Rob Stein's Liberal Legacy
The founder of the Democracy Alliance, who died last week, tried to copy the Right's infrastructure-building but wealthy Democratic donors had other, less successful, ideas.
Monday May 2nd, Democratic strategist Rob Stein, passed away from cancer at the age of 78. Coming the same day as the leak of the Supreme Court’s pending abortion decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Stein’s death understandably got little attention, even among politics junkies. But there was a weird kind of cosmic injustice to the juxtaposition of both events. For the radical right Supreme Court majority that is on the verge of demolishing abortion rights (and potentially much more) is only there because of a decades-long effort by conservative funders and movement builders, who, starting in the early 1970s, invested billions in pushing a rightwing agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, privatization, and “restoring family values.” Stein made it his life’s work to do something similar on the liberal left, catalyzing the founding of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy donors that has steered $2 billion to a handful of carefully vetted organizations like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, America Votes and Catalist.
The first thing I did when I heard of Stein’s passing was pull out my copy of The Argument, journalist Matt Bai’s 2007 revealing book on the efforts of a motley band of billionaires, bloggers and bastions of the Democratic party to reboot the liberal-left in the wake of national election failures of 2000 and 2004. Stein is one of Bai’s key figures, a gifted connector of people and information who was a relatively low-level official in the Clinton Administration under Ron Brown in the Commerce Department. Starting in the late 1990s, Stein had tried to pitch top Democratic politicians and donors on the need for a more coordinated communications effort to go toe-to-toe with Republicans, but he didn’t hit his stride until 2003, when he pulled together a Powerpoint deck titled, “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix.”
Why was the Right ascendant? Stein’s answer came down to money and infrastructure. Starting in 1971 with a confidential memo laying out the case from Lewis Powell, a future Supreme Court justice, the right had constructed a $300 million message machine consisting of think tanks ($180 million a year flowing into Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution alone), legal centers, religious groups, leadership training institutes and policy journals, all producing a constant stream of talking points, opeds, policy proposals and legislation.
Stein’s PowerPoint wasn’t an analysis of the structural roots of white Christian patriarchy in America or the ways the Constitution advantaged rural white voters as much as it was a functional description of how a nexus of business elites and religious blocs wielded power. Thus it offered a rising wave of rich liberal businessmen and women a comfortingly plausible solution. Just cough up similar sums and invest in our own messaging machine and soon the country would be back on track. As Bai writes, “None of what Rob was saying about the conservative movement was terribly new, but never had it been so carefully quantified, so tightly packaged, so nicely visualized….Wealthy contributors on both coasts told me that Rob’s slides had awakened in them, at last, to the truth of what was happening in American politics. They stumbled back onto Wall Street or Wilshire Boulevard or the Embarcadero blinking into the sunlight, as if having witnessed a revelation.”
Revelation, however, didn’t lead to a new religion, though Stein wielded his deck the same way the Catholic Church used to handle the Shroud of Turin—as a holy relic to be made accessible only to the select. For an organization with “democracy” in its name, the DA sure didn’t think much of transparency, though I suppose it’s a tribute to the confidence Stein inspired in his audiences that to date his original PowerPoint has never leaked.
More importantly, the Democracy Alliance was never as strategic or supportive as any of the right’s key funders. Stein’s evangelizing among the Democratic moneyed class—a mix of hedge fund billionaires like George Soros, tech VCs like Alan Patricof, wealthy trial lawyers like Guy Saperstein, and Hollywood celebrities like Rob Reiner--had the advertent effect of centering their values and ways of doing things. Thus, as Bai describes, the Democracy Alliance was structured from the start as a marketplace: “a lean, minimalist organization whose only role would be to hold meetings where entrepreneurs could pitch investors on their ideas. This model reflected the peculiarly adventurous and antiestablishment culture of Silicon Valley, which favored start-ups over established groups and high risk over steady return.”
