How the Left Is Revitalizing Itself

How the Left Is Revitalizing Itself

There’s more collaboration between progressive groups—and more coordination among donors—than ever before.


It’s been almost ten years since progressives, determined to undo the accumulated damage of the Reagan-Bush era, took a page from our opponents’ successes and got to work building our own policy, organizing and electoral infrastructure. At the outset of this effort, in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, I had a ringside seat as an aide to George Soros, who played a crucial role. I’ve recently become president of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of donors whose founding was one of the turning points in building a stronger, more cohesive progressive movement. So I have an unusual vantage point for reflection on what we have managed to do well in the last ten years.

First, we’ve seen much more coordination among donors. Progressive foundations such as Open Society, unions like the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), consortiums of funders like the Democracy Alliance, and strategic individual donors—for example, Herb Sandler and his late wife Marion, who were among the people providing substantial early capital for the Center for American Progress (CAP)—have built new institutions to fill in the gaps on the progressive side, as well as strengthened the capacity and sustainability of some key organizations that were already in place. Flagship institutions that didn’t exist or had just gotten under way a decade ago include CAP, a wide-ranging think tank and messaging operation that, while still outgunned financially by the Heritage Foundation, has considerably evened the score between left and right in this realm; Media Matters for America, which monitors the conservative press, publicizing and shaming over-the-top behavior and pressing for accountability; America Votes, which coordinates progressive campaigns at the state level; and the American Constitution Society, inspired by the success of the right’s Federalist Society in fostering a pipeline of ideas and personnel for the Justice Department and federal judgeships.

Longstanding progressive anchors whose funding has increased and diversified thanks to the concerted efforts of funders working to strengthen progressive infrastructure include the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the budget watchdog launched in the Reagan era, and the Center for Community Change, the organizing support group founded in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Among others, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and SEIU, the country’s largest labor union, have also shown strong signs of revitalization.

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The conservative writer Tod Lindberg, surveying this landscape from the right with some envy, writes of what he calls “Left 3.0”: “funder networks now gather periodically to strategize where best to deploy resources. Money for the cause appears to be abundant. Activists meet to share information and coordinate plans. Opinion journalists offer up articles and blog posts and tweets. None of this is unique to the Left, of course. But to the extent that the emerging Left 3.0 considered itself lagging [behind] efforts on the Right—what the Left likes to call the ‘right-wing noise machine’—Left 3.0 has now fully caught up.” Admittedly, it doesn’t always look that way from the inside, and we still have a long way to go, but the progress he notes is genuine.

Campaigns aimed at more specific issues have also been much better funded and coordinated. One of them, Health Care for America Now (HCAN)—of which the Atlantic Philanthropies, which I led at the time, was the largest funder—made a significant difference in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. As Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, a keen analyst of movements for public policy change, told The Washington Post: “The investments that philanthropies made in [the HCAN campaign] helped cement links between the national players and the state and local players…that made it possible to push at the very end when many Democrats were ready to drop the whole thing, after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts.”

Contrasting the path of healthcare reform with the parallel effort on climate change, Skocpol says she was “startled by the level of contempt that many environmentalists had for the health reform push.” But she concludes that progressives “have to build broader coalitions. That was one of the things that health reformers did this time around. They buried hatchets and forged ties with groups they needed to, like medical providers, and reached out to small businesses.”

The Affordable Care Act as it emerged, public option jettisoned, through a razor-thin margin in the House of Representatives is far from perfect. Also, the complexities of its implementation—not to mention the initial technological crashes during its launch—may, in time, when progressives manage to gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress, build momentum for a single-payer system like Medicare for All. But it was a victory, and the ACA has already provided access to health coverage for millions for whom it had been out of reach.

The Alliance for Citizenship, the broad coalition of groups now pressing for immigration reform, includes (as HCAN did) both labor and civil rights groups, along with faith-based movements and community-organizing networks, forging strategy together at the same table. Among other things, this kind of structure provides a mechanism for dealing with differences among allies, a place to hammer out a path between the sense of urgency felt in the field and the legislative pragmatism often voiced by Beltway-based advocates.

In part because these developments have been handled in a deliberate and coordinated manner, there is a great deal more collaboration between and among progressive organizations than has been the case for many years. Indeed, one of the most encouraging developments is that this collaboration is not just taking place among groups that have had shared goals like healthcare and immigration reform, which is significant enough; it is also causing a number of organizations in the progressive constellation to step outside their traditional “silos” to stand in solidarity with other movements.

