Slouching Towards 2024
We need to do more organizing now if we're going to head off what the Right has planned. Plus, the cockamamie world of philanthropy never fails to amaze.
Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!
“The ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024.” With that one sentence, Atlantic writer Barton Gellman perfectly summarizes the dilemma we are facing. With the same precision that he brought to his pre-election 2020 cover story warning of what could happen if The Former Guy refused to accept the election results, Gellman explains how 2024 will be different and worse as long as current trends continue. This paragraph says it all:
“For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.”
The only flaw with Gellman’s piece is its title: “January 6th Was Practice.” That’s because he shows that the entire period from Election Day through early January was practice, as Trump’s cabal executed “a systematic effort to nullify the election results and then reverse them.” This was not just blocked in the courts but also stymied by the brave decisions of a few key state Republican election officials and ultimately Vice President Mike Pence, who was given a roadmap for rejecting the electoral vote when it came before Congress for certification but refused to act on it. January 6th was just the last move on a chess board as Trump’s determined effort to hold onto power ended in checkmate. And what has changed between last year’s failed effort and now is the rise of a mass base of millions of Republicans who passionately believe in the Big Lie and who appear prepared to use violence, if needed, to take back power.
Once again, Gellman is offering us a public service: a crystallization of our present dilemma. What should we do about the prospect he lays out? Here’s where the journalism of saving democracy falls short. In a companion piece to Gellman’s, George Packer urges that we try to envision a path forward that doesn’t involve “mass violence” between Red and Blue activists if the 2024 election is given to its loser, or the alternative of mass resignation. A “civic movement to save democracy,” is what’s needed, he says, but he offers no details beyond urging a “broad alliance of the left and center-right.” I guess you don’t get paid several dollars a word at the Atlantic to actually report on how such an alliance might be built. In the Washington Monthly, David Atkins at least hints at what will be needed to keep far-right authoritarians from seizing power: “a nonviolent civil resistance and general refusal to cooperate among military, business, and civil elites—plus mass civil disobedience by blue America writ large.” But he too, like Gellman and Packer, does a much better job at sounding the alarm than pointing to how such a strategic upwelling might be organized.
We have a big disconnect, again, between the people who get to worry about these issues on a daily, professional basis, and the people who will be called to take action. It’s crazy to have to say this, but right now there is no organization in America that is fully focused on staving off the threat facing us by marshaling that broad coalition of actors. What we do have are a variety of groups that talk about protecting democracy but work on other aspects of the problem, or who work through elite methods of public engagement like lawsuits, press releases and op-eds.
To wit, we have Marc Elias’ Democracy Docket, which is at the forefront of the legal effort to stave off the wave of new state laws and well worth supporting for the work they do; former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder’s All on the Line redistricting reform group (which appears to be little more than another email fundraising machine with a PAC that raises money to spend money on fundraising and a 501c4 that funnels modest grants to state committees); Common Cause, a 1.5 million member organization that works on a broad array of democracy issues including disinformation, media reform, broadband access, voting rights, gerrymandering, ethics in government, you name it, Common Cause has a blog post about it; Voting Rights Lab, which is a hub for state voter protection efforts; etc. etc. That’s not to mention the gazillion groups and think-tanks writing reports for each other about digital disinformation and Big Tech’s latest outrage against democracy. We’ve got dozens of them but not one that is actually trying to deprogram QAnon believers or help their families.
The one post-2016 group that has been front and center on responding to the Big Lie, Protect Democracy, which was founded by Ian Bassin and Justin Florence, two top Obama officials, and which now employs more than 70 full-time staff, has been mostly busy on the legal front. And some of that work actually does push back on the Big Lie mob directly. For example, they’ve joined up with the Texas Civil Rights Project to sue individual drivers in the so-called “Trump Train” that tried to run a Biden campaign bus off a stretch of Texas highway in October 2020, and they are also suing law enforcement officials who ignored the attack. Making the people at the tip of the spear of Trump’s multi-pronged attack on democracy pay a price for their lawlessness is absolutely vital.
