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No More Dancing Bears


Know much about dancing bears? These poor creatures are held in captivity and all but starved to death. Their noses and palates are pierced clean through, then muzzles and chains are attached. And when their masters yank those chains? The bears dance, just to make the excruciating pain stop. Thankfully, this horrific cruelty has been outlawed in much of the world, as well it should be.

Something akin to this practice, however, is alive and well within Democratic circles, and it's one reason why funding on the left is so screwed up. The truth of the matter, which most of us have been too afraid to say publicly, is this: The monied, "center-left" elitists, who pretty much dominate Democratic funding, treat those of us working to build a successful, progressive media infrastructure, which can rival the right's message machine, as though we were their very own dancing bears.

"You want money?" Tug, tug! "Dance for us!" We dance, and then maybe they throw us a scrap of funding. Or not. Usually not. Instead of pouring big and long-term money into media and general operating support as the right has done, the left parcels out tiny bits here and there, and, boy, do we have to dance for what little we get.

It's a humiliating process, and for a very long time, it sucked the strength and vitality out of our movement. We have often been put in the position of having to belittle and backstab our own allies (in efforts to create progressive media and to reform corporate media), just to look better to the funders, so that we get the pathetic $20,000 grant for some specific project, instead of seeing that scrap go to some other group. Most of us on the left work for little or no money, while we watch our counterparts on the right get paid fat salaries and become celebrities after being groomed by wingnut mentors.

This is not news to anyone who tries to raise money from big foundations and donors on the left, particularly for media and infrastructure institutions. What does seem to be changing, however, is that we are finally articulating the neglect and abuse to each other, and going public. A number of important articles have come out in recent months and days, and perhaps the funders will finally wake up from their self-aggrandizing delusions. We have the ideas and urgency, and we're done being treated like dancing bears. The netroots, in particular, has been showing just how much can be built and done when we don't play according to their "center-left" games. Why should we let this go on for another day, let alone another ten years?

It's been just about that long since the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy released their report, "Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations." The 1997 study concluded that conservative foundations and their grantees had achieved a respectable and enviable level of effectiveness because of seven factors:

The foundations bring a clarity of vision and strong political intention to their grantmaking programs;

Conservative grantmaking has focused on building strong institutions by providing general operating support, rather than project-specific grants;

The foundations realized that the state, local, and neighborhood policy environments could not be ignored in favor of focusing solely on the federal level;

The foundations invested in institutions and projects geared toward the marketing of conservative policy ideas;

The foundations supported the development of conservative public intellectuals and policy.

The foundations supported a wide range of policy institutions, recognizing that a variety of strategies and approaches is needed to advance a policy agenda;

The foundations funded their grantees for the long term, in some cases for two decades or more.

In March of 2004, NCRP released another report, "Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy," which proved again how well funding on the right works.

This report provides insight into the foundations and nonprofit organizations that have played a critical role in helping the Republican Party to dominate state, local, and national politics. The success of these organizations is not something that NCRP or its members would necessarily celebrate. But the manner in which foundations on the right support, fund, and relate to their grantees is certainly to be admired. With resources that pale in comparison to centrist and liberal foundations, conservative funders have supported public policies that now impact the entire nation. Perhaps that is why foundations on the right tend to spend very little on evaluation—they can easily see their impact in the newspaper, on TV, in America's classrooms and in the courts.

Later in 2004, and particularly after the crushing Democratic defeat in the 2004 elections, much lip service was paid to the idea that funding on the left had to get more strategic and media-focused. That's when Rob Stein started traveling the country showing his "Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix" PowerPoint presentation to funders and activists. I saw it twice while I worked at Chelsea Green Publishing, as we almost did a book with Stein on the heels of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, which also touched on these issues of right-wing funding and media.

It was around this time that the Democracy Alliance was being formed. There have been a number of recent articles about the Democracy Alliance, and about the funding situation on the left. Cursor, Inc. is compiling quite a library of articles. If you haven't read Christopher Hayes piece, The New Funding Heresies, in In These Times, it's well worth your time. And last week, Ari Berman at The Nation provided us with the results of his five-month investigation into what the secretive Democracy Alliance has been up to in Big $$ for Progressive Politics:

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."

Readers here at the Lake know that my BIGGEST frustration with the "center-left" elitists who dominate the ranks of the Democracy Alliance is exactly this point: They don't seem to know what Democrats and progressives stand for, and then they blame those of who do and are making things happen. We're the "crazy" ones because we actually speak up and want to fight back boldly against the radical right's power grab in this country? 

I learned last week that there were actually two Democracy Alliance members at that dinner I told you about here, but apparently Venture Capital Man does not like people to know that he's on the Democracy Alliance members list. This gets to the heart of the other thing that really pisses me off about the Democracy Alliance: the secrecy. Why not be transparent, open to new ideas, new voices? Newsflash: You need new voices and new ideas. We all need to talk and have an open debate. Because what you've been funding is not getting the whole job done. We don't have time to waste. We must try new ideas, because we need new results. Remember what Benjamin Franklin said? "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." So, just who are the crazy ones in our little funding scenario?

