There Can Be No Progressive Activism Without Progressive Funding
I entered the world of political blogging in 2004, at a time when anger over the Iraq war was driving passionate, talented and idealistic people onto the burgeoning internet to fill the media gap. Fueled by volunteer labor, bloggers built online communities and messaging networks that channeled broad public distrust in the elite media, whose message seemed more like propaganda than news to those on both the right and the left.
But volunteer labor can carry you only so far. We’ve achieved almost 2/3 of our goal to raise $50,000 by the end of June, money we will use to pay the writers, moderators, editors and technical people who work hard to produce FDL every day. And I’m asking for your help today to push us over the top.
The progressive blogosphere came of age at a unique moment in time. As people began getting their news more and more online, marquee names like the New York Times and the Washington Post could not figure out how to make their financial model turn a profit on the internet. For every dollar they lost in print advertising eyeballs, they got roughly a dime for the same number of eyeballs online. Shifting their audience from one medium to another had devastating revenue implications and could not sustain their infrastructures. Moreover, many reporters and editors were simply uncomfortable with the two-way communication that online readers came to expect from those who delivered their news. Access journalism gave them their headlines, and they did not enjoy having the validity of those easy scoops challenged by plucky readers.
Pressures coming both from within and without made major news organizations hesitant about moving into the online space, and so they tried desperately to deny and delay the inevitable. The early political bloggers took advantage of that and became “homesteaders” in a new frontier, able to establish their brands before the big names entered the fray in earnest and readership largely calcified.
Probably the most remarkable accomplishment of the early netroots was the construction of a progressive counter-narrative that challenged the orthodoxies of elite media surrounding the Iraq war. That counter-narrative was embraced and promoted by Barack Obama, who harvested its energy and it carried him into the White House.
But we have now entered into a very different political era, one that presents a new set of challenges. Big media outlets are devoting significant resources to the battle for online readership, snapping up much of the talent that the blogosphere has nurtured. They also have the deep pockets to develop technologies that enhance their ability to deliver news in efficient and innovative ways. Our ability to sustain ourselves along side big media players with their access to corporate capital will be limited without the broad-based financial support of our readers.
As Robert Cruickshank noted, the right-wing in the United States is essentially a fringe movement when you look at their numbers. “Even after 30+ years of right-wing dominance of our politics, their ideas remain fundamentally unpopular,” he says. “So why do they dominate politics? Because they made an alliance with the corporations.”
As the Iraq war, the internet and host of other factors galvanized progressive resistance to the Bush administration’s policies, it limited the ability of corporate money to achieve its agenda through the GOP.
And so the corporate money that flowed through the Republican party and financed its rise to power is now channeling through the Democratic side, too.
It’s one of the unintended consequences of a world in which people are accustomed to getting their content for free. Because nothing is “free.” People have to make a living. And if the only way they can do so is through funding streams that have their headwaters in the corporate world, they will never be able to do more than pay lip service to progressive interests. Whenever corporate and progressive interests clash, they will be forced to retreat from the battle in order to sustain themselves.
Two years ago we all shared the goals of ending the wars, cutting the defense budget, increasing government transparency and limiting the ability of corporate America to loot the treasury. Now, the principle agenda of the Democratic Party is siphoning off the financial patronage that the GOP has long enjoyed. And they do that by successfully fulfilling corporate goals that did not change when George Bush left the White House. An entire phalanx of people now make their living in the netroots telling people to go along with whatever the Democrats want, or Sarah Palin will be President.
A world that was once fueled by idealism is now being perverted by corporate-sponsored tribalism. Many mechanisms have been consciously created to suppress progressive activism and promote party propaganda. They rely on the standard PR tactic of group message reinforcement, and the idea that if people see something repeated 5, 6 or 7 times they will start to believe it’s true — no matter how twisted and irrational the thinking.
Think tanks. Lobbying and law firms. PR, social networking, grassroots astroturf and other “strategy” groups. You’d be amazed at the number of people whose names you used to see online all the time who have now disappeared within their ranks.
I don’t blame them. People need to make a living. It’s the fault of the progressive movement that has failed to successfully address the challenge of finding a way to fund our organizations independent of the corporate cash that gets laundered in a variety of ways — which nonetheless ultimately exists to advance elite interests.
The inherently populist structure of the internet is hospitable to advancing progressive causes, which have tremendous popular support despite the media fantasy of a “center right nation.” This year alone, our ability to message directly to large numbers of people without need of intercession by marquee media has been critical in changing the dynamics around student loan reform, respirators for gulf cleanup workers, increased transparency at the Federal Reserve and derivatives legislation designed to rein in credit default swaps.
When Marcy Wheeler discovered that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in one month and it wound up on the front page of the New York Times, even the right had to acknowledge that this constituted torture.
But we have the freedom to pursue those progressive goals and challenge those in power regardless of their party affiliation, because we are funded by our readers. We have a broad, distributed funding base that isn’t dependent on a few big donors or foundations who can shut us up or shut us down. I cannot emphasize enough how much our independent voice is a function of the small dollar donors who provide the paychecks for remarkable people like Marcy Wheeler, Dave Dayen, Jon Walker, Michael Whitney, our fantastic moderators and a host of others that allow them to do what they do.
If progressives want progressive organizations to pursue a progressive agenda unfettered, we all have to consciously build and support them. I’m asking for your help to do that.