Mover and Shaker
Apparently, Eli Pariser doesn't like to wait. At fifteen, when his peers in Camden and Lincolnville were more interested in girls, sports, and high-school dances, he was heading off to Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts. In the days following 9/11, while most Americans agonized over how to respond to the terror attacks, Pariser was posting a petition on the Internet asking U.S. and world leaders to hold off on a military strike. And when a half-million people signed the petition in just two weeks, he picked up the phone and called two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs whose own Web site, MoveOn.org, encouraging the government to move on past the Lewinsky scandal, had met a similarly positive response.
Today, operating out of his tiny Brooklyn apartment, Pariser finds himself leading the 3.3-million-member-strong MoveOn. The online political activist network turned pre-yelp Howard Dean into a presidential contender, squeezed $45 million from an Internet constituency previously considered penniless, and so incensed Tom DeLay that the congressman forwarded all of his calls to Eli Pariser's cell phone. And did we mention that he's only twenty-four?
First of all, let's get one thing clear: Do you consider Maine home, or is New York City your home now?
The midcoast area is still the place that I think of as home, and I probably get back every two months. I figure that you have to live in New York City at some point in your life, and I'm getting it over with early. But having spent my childhood in Maine and growing up there, I think it's going to feel like my real home for a long time.
Does your upbringing in Maine influence your political activity today?
More than anything I think it's the sensibility. Politically Mainers are very independent, and I love that about them. Obviously we at MoveOn work more with Democrats than Republicans, but that sense that you always have to keep an eye on politicians is definitely part of how I approach this stuff. Growing up and going to school with people from so many different backgrounds helps me think about how to talk about what I believe in in a way that resonates with a lot of people.
I find the place where I have energy and passion is protecting what I believe in and what I love, and Maine is one of those things. When I think about the need for us to figure out a post-oil energy solution and an economic system that doesn't leave folks behind, it's vivid for me because I picture what that's like in my home. When you talk about what global warming could mean, and you consider the effect that having Maine's whole forest ecology change would have on the state, then that can make it more vivid.
With Iraq, I always pay more attention when a soldier from Maine or from the Northeast is hurt or killed because it reminds me of why I'm in this. Even if I don't know them personally — and I haven't known anyone from Maine who's been hurt —it's a one-degree-of-separation state. The feeling of a community that I'm very close to grounds it for me more.
Looking back, do you see anything that your parents did to cultivate the activist gene in you?
They were always kind of frank with me about the way that the world really was — the things that worked and the things that didn't. I guess they taught me the idea that it took people who were taking responsibility to fix the problems that existed, that you couldn't just wait for leaders or anyone else to necessarily do that. And their work with the Community School in Camden spoke volumes about a way of approaching a meaningful life, and the idea that by serving some folks in the community who have been left behind, you're doing a virtuous thing.
What political activities were you involved in while you were growing up in Maine?
In high school I had a teacher, Rob Lovell, who was a pretty good evangelist for environmentalism. He had the fledgling environmental group at the high school under his wing, and I got into that. Part of it was a political feeling, and part of it was just having spent so much time in the hills and on the lakes and canoeing down the Ducktrap River in Lincolnville and feeling very protective of the place where I lived. We did basic stuff — making sure that the school was recycling its paper and composting the leftovers from the cafeteria — nothing highly contentious.
What did you do after graduating from college?
I, like a lot of college students, didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. Initially I was accepted as a theater student, but then I got interested in environmental science, then creative writing, then computer science, and by my third year I was really focused on political science and law. Mostly what I was studying was not political science in the sense of "How do you win an election?", but more like political philosophy.
In my senior year a bunch of friends and I developed a plan to do something called the American Story Project, where we would travel around the country and interview folks about the way that their lives and their politics intersected. We took off and traveled about 15,000 miles, did hundreds of interviews, and set up a Web site where some of them were available. After that I got a job in Arlington, Massachusetts, as a Web and IT director for a small nonprofit that had a mission of helping folks who were wealthy be strategic and effective with their money. I was working there on September 11 and put together a little Web site with a petition on it basically calling on the president and other world leaders to take a long view in rooting out terrorism and not to do something that would cause more civilian bloodshed.
In about two weeks a half-million people had signed up, and the point at which it really got scary was when people said "Ok, what do we do next?" I was sitting there, twenty years old and in my living room, trying to figure out what to tell this half-million people about what we were going to do.
Have you ever been involved in any front-line protests?
I was involved in some protests of the World Trade Organization, but I was always kind of a little skeptical that that alone was what would bring about the necessary change.
What is your opinion of Maine's two U.S. senators?
Certainly we're concerned about the fact that the first vote that Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe makes is for their leadership, and right now the Republican leadership is leading the country into a dangerous place. At the same time some of the votes that the senators have made which have been more independent have been really terrific.
You've said in the past that you thought those who saw Maine as something to exploit were more powerful than those who saw the state as something to protect. Do you think Maine is being exploited?
Maine faces the same dangers that many parts of the country do: the prospect of living where a lot of people are having to work two jobs and are barely making ends meet, or where all the wonderful small businesses that drive the state are being replaced with Wal-Marts. Certainly working in national politics it's clear how powerful the influence of big business is on the country's agenda, and I think that's true in Maine as well. There are people who are more invested in their own greed than in trying to create a great community and a great state for the people who live there.
Maine is one of the states where we have the most MoveOn members per capita — I think we have about 22,000 members there — and I'm confident that over time people working together can overcome those interests that seek to exploit the state. Our approach is to get a lot of people involved in thinking about these questions, to cultivate the leaders that emerge, and to trust that the promise of democracy, that the people have the solutions, will hold through this, too.
Did MoveOn see a dip in membership or contributions following the last presidential election?
No. In fact, we've grown by about a half-million people since November 2, 2004.
What's next for you? Any plans to return to Maine?
MoveOn is focused on working on issues like security and energy and creating a big change in 2006. As for me, I'm happy doing this work. I just feel lucky to be a part of it and who knows where it'll lead, but I'm enjoying the ride. I'm not moving back to Maine yet, but I expect that I'll be back someday.