I first had the feeling that something was changing back in 2009, when I attended the NAACP’s 100th-anniversary dinner and was struck by the prominence of underwriting from gay and lesbian donors. I noted that Urvashi Vaid, the longtime progressive activist, then executive director of the LGBT-focused Arcus Foundation, was sitting at the head table with Julian Bond, the chair of the NAACP board.

Not long after, the NAACP—led by its president, Ben Jealous—helped to fuel, not follow, the momentum toward support of same-sex marriage. Some months later, a number of LGBT leaders stood with black and Latino activists at a press conference in New York denouncing the stop-and-frisk policy of the city’s police. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Rea Carey had this to say: “LGBT people, of course, have their own history of unjust treatment from law enforcement, not the least of which was the raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, launching the modern LGBT movement. But the task force does not just stand in solidarity with LGBT people; we stand against racial profiling for all people of color. The entire concept of it goes against not only the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’; it undermines the free society we fight for every day.”

More recently, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), joined by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT groups, stepped out strongly in favor of immigration reform, asserting: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with those striving for and dreaming of a nation that embraces all who come here seeking a better life.” Among the tangible results to emerge from this stance was the series of immigration-based direct actions last fall, including a powerful women-only civil-disobedience action.

Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change and a leader in antipoverty efforts as well as the movements for immigration reform and healthcare, addressed the NGLTF’s Creating Change conference in January 2013, expressing optimism about the fight for LGBT rights and immigration reform and noting, “It is no coincidence that two movements that have been unafraid to make noise and cause trouble have made real progress.”

Writing in The Washington Post in March 2013, Frank Sharry, the director of America’s Voice, talked about how the immigration movement learned from the successes of the LGBT movement, often telling his colleagues that “it’s time to go all LGBT on their ass…quite simply, that it was time to be confrontational.”

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If all the solidarity was taking place only between the LGBT and civil rights movements, that would be reason enough to applaud, but it is not limited to that. The Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace came together in a Democracy Initiative last year to press for the successful reform of the Senate filibuster rule. That good beginning has led to coordinated work against voter-suppression laws and to limit the role of money in politics by groups that had little to do with one another until recently.

Not long ago, a significant segment of the environmental movement was anti-immigration on population-control grounds. While the nativist forces in the Sierra Club were defeated, there has until recently been little common ground expressed between the green and immigrant-rights movements. Yet in the current push for immigration reform, a number of environmental leaders and their organizations have spoken out.

Phil Radford, who recently stepped down as executive director of Greenpeace, wrote on the Huffington Post: “Undocumented workers are among the most vulnerable workers in our society, from their exposure to toxic pesticides and chemicals in agricultural work and manufacturing, to their isolation in pollution-choked neighborhoods caring for vulnerable families and children. Every human being deserves the dignity and right to stand up to polluters in the workplace and at home without fear of being deported and taken from their families.”

And Bill McKibben of wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “immigrants, by definition, are full of hope. They’ve come to a new place determined to make a new life, risking much for opportunity. They’re confident that new kinds of prosperity are possible. The future beckons them, and so changes of the kind we’ll need to deal with climate change are easier to conceive.”

These encouraging connections are not just taking place among organizations and movements; there are other gaps being bridged as well—for instance, the new Gettysburg Project, which brings together Anna Burger, the former SEIU secretary-treasurer, and many movement leaders with scholars like Marshall Ganz, Lani Guinier and Archon Fung.

At the state level, where less fragmentation exists among activist groups than is seen with their national counterparts, there’s even more evidence of cross-issue collaboration. The story in New York City, where the trail blazed by the Working Families Party and the Progressive Caucus has led to the expansion of paid sick leave and an end to stop-and-frisk in the early days of the de Blasio administration, has been well told of late, but it is far from the only one. As George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, points out, in Minnesota alone, this kind of solidarity—in conjunction with a state government in which both legislative chambers and the governor’s office are Democratic—has already achieved notable advances in voting rights, marriage equality, revenue, housing and ex-offender reforms.

In some places, the roots of cross-issue collaboration are deep. In 1992, PCUN, the union for Oregon’s farm, nursery and reforestation workers, and its largest Latino organizations voted to take part in the 120-mile Walk for Love and Justice to oppose Measure 9, a statewide anti-gay ballot initiative. “We knew that they were attacking the LGBT community first, and we [Latinos] were next in line,” recalls PCUN president Ramón Ramírez.

