in Canada, followed our lead and linked to the MoveOn donation page. A few people sent us dollar bills through regular mail. My own grandmother silently pressed eight Swedish crowns into the palm of my hand. A man from Afghanistan regretted in a posting at openDemocracy that he couldn't contribute since Internet payment wasn't an option available to him.
The vast majority of our site visitors were, however, still from Sweden and the U.S. We initiated talks with PR experts, democracy aid experts, and different political groups about ways to expand the campaign. It was quite a challenge to reach outside of Sweden and the USA. Opposition to Bush is a global phenomenon, but perhaps many people are too angry to bother making the distinction between America's people and its current administration? Sweden, after all, is known for being relatively relaxed about Americanization. Forget about the French, people told us. And the Italian left. And…
We decided to start with the Spanish-speaking world, not least because of U.S. demographics. The translation work was a collaborative Internet affaira strange mix of babel fish, help from friends of Latin American descent and, last but not least, a professional translator who had contacted us through our site guestbook.
In less than six weeks we had considerable momentum. We were getting more and more visitors. In Geneva, the UN World Summit on Information Society was taking place, and our envoy had promised to spread the word.
Then we suddenly received a red-marked email request from MoveOn to stop linking to them from our website. All along, we had relied on their judgment. We even had a FAQ stating that we trusted them. If they allowed foreign donations, as we were led to assume, then surely it must be legal? Yet, it didn't come as a complete surprise when they asked us to change our web site.  It turned out that they had been contacted by a Washington Post reporter asking about the insidious influence of foreign donors eager to unseat Bush, and their immediate response was to explicitly require that all donors certify their US citizenships. "MoveOn.org can not and does not use any funds to advocate the defeat of President Bush," we were told. It turned out that we had misread their intentions. Moreover, it was soon clear that important changes were about to take place, so that they would no longer be the seemingly ideal "partner" they once were. The word "international" was deleted from their site. In a year, MoveOn's self-presentation changed from national to international to national network again. The restrictions were not limited to donations; in their very cool online ad contest Bush In 30 Seconds, only U.S. members were allowed to participate.
Of course, we understood that MoveOn has enough battles to fight. Choosing to play safe and national was probably the right tactical thing for them to do. Still, wasn't it a little sad that taking money from overseas would automatically create such a potentially negative story? Moreover, they have some 700,000 email addresses of potential activists abroad. What a waste!
We temporarily shut down our web site while discussing what to do. Meanwhile, the Washington Post published the story :"The vast left-wing conspiracy has gone international." The columnist made us look harmless and silly enough to keep MoveOn clean. Next came Matt Drudge. He was more accusatory against MoveOn and added, "political websites from London to Portugal have been directing their citizens to stop the American president George Bush by donating to moveon.org." Debate followed in blogs and in discussion forums. Needless to say, Bush supporters were disgusted with our actions (as were hard-line anti-American socialists). It was partly the old story of our political enemies making us sound bigger than we actually were.
The Swedish media were thrilled. There were triumphant headlines such as "Swedish site infuriates Bush." A major Swedish radio show (the same that had interviewed us in November) even got hold of a student group in the south of Sweden that had been collecting money for Bush since July 2003. (How sweet.)
So what should we do? We received a number of suggestions from groups and individuals on ways to continue, but none of them offered an adequate substitute for MoveOn. We wanted to stay independent of political parties and single issue groups with radical agendas. As volunteers with day jobs, our resources were too limited for large-scale independent projects. How could we find a daring, cosmopolitan-minded U.S. organization with access to legal expertise and willingness to fight the constitutional battle against US hypocrisy? Identity crisis! Our organizing call had been for concerned global citizens to send money to America to support a healthy public discourse during the election process. We suddenly had no place to direct the funds we raised. And so DA'04 sputtered, eventually running out of gas.
Campaign Lessons Learned and Future Challenges
What did we learn and what did we achieve (apart from making some people smile)? MoveOn.org received some contributions; only they know exactly how much. We also hope to have had some limited impact by putting democracy aid hypocrisies on the agenda. A little bit of humiliation can be refreshing. To suggest that rich America, traditionally a symbol for democracy, was in so much trouble that it needed foreign aid to support fair elections, and that there were actually people willing to contribute...
