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.”
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.