What about pouring some serious, long-term investment into what the netroots are doing? We can figure out exactly how to do that, if you would just stop saying that we are "taking Democrats down the path to unelectability." I think Democrats were on the unelectable path long before blogs gained any prominence. You need to recognize that while you were looking the other way, the strong infrastructure we need has started to take shape. No thanks to you, we're raising money for candidates, organizing, disseminating ideas, growing the movement and standing up effectively to the wingnuts.

How about a little somethin', you know, for the effort?

Chris Bowers at MyDD, lays it out quite nicely for you today in The Netroots and the Progressive Movement Are the Difference:

Let's look at candidate recruitment and party infrastructure. Democrats are running in more districts this year than they have run in a long, long time. While the Democratic leadership, including Rahm Emmanuel, deserves some credit for this, it didn't happen until the netroots started banging the drums of the fifty-state strategy in 2004. Howard Dean and the netroots demanded that we run everywhere, and then we went about making that plan a reality. We have filled thousands of vacant committee seats and precinct captainships the Democratic Party, paid for party organizers in all fifty states (the DNC is primarily bought and paid for by the netroots and the progressive grassroots), and sounded the call to activists around the nation that we could and should compete everywhere with Paul Hackett's narrow loss in OH-02. The netroots and the progressive movement are the primary driving forces behind the fifty-state strategy. They are why we have candidates, organizers, and party officials in more places than at any time in recent memory. This strategy has had, and will continue to have, a significantly positive impact on the outcome of the 2006 elections.

And why is the press coverage for Republican so much worse these days? The obvious answer when it comes to [disgraced Republican Congressman Mark] Foley is that sex is involved, and sex sells. However, the longer-term answer over the past two years is once again the netroots and the progressive movement. New organizations such as CREW and Media Matters are putting more pressure on the media to cover Republican scandals accurately than ever in the past. The netroots are keeping stories alive, such as the Downing Street Memo, and eventually helping to push them into the mainstream. New progressive media is now directly reaching millions more people every day than it did in the recent past. This is not even to mention these new progressive medias, especially the blogosphere, are putting serious pressure on the established media every day on every issue on every news story. This simply was not around before 2004.

The national media is already spinning that if Democrats win in 2006, it will be in spite of the netroots and the progressive movement, and if they lose it will be because of the progressive movement. However, the truth is that almost every major improvement Democrats have made in 2006 compared to previous election cycles was primarily driven by the netroots and the progressive movement. Fundraising, infrastructure, fifty-state strategy, media–almost all Democratic improvements in those areas were driven by the netroots in particular, and the progressive movement as a whole. We are the primary difference between 2006 and the past five election cycles (click here to see just how large that difference is right now). Even when it comes to Republican implosions, the progressive movement played a large role in making sure that those implosions were on display within the establishment media for the entire country to see.

The media narrative should not be that Democrats have a chance to win in spite of the netroots and the progressive movement. An honest appreciation of the situation reveals that most, if not all, of the significant improvements Democrats have made from 2004 to 2006 were generated primarily within the netroots and the progressive movement. If Democrats win in 2006, it will be because of the netroots and the progressive movement, not in spite of it.

So, let's talk. The netroots and the blogs are not the enemy. Let's step out of secret boardrooms and away from our laptops and talk to each other. Foundations and big Dem funders: Stop treating us those of us who work on media efforts (new and traditional) like dancing bears. Listen to our ideas. Look at what's been accomplished on the blogs with no investment from you so far. Let's think about how much more we could be doing if we all worked together. I know there are good funders out there, thinking of new and better ways to fund the progressive infrastructure. I know that the Democracy Alliance and others are funding some good work, like at Media Matters and Center for American Progress. But there is so much more to be done and supported in various ways. And the time has come to lose the secrecy, to open up the process. As Christopher Hayes wrote in June:

In progressive circles, it seems the first rule of fundraising is: Don’t talk about fundraising. Call up someone at a major foundation or a development director and their first response is to go off the record. “There’s a deafening silence within the movement around the role of money in movement building,” says Daniel Faber, who teaches sociology at Boston’s Northeastern University and edited Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements. “It’s very difficult to penetrate that veil of secrecy.”

It makes sense. Progressive activists, organizers and leaders are rarely in a position to openly criticize their funders. (That includes In These Times—here’s hoping that the foundation that pays my salary admires our bracing honesty.) And funders find themselves so besieged by requests for money (not to mention right-wing invective, as Soros can tell you), there’s a tendency to fly beneath the radar. But if the progressive movement is going to build an infrastructure to rival the right, it has to examine and undo the numerous dysfunctions that stem from the way it is currently funded. In order to do that, it must initiate a public debate, no matter how awkward such a discussion might be. It might seem churlish to criticize foundations and donors that are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars, but it’s the people writing the checks that tend to make the rules and nearly everyone now agrees those rules need to change.

Let's change the rules…together, this time. Stop yanking our chains.

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