As Swedes we were in a perfect position to initiate this web project. It wouldn't have been as easy for Cubans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Bulgarians, or even Brits, for that matter. A Cuban would have been dismissed as an agent of Castro. A Bulgarian would have her own government's alliance with Bush to worry about.
We also tried to be an alternative to traditional anti-American street protests by focusing on support for progressive forces that are part of the electoral process. Democracy aid can potentially mean lots of things. The concept invited big thinking. People had so many suggestions: You should organize Democracy Aid '04 concerts! Send observers to oversee the electionyou could be a reverse, peaceful Lincoln Brigade! Contact famous European film directors and organize your own ad contests! You could get your message into May Day speeches all over Europe! There are European elections coming up! Our niche was mainstream and controversial at the same time. Of course, Democracy Aid '04 could also be described as parasitic, since we thrived on MoveOn's success and innovation, their media glamor.
There will always be unintended consequences. Our actions probably contributed to MoveOn's decision to exclude donations from outside the U.S. One idea suggested to us was to try to arrange a secret donation matchmaking operation, using American friends as third parties, but this never appealed to us. Perhaps those with family in the U.S. (an immigrant country!) could donate through their relatives? It seemed impractical, and anyway we wanted to be transparent.
Something we discussed a great deal was whether the Democracy Aid '04 model could be used in contexts other than the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Yes and no, we thought. In principle, why not? The world could certainly use a new Pope. A new government in Russia wouldn't hurt. Or in Myanmar. Or Saudi Arabia. But as has already been pointed out, the U.S. does have a unique position that makes most elections insignificant in comparison. There are also practical reasons, apart from the fact that Bush opposition is mainstream worldwide. To mention one example: it certainly made it easier, campaign-wise, that the USA is (still) relatively democratic and that so much information is freely available in a language that many people understand (as opposed to... Swedish). Because of the dominance of American media around the world, we share many of the same mediated experiences, and it is relatively easy to stay informed of the state of the opinion-making process in the U.S.
That the Internet facilitates cross-border political participation is strangely something that many political organizers seem to be unaware of. For example, most American political web sites using Pay Pal forget to point out that they don't accept foreign donations. This is true of both right-wing and liberal groups. It is notoriously difficult to determine the identity of the website visitors. Expat or foreign citizen? Tourist or permanent resident? Explicit user address and requests for detailed user information are the most obvious ways to restrict participation. It is always a good idea to think over the reasons for restrictions, sometimes addressing a larger audience can be subversive in an interesting way. Web site owners should also be aware of the effects of linking.
Another observation concerns the role of money. Purchases are treated differently than direct donations. We can buy the MoveOn book, or their rock against Bush CD, but we can't give them our money. It would be interesting to learn more about the rules surrounding election campaigns in different countries. What activities constitute campaigning (e.g., advertising, hacktivism, debating, participation in meetings and rallies)? Is criticism by foreigners usually considered less sensitive than foreign support for particular candidates? It is also worth considering if it makes sense to claim that there is a difference between election campaigns and other forms of campaigning, for instance, the gathering of support for agreements on global warming.
It is a major challenge to frame issues with the global good as a starting point, especially in the context of a national election. Disinterest and insensitivity to global problems is something that is unfortunately not limited to the current administration, or to Americans for that matter. Much old-fashioned legislation and political rhetoric rests on a view of foreigners as suspicious, if not enemies: "you are either with us or against us".
In the case of the U.S., maybe we've come to a point where we in the rest of the world need to buy advertising spots on U.S. media to debunk the myths and stereotypes of us as violent, evil, enemy nations. But, would Americans listen? In the attempts to get the liberal echo chamber working, is there at all room for other voices? Or is the Republican counterpart to Billionaires For Bush by necessity a Foreigners For Kerry campaign? Are we the enemy?
George Lakoff is among those who have pointed out the danger of having a foreign policy that is only about the self-proclaimed U.S. national interest. It is quite simply not a very good way to build trust. To watch U.S. foreign policy being reduced to a matter of American national security is depressing. How could the Democrats reframe foreign policy issues? Are isolationism and outsourcing scares the best they can come up with as an alternative to the Bush agenda? I hope not and don't think so.
The world could use a little solidarity. The world could also use updated rules surrounding global political participation. What we are seeing now is just the beginningthanks to the Internet, people will be rewriting these rules, and soon.