Protect Democracy has also just put out a nifty pamphlet “On Democracy and Authoritarianism” that doubles as a useful summary of their work, which I highly recommend. As the leading fire brigade hoping to stamp out the rising maelstrom, what they do is commendable. The software they’ve developed to help Secretaries of State safeguard voter registration lists is terrific. Their Protecting Our Democracy Act is model legislation for draining the whole swamp of presidential abuses of power that occurred under The Former Guy. But they don’t offer ordinary people anything they can do to push back on the Big Lie. Nor have they done anything, as far as I know, to directly shore up the election officials who bravely stood up to Trump’s bullying last fall. One of the more dispiriting features of Gellman’s article was when he noted how people like Aaron Van Langevelde of Michigan were “hounded” off of his state’s election board after they voted to certify Biden’s win. With rare exceptions, none of the Republican politicians or election officials who did the right thing in 2020 have been lionized for their actions by Democrats or democrats; they’ve instead been vilified and death-threated by the right.
To the degree groups are involving grassroots activists in democracy protection work, the bulk has been focused on trying to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which is the slightly shrunken version of the original For the People Act (H.R. 1) that sought sweeping changes in elections, campaign finance and voting rights. In late November, a coalition of 50 democracy protection, good government, environment and civil rights groups led by Public Citizen released an open letter to Congress decrying the rising danger presented by the Big Lie, but urging only that Congress pass the Freedom to Vote Act in response to shore up election administration and voting systems. Swing Left, Common Cause, End Citizens United and others are all pushing Freedom to Vote as their top priority right now, mainly by asking volunteers to call voters in Arizona to try to get them to call their Senator Kyrsten Sinema to move the bill forward. Few groups are venturing outside that framework, though it’s good to see that Demand Justice is at least working to organize people to push for expanding the undemocratic Supreme Court. While the right keeps evolving new organizations and strategies for building power, it seems as if the last such creative moment for the left ended in 2017.
At least the Democracy Fund, a foundation backed Pierre Omidyar that has greatly expanded its efforts and outlays since 2016, has its head clear about what we face, as this July 29, 2021 blog post by its longtime director, Joe Goldman, shows. While it is still working on its post-2020 organizational strategy (hey it’s a foundation, it can take as a much time as it wants), Goldman says a few central ideas are anchoring its thinking about protecting majority rule democracy, including this: “The racist, illiberal, authoritarian faction that is ascendant in our political system represents an existential threat to our democracy. Failure to withstand the threat posed by this faction could lead to irreparable damage. Over the coming years, we must weaken this coalition and defend against its attacks on our democracy, while strengthening the pro-democracy movement.” [Emphasis in the original.] Goldman adds, “We don’t expect to have clarity on all program areas until at least mid-2022.” Joe, I know you’re a reader, can you hurry up a bit? ;>)
Of course, we didn’t get through the 2020 election and Trump’s emphatic refusal to accept the results simply by luck. Two kinds of behind-the-scenes election protection efforts helped hold the line and deserve more attention as we ponder what to do about the impending nightmare sketched by Gellman. One effort was almost completely invisible and involved mapping and targeting key officials in all the battleground states that might play a role in their state’s election certification. As Protect Democracy describes, a coalition of organizations then worked to “surround them with influences to do the right thing and resist counterpressures.” Targeted messages were delivered via “phone calls, radio and digital advertising to the communities and actors surround the target officials.” They also quietly tapped Republican officials who could function as trusted intermediaries to get to key officials in states like Michigan, where the most pivotal post-election certification battle took place.
The other effort, Protect the Results, which was pulled together by Indivisible and Stand Up America over most of 2020 as a kind of “break glass in case of a coup” distributed organizing network, was an unholy mess, as I reported last year in multiple posts and an article in The New Republic. More than 200,000 people signed up to mass at more than 450 planned locations the day after the election in the event Trump threatened to disregard the results, but at the last minute and with little consultation or explanation, Protect the Results pulled the plug on its own base and canceled those plans. Instead, an elite coterie of national progressive leaders worked hand-in-glove with state-level organizations like We the People Michigan and We Make Michigan to carefully calibrate bird-dogging of key officials to get Biden’s victory margin certified.
