The Moveon Effect: Disruptive Innovation within the Interest Group Ecology of American Politics

35 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 23 Aug 2010

See all articles by David A. Karpf

David A. Karpf

Rutgers University, School of Communication

Date Written: 2009


This paper explores the structural and tactical innovations that have led to MoveOn's meteoric rise in American politics. Drawing upon recent works detailing the history of civic associations in America, it suggests that the changes in membership and fundraising regimes introduced by MoveOn are similar to the changes witnessed in the late 1960s and early 1970s - changes which led to both an "interest group explosion" (Baumgartner and Jones 1993) and the replacement of a previously-dominant organization type with a new modal organization-type (Skocpol 2003). It offers an early investigation of the new political economy of interest group representation, characterized by large "generalist" organizations that span multiple issue spaces and, relying on the internet for communications, function with greatly-reduced infrastructure overhead costs, and also by small niche organizations that cater to specialized publics or topics. In so doing, it demonstrates why the recent explosion of internet-mediated participatory activities is associated with significant disadvantages for longstanding political associations, presaging a generation shift within the advocacy community that structure and mobilize collective action in American politics.

The paper has four parts. It will begin with a brief review of the relevant literature. Of particular importance are two recent works in political science - Bruce Bimber's Information and American Democracy and Theda Skocpol's Diminished Democracy - and one work from organizational management - Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma. These three works, rarely associated with each other, each offers important insights into the dynamic shifts in online transaction costs that enable MoveOn's rise to prominence. The paper will then move to a detailed discussion of MoveOn itself, with a focus on its member recruitment, engagement, and fundraising strategies. Despite MoveOn's prominent place in American politics, the organization has attracted surprisingly little scholarly attention (one noteworthy exception being Chadwick 2007). Based upon website and e-mail content analysis and elite-level interviews, I will offer a description of "The MoveOn Model." Thirdly, it will look more broadly at membership and fundraising trends among the single-issue professional advocacy organizations that have dominated interest group politics since the interest group generation shift of the 1970s, illuminating important shifts in membership and fundraising regimes currently under way. The paper then closes by discussing the impact of "the MoveOn effect" on various classes of nonprofit political association, as well as identifying those areas currently underdefined or in need of further exploration.

Keywords: internet, interest groups, social movements, new media

Suggested Citation

Karpf, David A., The Moveon Effect: Disruptive Innovation within the Interest Group Ecology of American Politics (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

David A. Karpf (Contact Author)

Rutgers University, School of Communication ( email )

4 Huntington St
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
United States
401-559-1106 (Phone)


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