Except it really didn’t take risks. Saperstein, an original member of the DA who served on its strategy working group, complained to me bitterly yesterday that Stein had no long-term vision for what the DA should drive toward and neither did most of its members. “Rob was just a conventional Democrat, nothing more,” he said. “He didn’t have an original thought in his life.” He added, “The most obvious lesson of his research should have been how adventurous and entrepreneurial the right was. They started investing in writers and thinkers with a twenty-year time horizon; they didn’t care about political conventions.” Joel Rogers, a progressive academic who co-founded the New Party and tried for years to build the intellectual infrastructure for a new progressive politics, was even more dismissive, telling me, “DA meetings were basically expensive, strategically confused, confabulations of befuddled rich people making unredeemable pledges to fashionable people making self-serving arguments and not themselves being willing to be held to any movement-building standards of behavior. Not quite the way I'd spend millions to take over the political economy of the most powerful nation on earth.”
The DA didn’t give new ideas much support, betting instead mostly on trusted faces and resisting giving anyone the kind of long-term backing that major donors on the Right like the Kochs, the Scaifes and their ilk had showered on a generation of conservatives. Reflecting the mindset of its moneymen, the DA’s donors, for all their supposed commitment to social justice values, was far more capitalist and short-termist than its opponents, who poured money into their institutions like Big Government Socialists.
To join the DA, a donor had to pony up annual dues of $30,000 and then pledge to give at least $200,000 a year to organizations recommended by the DA’s staff and board. Some early donors wanted to create a big pooled fund that could support a central strategy and hire a large staff that could do robust research and assessment, but at Soros’ urging, the group chose not to. (Ostensibly his reason was that most of the big donors had their own staffs to do that kind of work.) The result, writes former DA president Gara LaMarche in his chapter on Soros’ political giving in the 2022 book George Soros: A Life in Full, was to make “funding somewhat more of a popularity contest, with an edge to charismatic leaders who were good at schmoozing the donors, a skill that was not always correlated with impact.” Hello Activist Hunger Games, Big Democratic Edition!
Unfortunately, instead of building the kind of institutions and investing in the kind of leaders who could genuinely counter the New Right, the Democracy Alliance’s donors prioritized institutions that were meant to strengthen the existing Democratic party, not replace it with something more ideologically coherent or less beholden to corporate power. Or frankly led by people who weren't white men. As LaMarche wrote last year in The Forge, “when I came to [run] the Democracy Alliance in 2013, its portfolio was heavily weighted toward policy groups, most of them white led.” Its donors also focused more on building think-tanks and media watchdogs and much less on matching the kind of leadership-development or local organizing infrastructure that the Right has built. LaMarche led a visioning process helped make the case for “supporting year-round organizing in securing enduring progressive change, resulting in a set of investment recommendations that included the Working Families Party, People’s Action, Faith in Action, Color of Change, and Working America, as well as movement-connected think/action tanks like Demos, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Economic Policy Institute.” But as I noted in The Connector last summer in a post called “The Poverty of Grassroots Organizing,” he admitted that most the DA’s funders hadn’t shifted much beyond white-led Beltway groups and that, “It’s unacceptable that the resources needed to build power are dependent on occasional allies like me.”
David Callahan, author of The Givers and publisher of Inside Philanthropy, and earlier a co-founder of the progressive think-tank Demos, told me, “Stein's vision of much greater investments in core progressive institutions was never fully realized because most liberal funders never signed onto the project of providing long-term general support to ideologically driven organizations. While various big individual donors did start giving to places like CAP, Media Matters, and Catalist, most big liberal foundations continued to give project support for issue-based work in a siloed way. That's limited the ability of think tanks and other infrastructure institutions to scale. The failure to invest in leadership training is one example; we still have nothing like what the right has here, as you note.”
He adds, “The other thing is that progressive funders have consistently failed to invest enough in state and local grassroots organizing. I can't remember how much Stein advocated such giving. But whatever the case, it didn't really start to happen at any significant way until after the 2016 election. And we're still way behind here -- witness, for instance, the belated scramble to finally engage rural voters or how there still isn't much strong progressive infrastructure in certain key states, like Michigan.”