P.S. And in November, dear Americans, please think of all of us who wish we could vote…
P.P.S. Since this article was written, I have become European Coordinator for TalktoUS, a brand new initiative to bring global voices to the US election dialogue. For more: talktoUS.org
- With a few notable exceptions, naturally.
- I was "co-founder /director," Hanna Armelius was "co-founder/campaign manager," Anders Engström was "co-founder/chief information officer," and Fredrik Storm was "co-founder/Internet explorer." As a politically unaffiliated grassroots group, we had zero budget but jokingly picked titles that suggested a large-scale campaign operation.
- Democracy aid traditionally equals Western state agencies and political parties operating in semi-secrecy in the developing world. Focus is usually on procedure (e.g., free and fair elections) but sometimes regime change is the real objective. Some would say that the war in Iraq qualifies as democracy aid. On democracy aid from a pre-9/11 U.S. perspective, see: Democracy Promotion: A Key Focus in A New World, by Thomas Carothers, at http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0500/ijde/carothers.htm, and, by the same author, Democracy, State and AID: A tale of Two Cultures at http://www.afsa.org/fsj/feb01/carothers01.cfm.
- Months later we discovered Marco Contini: see http://www.continiforamerica.com. He may not be a woman... but at least an unconventional candidate operating from Rome.
- Petition text on the MoveOn.org site placed on their top page spring 2003 (check the April version of the site on the Internet Archives, at http://www.archive.org/web/web.php).
- I was one of a handful of participants at Planetwork from outside the U.S. The conference was a great inspiration to the Democracy Aid '04 campaign for several reasons. First, because of it's global ambition, yet American focus (on the stage stood an inflatable George W. Bush doll). Second, because of the engaging activist spirit. Third, because of intelligent insights shared on the upcoming election campaign.
- To read the full article, see http://www.democracyaid.net.
- Why openDemocracy? Simply because it was the most global political debate site we could think of. Plus, it sounded right, since "open democracy" is what we are after… Our posting is at http://www.opendemocracy.net/forums/thread.jspa? forumID=87&threadID;=41879&start;=0&tstart;=0.
- For her column on Democracy Aid '04, see http://www.thenation.com/edcut/index.mhtml?pid=1067.
- Breaking what law, one might ask. Swedish? American? Some other law?
- In fact, we even had friends, relatives, and colleagues express their concern for our personal safety: "Do you realize that you may never again be allowed to enter the USA?" "Your transatlantic phone conversations are most likely being monitored." "Have you recieved any serious threats yet?" Guantanamo has certainly left an impression.
- Michael C. Dorf, a Columbia University law professor, suggests that foreign donations may be constitutional: "The Supreme Court's recent decision upholding most of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law but striking down an obscure provision that barred minors from donating to political campaigns suggests that the ban on foreign campaign contributions may be invalid. And even if the ban is constitutional, it's at odds with our foreign policy (…) Indeed, we might think that precisely because foreigners are denied the right to vote in American elections that may profoundly affect them, they should have their freedom of speech rights zealously protected--as free speech is the only means they have of affecting U.S. policy." http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dorf/20031224.html. For more on the legal aspects, see the official FEC information brochure: http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/foreign.htm (especially the Advisory Opinion 1984-41). Our big "mistake" was probably that we explicitly mentioned Bush (once) on our site.
- Their success made MoveOn a target for Republicans.
- MoveOn's history can be followed on the Internet Archives' "wayback machine." Unfortunately, donation pages are unavailable.
- http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node;= &contentId;=A62447-2003Dec13¬Found=true.
- Others are stricter. As a woman against Bush, why oh why can't I get the womenagainstbush panties?
- It could also be the other way around. See Al Gore's brilliant foreign policy speech: http://www.moveonpac.org/goreremarks052604.html
- On the perils of national framing in the U.S. case, see the George Lakoff interview: http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/04/01/int04003.html. Another strong opponent is of course George Soros. Here is a recent quote: "If we want to preserve our privileged position, we must use it not to lord it over the rest of the world but to concern ourselves with the well-being of others (...) Instead of undermining and demeaning our international institutions because they do not necessarily follow our will, we ought to strengthen them and improve them." The article is called "America after 911: Victims turned Perpetrators"and was published May 20, 2004 at http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-2-95-1913.jsp.