Zack Exley

Zack Exley

: Photo from Creative Commons / Author of Photo: jdlasica


* Worked as an undercover labor union organizer
* Former creative director of
* Co-founded and served as president of the New Organizing Institute
* Former Fellow with the Open Society Institute
* Helped develop the Web-based presidential campaign organization of Howard Dean in 2004
* Director of online communications and organizing for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket in 2004

Young Union Organizer

Zack Exley was born on December 5, 1969 and grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating in 1993 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a BA in Social Thought and Political Economy, he went through an AFL-CIO training program for radical union organizers and then took a job with the United Auto Workers (UAW). “For seven months, he worked undercover at a Michigan auto parts factory,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Joseph Menn in May 2004. “The unionization effort there failed, but Exley later used a team of infiltrators to successfully organize large nursing homes in Minnesota.” All told, Exley was a covert union organizer from 1993-1999 — not only with the AFL-CIO and UAW, but also with the Service Employees International Uninion (SEIU).

The Parody Website

Exley left the world of organized labor in 1998 and took a job as a full-time computer programmer, work that left him bored and unfulfilled. While performing that work, however, he began to notice websites such as Salon and Slate that were advancing leftwing political views with which he was in sympathy. Eager to find an outlet where he, too, could give voice to his political musings, Exley began to explore the availability of various Internet domain names that might be suitable for such a forum. In December 1998 he discovered that was unclaimed, and he purchased two-year rights to that Internet address for $70. In conjunction with his friends at the San Francisco look-alike-website builder RTMark — whose principals were described by the Los Angeles Times as “anticorporate activists and pranksters” — Exley turned into the Internet’s first political parody website.

Mimicking the official website of Texas Governor (and soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate) George W. Bush, featured bizarre articles whose authorship was falsely credited to Mr. Bush himself. It also displayed images that had been digitally doctored to depict the governor as a drunkard and cocaine user. “It was totally Beavis and Butt-head,” Exley later told the Austin Chronicle, “just a couple of guys bored and coming up with a way to get a phone call from the Bush people.”

When Bush lawyers threatened to sue Exley for using copyrighted photographs that he had digitally lifted from the official Bush website — and when Bush, at a May 1999 news conference, angrily described Exley as “a garbage man” — the resulting publicity brought six million visitors to Exley’s site during the remainder of that month alone and made the young programmer an overnight darling of the left. Exley quickly exploited the opportunity by selling an array of products such as t-shirts and bumper stickers bearing slogans like: “Imperialism: A Way of Life Worth Bombing For”; “Regime Change Starts At Home”; “Bush is a Punk Ass Chump”; and “Capitalism: It’s Great in Theory, It Just Didn’t Work in Practice.”

Exley subsequently organized yet another website,, which aimed to “question the legitimacy of a Bush presidency, due to [its] disenfranchisement and disregard for the will of the people.” One particular page of CounterCoup showed a devil (labeled “Bush Coup”) on the ground, and an angel preparing to behead him with a broadsword labeled “The Spirit of Democracy.” Another page displayed a picture of a screaming lynch mob with the caption, “Sometimes Democracy Requires More Than Voting.”

Encouraging Voters to Protest a Bush Electoral Victory

In the fall of 2000, Exley, on yet another website, mused about the possibility that in the upcoming presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Gore might conceivably win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college. Urging voters to stage massive street protests if such a thing were to occur, Exley received an overwhelming number of supportive e-mails from people who shared his concern. He then set up a system for distributing messages free-of-charge to eGroup subscribers, as well as an electronic bulletin-board system that was later purchased by Yahoo. While the post-election Florida recount crisis was in process, thousands of Exley contacts protested in dozens of cities nationwide.

Trust the People

In 2001, Exley’s book about labor- and Internet-organizing techniques, Trust the People, was published by the Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press (SSP), a self-described “independent publisher of books that engage art, culture, and current events in new and radical ways,” and that “offer a refuge from, an alternative to, and an argument against mainstream culture and mainstream thinking.” Among SSP’s other publications from the early 2000s were Ted Rall‘s WakeUp, You’re Liberal!, and a collection of essays by Noam ChomskyAlexander CockburnBarbara Ehrenreich, and other socialists.

In January 2003 Exley was hired by the multi-millionaire software creator Wes Boyd to serve as organizing director of the Berkeley, California-based until March 2004. Not long after Exley joined MoveOn, the organization held a contest encouraging its audience to produce negative ads about President George W. Bush. MoveOn posted on its website two of these entries which co-mingled images of Bush and Adolf Hitler, thereby conveying the message that Bush and Hitler bore noteworthy similarities. Though public outrage over this smear subsequently prompted MoveOn to remove the images from its website, Exley himself refused to apologize. Rather, he dismissed the complaints as “typical Republican bullshit.”