Peter Murray, founder of Accelerate Change, has a more charitable view, arguing that Stein’s “ability to inspire a set of donors to invest in long-term movement infrastructure was impressive and impactful.” He also says that, “Rob worked hard to incorporate leadership development into the DA structure, but leadership got less funding than other areas for a variety of reasons (donor interest, maturity of leadership organizations, etc.).” Murray blames the left’s weakness compared to the right on a deeper challenge, one that he first articulated in his 2013 article “The Secret of Scale,” which is how much “the right is primarily built on functional organizations (organizations that are relevant to people's daily lives--that people join in order to get tangible value (economic, information/media, or community), [while] the left is primarily built on issue-based organizations.” Thus the Right has churches, the NRA and gun clubs, rightwing media and business associations which its think tanks, media groups, leadership development and PACs sit on top of. The left’s functional organizations—labor unions and liberal and Black churches—have been in steep decline (the former thanks to the Right’s onslaught on organizing). He adds, “We've tried to replace functional organizations with issue organizations, but issue organizations never truly scale--in terms of $, depth of engagement, or scale of relationships--because they cater to the tiny fraction of Americans who are activists. Issue organizations play a critical role, but they cannot serve the function of scaled, deep base building. Scaled, deep base building is achieved by functional organizations.”
Josh Nussbaum, a younger progressive organizer who was a Civic Hall organizing fellow, took a different approach to solving the hunger games when he founded the Movement Cooperative in 2018 to pool progressive groups’ access to key voter data and tools. “I do believe the DA has been changing positively over recent years and their money's getting spread around much more than it did previously and now have working groups focused on issues like the environment and democracy,” he said. But he agreed that the kind of Democratic donors centered by the DA have never been as focused on movement building as the Right. The GOP’s donors, he said, “built infrastructure to support a conservative movement that's meant to further conservative ideas and outcomes over and above merely having redundant electioneering infrastructure to the Republican Party. In fact, they seemed to have been motivated equally by building a movement that could take over the Republican Party as well as achieve governing majorities. Meanwhile, Democratic donors mainly seemed, after Kerry's loss [in 2004], to be motivated primarily by frustrations with the Democratic Party's failure at achieving governing majorities and felt they could do a better job at the electioneering necessary to win those majorities so they built redundant electioneering infrastructure. There's no real underlying progressive ideology binding together most of these Democratic donors or the Democracy Alliance and they haven’t built infrastructure to support a progressive movement bound together by some progressive vision outside of ‘Democrats winning elections.’ To be clear, I do think much of that infrastructure that’s been built play critical functions and that electing Democrats is profoundly important, now more than ever. But I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding to think that what the conservative movement has built is only electoral. And perversely, as we've seen, focusing on building infrastructure that's only centered on near-term election outcomes obviously doesn't build a movement but long-term it's also been pretty shitty at winning elections as well.”
Before Stein died, he had shifted his attention to building a cross-partisan alliance that could defend democracy from the rising forces of the authoritarian right. I’m told that he was working on a new PowerPoint deck that presumably would have mapped out who was funding what and where resources were needed. Perhaps that will eventually surface. Whatever else one might say about his legacy, we could sure use that now.
Odds and Ends
—Peter Thiel, the rightwing billionaire VC, is halfway to buying his first US Senator in J.D. Vance, who won the GOP primary last week. Here’s a “friend link” to a piece I did last week on Medium, pointing out how Thiel’s SuperPAC used Medium to channel $15 million in indirect help to Vance. Medium’s Trust and Safety Team is now investigating whether the SuperPAC broke the site’s rules.
—We should stop calling Taiwan a “digital democracy,” Sam Robbins argues, because the tools that power the country’s evolving systems of citizen participation wouldn’t exist without the communities and networks that make them a reality.
—It’s time to shut down pediatric cancer hospitals, for the same reasons people are arguing we should stop worrying about the odds of children getting COVID, Jonathan Howard argues in ScienceBasedMedicine.org. Let’s hear it for more modest proposals! (h/t Gregg Gonsalves).
—“Law, with all its faults, is still pretty much the most effective technology ever devised for preventing people and corporations from abusing their power—and forcing them to share it,” but the Web3 scene thinks of government as a system to be routed around, not used, writes Gilad Edelman in a must-read report in Wired on the misguided idealists and determined crypto hucksters of Web3.