The Freedom to Say What You Mean, and Fight for What You Believe
The progressive movement is at a crossroads. The alliance with the Democratic party that served both groups during the Bush years is breaking down. Progressives must now choose: do we accept a corporate-sponsored model functioning within the party that ultimately bows to the party’s corporatist goals, or are we willing to fund an independent movement, capable of freely advocating for progressive values from the outside?
FDL has chosen the latter path, and although the rewards are much greater, it’s also much harder. People often don’t realize that the freedom that our writers have to speak their minds, buck the party line and explore the topics that are “third rail” in other places is a direct result of a conscious choice we made several years ago to finance and scale FDL to operate on funding streams that could not be cut off by powerful interests. We’ve worked hard to find and develop the best talent on the internet, pay them for their work and give them the freedom to do so without worrying about whether they’ll get a check or not that month. An enormous part of my job has become making sure that the money is there to give them that freedom, in addition to paying for the the platform and the technical support to get their message out.
I’m asking for your help today. We need to raise at least $50,000 by the end of June so that we can continue to cover stories like the BP oil spill, Prop 8, Social Security, financial regulation, and the wars in the Middle East without fear that the rich and the powerful can pick up a phone and cut our funding if they don’t like what we write. And if we’re doing our job right, they won’t. That’s the role of a functioning fourth estate: to hold those in power accountable.
But I’m asking for more than a one-time donation. I’m asking progressives to re-think the way they think the way in which we fund the movement. I know that this comes at a time when people are forced to make hard economic choices on many fronts. But that is happening in large part because the Masters of the Universe have run roughshod over the world economy unchecked for so long. Our movement had an incredible growth spurt with the advent of the blogosphere and the ability that the internet gave us to communicate directly with one another, without need for mediation by the traditional media. But we will cease to be “progressive” if we allow it to continue to be subsumed within the Democratic party. The independent channels we established are quickly being filled by corporate money, and the upshot is that our arguments are being distorted and hijacked, and we are losing our best talent.
The blogosphere is in transition from a volunteer model, where people worked on passion alone. But we cannot expect people to continue to work endlessly on a volunteer basis. They’re burning out. I know several progressives that I have tremendous respect for who have received lucrative offers both from the Pete Peterson Foundation and the organization that Peterson is funding to build public support for cutting Medicare and Social Security, AmericaSpeaks (who just received $4 million in funding from the Peterson, Pew and Kellogg Foundations). Some of these people have been able to say no; others didn’t feel they were in the position to do so. Look at their National Advisory Committee for AmericaSpeaks (PDF). If it doesn’t depress you, it should. There are people with solid progressive histories who are lending their names and their credibility to Peterson’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” effort to undermine the New Deal.
They would not be part of an effort headed by a guy who wants to reopen debtor’s prisons if there was a vital progressive movement that could fund their work.
Corporate money flowing through the conservative movement financed its rise to power. Consequently, the right has been able to develop and nurture young talent where the (genuine) left has not because they have plenty of corporate money at their disposal to do so. Creating career paths for talented youth was a key tenet of Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo for the Chamber of Commerce, in which he outlined his vision for a conservative infrastructure funded by corporate money.
But that money also muzzled the conservative message into incoherence. Those on the right decrying “bailouts” have never been able to turn their turrets around and fire on the Chamber of Commerce itself, whose $100 million-a-year lobbying budget has orchestrated virtually every one of those bailouts. To do so would mean that their access to Chamber money flowing to them in one form or another would come to an end.
During the Bush years, the online left successfully constructed a powerful progressive counter-narrative that challenged the orthodoxies of elite media surrounding the Iraq war. That counter-narrative was embraced and promoted by Barack Obama and the Democratic party, who harvested its energy and used it to take control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
But since the 2008 election, the principle agenda of Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Party has been to siphon off the financial patronage that the GOP has long enjoyed. And they do that by successfully fulfilling corporate ambitions that have not changed. Disgraced neoliberal corporatists are all too willing to wrap themselves in the mantle of “progressivism” as a way to re-brand a product that the public no longer wanted to buy.
Progressives thought they had won a battle for the soul of America. What they got was a battle for control of K Street.
All of this has had a serious impact within the online progressive movement. There has already been significant “brain drain” as people with solid online skills are now in high demand by a variety of institutions with deep pockets. Some have been directly snapped up by the corporate world. Others have been pulled into the Democratic party infrastructure, or into organizations that derive very lucrative revenue streams now that the Democrats have pried K Street out of the hands of the GOP and cracked open the piggy bank.