The Howard Dean Campaign

Also in 2003, Exley spent two weeks helping to develop the web-based presidential campaign organization of Democrat Howard Dean. As the L.A. Times reported: “[Exley] showed the Dean staff how to use, which put volunteers together in living rooms around the country.”

The John Kerry-John Edwards Campaign

After Dean’s campaign fizzled out, Exley in April 2004 was hired by John Kerry to serve as director of online communications and organizing for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket.

Helping the Left to Fundraise & Organize

From November 2004 through February 2008, Exley directed digital strategy for OMP, Inc., a communications and fundraising firm dedicated to helping leftwing client organizations — and the Democratic Party — to “improve their online fundraising and distributed organizing.”

The UK Labour Party Campaign

Having previously received activism training at a workshop sponsored by the Ruckus Society, Exley in 2005 became the director of online organizing for the UK Labour Party’s re-election campaign.

The New Organizing Institute & The Ruckus Society

Later in 2005, he co-founded (with the help of Eli Pariser and Amanda Michel) the New Organizing Institute, where he went on to serve as president until April 2010.

Exley also spent some time as a “workshop facilitator” for the Ruckus Society.

Editor at Wikipedia

In 2006, Exley began working as an editor at Wikipedia, under the nickname “Wikitedium.”

The Left Forum

In March 2007, Exley participated in the Left Forum at Cooper Union College in New York City.

Trying to Merge the Secular Left & Evangelical Christianity

That same year, he founded Revolution in Jesusland, a blogsite that sought to blur the lines between the secular left and evangelical Christianity. Exley’s target audience consisted of those whom he called “last-will-be-first” Christians whose religious beliefs were rooted in egalitarian conceptions of economic and social justice.

On June 12, 2007, the Huffington Post and announced that in mid-July, Zack Exley and Amanda Michel — the latter of whom had co-founded the New Organizing Institute with Exley — would together launch, a campaign-journalism initiative. Exley would serve as a senior adviser and a traveling correspondent, Michel would be the project director, and the co-publishers would be Arianna Huffington and New York University journalism instructor Jay Rosen. According to a press release for the project, OffTheBus would be: (a) “a network of campaign bloggers who have diverse views and distinct beats, and other volunteers for ‘distributed’ reporting projects that would be hard for a traditional news organization to undertake,” and (b) “an editorial engine for an alternative form of campaign journalism, the strength of which is the number of people who volunteer to be involved in producing for it.” Said Exley about the new venture: “A revolution has changed the way political campaigns work in this country. But most mainstream political journalists don’t have the slightest inkling what it’s about. That’s because it didn’t happen on the campaign bus, but rather out among the voters themselves. By enlisting thousands of citizen journalists from every community, we think we can put together a moving picture of 21st century politics that’s simply not possible within the mainstream media’s limited resources.”

ThoughtWorks, Inc.

In January 2008, Exley took a job as a consultant with ThoughtWorks, Inc., a global information-technology company that helps organizations and political campaigns to maximize the effectiveness of their various strategies and their use of technology.

The Barack Obama Campaign

Also in 2008, Exley, in his role with ThoughtWorks, served as a consultant and researcher for the Barack Obama presidential campaign.

George Soros’s Open Society Institute

As a fellow with George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, Exley in 2009 wrote a series of articles about the organizing model used by the Obama campaign and by a number of successful community and labor groups.

The Wikimedia Foundation

In July 2010, Exley became the chief community officer for the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based entity best known for hosting Wikipedia. He subsequently served as Wikimedia’s chief revenue officer from August 2012 to August 2013.

Director of Organizing at ThoughtWorks

From September 2013 to April 2015, Exley directed the organizing practice at ThoughtWorks, which, by Exley’s telling, “helped groups invent and try out new distributed organizing technologies by building them right in the middle of campaigns.”

The Bernie Sanders Campaign

From July 2015 to March 2016, Exley was a senior advisor to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Middle Seat

In September 2016, Exley collaborated with other digitial leaders from the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign to co-found Middle Seat, a digital marketing, media, and organizing firm dedicated to the success of “progressive campaigns and causes.” He remained with Middle Seat until January 2018.

Rules for Revolutionaries

In 2016, Exley and Becky Bond co-authored Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, as a guide for far-left activist strategies that Exley had learned as a key player in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

Fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center

From January to May 2017, Exley served as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Brand New Congress & Justice Democrats

In 2016-2017, Exley co-founded Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, a pair of affiliated political action committees dedicated to promoting the congressional campaigns of Democrats.

New Consensus

In January 2018, Exley founded New Consensus (NC), where he has served as executive director ever since. He describes NC as “a think tank dedicated to pushing progressive economic thought past industrial policy toward being able to imagine sweeping national transformations to create fully sustainable and equitable economies.” Boasting that “we introduced the Green New Deal with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio[-Cortez] and played a major role in its reshaping of the U.S. status quo among progressives,” Exley wrote in 2023: “Today we’re working on a major report that details what a full-scale national economic mobilization to build a clean economy would look like.”

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