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Big $$ for Progressive Politics | The Nation

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Big $$ for Progressive Politics

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On December 13, 2004, a month after the re-election of George W. Bush, twenty-five of the wealthiest donors in the progressive community gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington for an important strategy session. The group had collectively poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort to defeat Bush--and had nothing to show for it. Yet the despair of John Kerry's defeat provided an urgent call to arms. "The US didn't enter World War II until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor," Erica Payne, a New York political consultant who helped organize the gathering, told the donors. "We just had our Pearl Harbor."

About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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The time had come for the donors to think differently about how to spend their money, just as conservatives had done forty years earlier when they launched a counteroffensive against liberalism and pushed the Republican Party far to the right. The meeting was led by Rob Stein, a former official in the Clinton Administration, who'd spent the last year and a half developing a PowerPoint presentation vividly mapping the rise of the conservative movement. He'd convened the meeting to encourage progressives to emulate the conservative funders by investing in the "guts" of politics--leaders and ideas and institutions that would last beyond one election. A month later the Democracy Alliance officially came into existence, as an exclusive collective of donors and one of the progressive community's most ambitious undertakings yet.

Almost two years along, the Alliance's 100 donors have distributed more than $50 million to center-left organizations and activists--a lot of money, yet still largely symbolic given the deep pockets of its members. Even as the donors pour millions into a new political infrastructure, however, problems have emerged that mirror many of the problems of the Democratic Party today and the progressive movement in general.

The first is determining what, exactly, the group stands for and wants to accomplish. Unlike the money guys who underwrote the right, members of the Alliance seem to lack strong ideological conviction about what the future ought to look like. And they do not have the militant perspective of outsiders eager to disrupt and overrun the party establishment. The right-wingers developed a core set of principles and stuck to them with an insurgent sense of persistence and aggressiveness. The wealthy liberals, in contrast, are still debating among themselves how to spend their money. Do Alliance members just want to be in the club or do they intend to change it? Do they want to stick with the party's stars--Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cadre of influential aides, who are preaching "moderation"--or are they ready to listen to new voices? Are they really committed, and prepared, to fund long-haul change?

To its credit, the Alliance has largely ignored the 2006 elections in favor of developing a five-to-ten-year strategy. But the much bigger presidential election season just around the corner will test the donors' long-term resolve. When the Alliance took an informal survey, the greatest fear among partners was that if a Democrat captured the presidency the organization wouldn't survive. Rob Johnson, an early board member, says the tension in the Alliance is between "party subsidizers" and "climate changers"--those who want to fund organizations that work toward more effectively electing candidates versus those who aspire to change the fundamental nature of political debate with a stronger set of governing principles.

A secondary problem is the struggle these well-meaning wealthy Democrats have had in getting their own house in order. Since its inception, the Alliance has been unabashedly elitist, while also poorly run. The criteria for choosing winners have been maddeningly opaque and the grants themselves contradictory. Far from speeding up the funding of progressive organizations, the Alliance has slowed certain things down. To stabilize the organization internally after almost a year of early stumbles, the partners chose as its managing director Judy Wade, a member of the elite firm McKinsey & Company, consultants to multinational corporations. The appointment perhaps reflected the group's uncertainty about its goals as well as the economic proclivities of its members. Wade normalized the Alliance operationally but further blurred its identity, increasing the likelihood that it will uphold the economic and political status quo.

"There's a cautious pathway that traditional Democrats take, and it's been hard to break that," says Johnson. If partners propose to fund the liberal Campaign for America's Future, they must also support its archrival, the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute (neither has received funding so far). A newly elected board led by members of the Alliance's progressive wing could make the group more adventurous. But an emphasis on collegiality indicates that risk aversion may well be the order of the day.

It's too soon to draw any conclusions about the Alliance. But sixty interviews conducted over the past five months suggest that it's not too early to worry that what began as a bold initiative may end up with as little to show as the earnest but largely ineffective philanthropy it was meant to supplant--which did good but didn't alter power. Indeed, the Alliance could bolster a timid Democratic Party establishment instead of transforming it. Of all the lessons from the right, the Alliance has forgotten arguably the most important: It takes both money and conviction to achieve victory. "It doesn't make sense to develop a strategy without a vision," says James Piereson, longtime executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, which was one of the key half-dozen funders on the right. "It's a mistaken analogy that conservatives succeeded because of our tactics. I always thought conservatives were successful because of the ideas we were trying to sell."

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