A few years later, when Oregon’s immigrant community faced an anti-immigrant, Proposition 187–style ballot measure, Ramírez approached LGBT leaders, who had defeated two ballot measures by that point. “They were generous in sharing their strategies and resources. They really came through for us,” Ramírez says, “and we defeated that ballot measure, learning along the way what it took to build the infrastructure and the base that would win the day for us.”

In the years since, the two communities have stood together on many statewide battles: PCUN, the voter education group Voz Hispana and the youth organizing project LUS published Spanish-language materials against an anti-gay ballot measure in 2000; and when anti-immigrant activists placed two local measures on the ballot in Columbia County, the statewide LGBT group Basic Rights Oregon devoted full-time staff, volunteers and substantial resources to the successful campaign against them.

Collaborations like these, which give the lie to the oft-repeated critique that progressive groups are too bound up in their own narrow issues—their own “identities,” it is often said, though mostly by white men who think everyone has an identity but them—do not happen by accident. On a national level, the comprehensive view of progressive infrastructure taken by Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein was one big contributing factor. Stein had closely studied the right and admired not only the sums contributed by conservative donors and the focus with which they operated, but also the way their networks fostered connection and collaboration among donors, organizations, intellectuals and allies in government. An array of nationally supported, state-focused progressive groups—ProgressNow, America Votes, State Voices and others—are proving the value of close collaboration.

The mutual support between African-American and LGBT groups is the harvest of dialogues sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Arcus Foundation going back to 2008, when it was still a struggle to have same-sex marriage embraced as a progressive issue. Another big factor in recent progressive successes is the Rockwood Institute, a progressive leadership development group based in Oakland. Over the last ten years, hundreds of activists from labor, economic-justice, civil-rights, women’s and environmental organizations and philanthropy have gone through Rockwood’s training seminars and built closer relationships, both personal and professional, that have led to the kinds of organic connections and collaborative actions detailed above.

These relatively new alliances are off to a very good start, but they will be tested in the months and years to come—when there’s a new battle royal over abortion rights or a new window of opportunity on climate change, for example, and immigrant-rights or environmental groups are asked to return the solidarity by mobilizing their own members and raising their own voices. And longstanding tensions, such as between some labor unions and environmental groups over the impact of climate action on jobs, will not disappear overnight just because the leaders in both sectors break bread.

The challenges include considerations of time and money and clashes of interests, but they also touch on deep-seated attitudes. When Ilyse Hogue, a longtime activist with and other organizations, was thinking about becoming executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America last year, she told me she was surprised by the “lukewarm reception” she received when consulting a number of progressive male colleagues about taking the position. “The concern was summed up by one person—who I admire greatly as a champion of progressive values—when he said, ‘But you are so talented! Why would you want to relegate yourself to those issues?’ Variations on this theme were echoed through other conversations, both before and after I made my decision to accept the job.

“I was floored,” Hogue continues. “In a country where access to abortion and contraception is under constant attack, and there’s also minimal to no assistance or job security for working mothers, any failure to recognize that our reproductive and economic destinies are inextricably linked not only misses the boat in authentically appealing to people’s daily experience, but also in potentially bringing together powerful movements [around] a true progressive agenda.”

Many social-justice groups believe they got where they are only by sticking to their mandates and not straying from what they—and particularly their boards, which are often more cautious than CEOs—view as their mission. And there is something to be said for taking a position only in areas where it can be backed up by real expertise: Would a campaign-finance group have much to contribute to a debate over waiting periods for abortion, or vice versa?

In the hyperpolarized environment of Washington, increasingly mirrored at the state level, there remains some common ground to be found in strange-bedfellow alliances around longtime “wedge” issues like crime and civil liberties. Civil-rights groups work with evangelical Christians focused on redemption and conservative governors focused on saving money to promote prisoner re-entry programs and alternatives to incarceration. Military leaders and human-rights advocates speak out against torture, and Grover Norquist joins the ACLU in criticizing NSA surveillance. There is much to be gained from these collaborations, but they will rarely be transformative; nor will they be available for the biggest fights, on the core issues of economic justice, environmental protection, and war and peace. In those fights, for now, progressives will need to keep forging a narrative of interdependency, acting together as often as they can.


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