(Please welcome Erica Payne, author of The Practical Progressive: How to Build a Twenty-first Century Political Movement — jh)
In 2003, Rob Stein put together a now-famous PowerPoint presentation detailing the network of money, organizations and influence that make up what Hillary Clinton had dubbed "the vast right wing conspiracy." A former Chief of Staff under Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown who went on to work at the DNC, Stein spent untold hours obsessively documenting the rise of the conservative movement.
Erica Payne’s book begins with a recounting of Stein’s work, starting in 1964 after Goldwater’s electoral drubbing when conservative leaders became convinced that the free enterprise system was under "attack." In 1971, Eugene Sydnor Jr. of the Chamber of Commerce engaged Lewis Powell to write a memo outlining a long term strategy to counteract this pernicious influence.
Two months after he delivered the memo, Powell was appointed by Richard Nixon to the Supreme Court. But the memo laid out a blueprint for the network of institutions that would evolve into the modern conservative infrastructure, which got its start in 1973 when Joseph Coors wrote a $250,000 check to build the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation based on the ideas outlined in the memo.
Funded by conservative donors and Fortune 500 companies, the Heritage Foundation went on to compose the twenty-volume Mandate for Leadership and boasted that from 1981 through 1985 the Reagan administration enacted 60-65% of its policy recommendations. They functioned as the "key architect and advocate of the ‘Reagan Doctrine,’" and went on to advise Newt Gingrich on the Contract with America, and currently operate with a $32.9 million annual budget.
But Heritage is just a small part of the network of conservative infrastructure that includes media monitors, legal advocacy, leadership training, messaging and organizing groups which form strategic alliances around shared conservative principles.
And on the left? Well, it’s largely been a game of catch-up. As Erica notes:
In 2002 progressives began to wake up to this enormous structural disparity. We began to understand that our candidates were losing not because they were bad candidates but because they were structurally outmatches. We were sending David to fight Goliath without a slingshot.
Of the 80 groups listed in the book 40 were started after 2002 — which gives you an idea of what the playing field looks like. Hence the constant repetition of the refrain "though shalt not bash progressive infrastructure" around these parts when we’re defending groups like MoveOn, ACORN, Catalist, Media Matters or the unions when they become targets of the right and ripe for dismantling.
They’re all we’ve got, but they were just enough to eke out a victory in 2008.
What was interesting to me in the book was how different the landscape of progressive infrastructure seems when viewed by someone who isn’t coming from an online perspective. It’s like viewing Mount Rainier from two opposite sites — it looks like two different mountains.
Most of these organizations are 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofits, and either can’t engage in electoral politics or can only support issue-based campaigns. Contrast that with the $84 million that ActBlue has raised for Democratic candidates since 2004 — and all that money is hard money. From an online perspective, Act Blue are the cornerstone of most everything we do but they aren’t mentioned in the book. With their help, for example, the Secretary of State project — started by Credo Mobile organizers Becky Bond and Michael Kieschnick after the Katherine Harris disaster — were able to raise $324,000 in this cycle for Secretary of State candidates. (The SOS project counts both Minnesota’s Mark Ritchie or Ohio’s Jennifer Brunner as their success stories.)
But even though the book barely touches on the online revolution in progressive politics (one area where all acknowledge the left has the edge), it’s a laudable effort to chronicle the largely DC-based groups that are considered the cornerstones of traditional progressive infrastructure. My already well-thumbed copy has served as a resource on more than one occasion when I wanted to get in contact with someone at a particular group ("oh look! Robert Rabin is on that board, too!")
As we move forward trying to harness and interconnect the online and offline progressive worlds in efforts like the Accountability Now Primary Project, having this kind of resource is going to be invaluable. Kudos to Erica for putting it together, and I hope it’s a project that keeps developing.
Update: You can find much of the book online here.