Molly Ball had a big piece in Time magazine on this effort to fortify the election certification process was organized, featuring key actors like Mike Podhorzer of the AFL-CIO, Angela Peoples of the Democracy Defense Coalition, messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio and other unlikely allies, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Evangelicals, which makes it seem as though the election was easily protected. Instead, it was, as Peoples told her, only saved “by the skin of our teeth.” Unfortunately, because the organized professional left decided that mass vigils against Trump’s near-coup were not needed, lots of local folks never got to build the civic muscles that we need for the current and future fight that we’re in.
In any event, we’re still in a skin of our teeth moment. And we’ve been handed all the warning we need.
—Related: President Biden is holding a virtual Democracy Summit tomorrow and Thursday, gathering 100 world leaders. As Gellman points out in his Atlantic piece, the president has been reticent to talk about the problems in his own backyard. My latest post for Medium digs into that a bit further. And Issie Lapowsky of Protocol has the low-down on how a White House-led effort to launch a new “Alliance for the Future of the Internet” at the Summit got derailed. The Citizens Convention on UK Democracy also has some choice suggestions for Biden on how the summit could get more practical about advancing new democratic forms, like citizens assemblies.
I could have written a whole issue this week on the cockamamie world of Big Philanthropy. Here are a few key links:
—GiveWell is holding back $110 million of the roughly half-billion it expects to raise this year because it can’t find enough funding opportunities that it thinks would be more cost-effective than giving people the cash directly, Stephanie Beasley reports for Devex.com. Historically GiveWell has sought opportunities that are eight times as effective as cash, but in 2021 it says it lowered that bar to five times as effective and still couldn’t find enough. I guess we should call it Give(Less)Well now. Only a foundation started by hedge fund analysts could come up with the logic that justifies keeping millions out of the pockets of needy people and groups in the name of “effective altruism.”
—Don’t miss Rachel Cohen’s careful examination of how Democrats have embraced “dark money” in The American Prospect. Big finance and philanthropy have all but completely taken over political funding, it appears, as many progressives now accept the notion that disclosing their donors is a form of “unilateral disarmament.” Sorry, you can’t fight for democracy by reinforcing plutocracy, it just doesn’t work that way.
—Theodore Schleifer covers much of the same ground as Cohen in his Puck newsletter. But he’s a tad more tuned into the ironies—here’s one I liked. Dustin Moskowitz, who put at least $47 million into the Future Forward super PAC to pay for a last minute fusillade of anti-Trump TV ads—that’s the same Dustin Moskowitz who’s into “effective altruism” and not spending money helping people unless it has a 5X bang per person helped.
—Speaking of big money corruption, who would have predicted that donations to the Clinton Foundation would plummet nearly 75% in 2020 compared to when Hillary Rodham Clinton was running for president. I mean, there couldn’t have been any connection between giving the foundation money and looking forward to her time in the White House, right?
Odds and Ends
—Privacy, shmivacy: The family safety app Life360 is selling data on kids and families’ whereabouts to data brokers, Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng report for The Markup.
—In case you missed it, Amy Littlefield’s essay on “where the pro-choice movement went wrong” in last Sunday’s New York Times is a must-read for today’s new generation of organizers.
—I missed this when it came out, but Tyler Sonnemaker’s in-depth report on Mark Zuckerberg’s colonization of hundreds of acres of prime Hawaiian coastal real estate is a tour-de-force. And for connoisseurs of Democratic sell-outism, it’s entertaining to discover that Ben LaBolt, former Obama campaign press secretary (and Rahm Emanuel comms director), is now a spokesperson for the Chan Zuckerberg family office.
—Speaking of our tech overlords, Elon Musk Today will keep you up-to-date on his latest nonsense.
Yes kids, this screensaver is what made the founders of MoveOn.org rich.
As I keep tirelessly repeating here, I am now writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Basically, if you want more Micah, you can get it from Medium for just $5 per month of $50 per year (and roughly half of that accrues back to me if you sign up through my partner link). Here’s a “friend link” to last Friday'’s post on Medium, arguing for Democrats to pick a fight with Republicans for wanting the coronavirus to win.