It’s all corporate money, one way or another. It appears because those on the giving end are getting something of value in return. Much of it has gone straight into the pockets of people whose initial entry into online politics was fueled by idealism, and it has strongly incentivized them to support and promote the Democratic party even when it is working diligently in opposition to the values that inspired them in the first place.
Equally debilitating is the money that has come from the think tanks and other liberal institutions that depend on corporate and foundation money to sustain them. The message is not always communicated in overt ways, but it is there: the availability of that money is dependent on the success of the Democratic party. Criticize the party, and their agenda, at your own peril. Thus organizations that used to be vociferous in their criticism of corporatist Democrats like Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln when Bush was in office have grown mute. Many bloggers who receive their financial support from these entities have grown timid about criticizing White House policy that would have sent them into paroxysms of anxiety if George Bush had done likewise.
The institutions on the left that have continued to meaningfully pursue a progressive agenda are those that are financially independent of the web of influence spun by the Democratic party. Political independence is a direct function of financial independence. The unions, which have a reliable source of funding in the form of member dues, have thus been the most reliable advocates for middle class economic interests over the years.
With the advent of email, MoveOn has also been able to build an online distributive funding model that depends on small dollar donations for their financial support. They can now send a fundraising email for a small fraction of the cost of one piece of direct mail, which was formerly the primary way in which member-based organizations could solicit donations. Other online organizations have imitated the MoveOn model, and likewise enjoy a measure of financial independence: DFA, PCCC and FDL among them.
It is no coincidence that those organizations were the ones that joined together to support Bill Halter in his race against Blanche Lincoln, which meant opposing the White House and the Democratic establishment. They were the only ones that could.
The MoveOn model, however, has its own flaws. Money is primarily raised when people are passionate about an issue in the headlines, and thus fundraising is both unpredictable and frequently tied to application only within specific campaigns rather than covering operating costs. It severely limits the ability to plan and build, and inherently rewards organizations for watering down their message to reach the broadest possible base.
If we do not accept the challenge of developing new independent funding models, we can see our future in the fate that has befallen the big nonprofits. That’s why it’s critical for Firedoglake’s readers, commenters, activists, and supporters to help us build the next phase of our important work. We need to raise at least $50,000 by June 30, and the only way we can do so is with your help.
Can you chip in $20, $35, or more to help us continue to build the independent progressive movement that’s so critical to challenging corporate influences? Click here to make a secure contribution now.
Masaccio has written about the interlocking relations among the social upper class, giant corporations, and policy planning networks. “The large single-issue groups are limited because they are dependent on money from the Power Elite, the upper class, and their hired hands from the professional class,” he notes. They take on bloated budgets and staffs that can only be sustained by corporate money, and there is no incentive for corporate money to show up unless the institution is going to play a role in fulfilling elite goals.
Online advertising helps supplement blog income, but thus far has not been able to generate revenue sufficient to cover operating costs. Google’s monopoly is globally suppressing online ad revenues, and print advertising has simply not had an effective transition to the online model. Advertising revenues cover roughly 5-8% of FDL’s monthly operating costs. The rest of the money comes from small dollar online donations.
Siun, Scarecrow, Masaccio, Marcy and I are exploring a variety of models that take advantage of the ability the internet grants to connect quickly and directly with large numbers of people in order to sustain FDL. We also work together to carefully examine our organizational costs and revenues to make sure that we’re operating in the most efficient way, such that we maintain the ability to provide a space for progressive media and advocacy that is scaled to the income we can realistically derive from independent sources.
But unless progressives accept the challenge of financially supporting organizations that advocate for their values on a regular basis, the only other option organizations have to keep the doors open is from a flow that stems from corporate capital. And while corporate capital is not inherently toxic, once it provides a percentage of an organization’s operating budget such that the organization cannot exist without it, the ability to speak and act independent of its influence becomes limited.
In order for the progressive community to continue to grow, there must be a cultural shift from funding personalities and the “outrage du jour.” Progressive organizations need regular, predictable sources of revenue that allow them to plan and grow. Those organizations, in kind, must accept the challenge of operating at a size that can be supported by a broad membership base, or they can never be truly independent from the interests of their elite donors. Their own success in advocating for progressive interests will trigger the call that cuts the purse strings.
FDL is a remarkable place and we want to be able to provide security for our staff that their financial needs will be met. We also want our community to be able to rely on us to be here, even when we threaten the corporate hegemony that exerts such a pernicious influence on the content of most media outlets. If progressives want true progressive organizations to exist, we all have to consciously build and support them. I’m asking for your help to do that. Because without it, “new media” will fall to the same pitfalls that destroyed the ability of “old media” to act as a credible and reliable fourth estate.