The Poverty of Democratic Organizing (Part III)
What Dems could learn from one rightwing GOP donor. Plus, Amazon's privacy disaster and how the Obama Foundation sold John Lewis' name to Bezos for $100M.
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!
So far in 2021, the Democratic National Committee has raised $137 million, the best grassroots fundraising off-year in the DNC’s history. One million people have made a donation; 60% are women. According to Lauren Williams, its deputy chief mobilization officer, “it’s not supporters crisis giving – the DNC has more monthly sustainers than it did in 2020.” She adds, “the number one reported donor occupation: Teacher.”
Where is all this money going? Well, back in July the DNC announced a $25 million expansion in its “I Will Vote” initiative, adding to $20 million already committed to the program. What’s it paying for? “Millions in funding, including with partners, to pay for voter registration” particularly where voters are being targeted with new and difficult hurdles to voting; millions for voting rights litigation; “millions to television and digital advertising, especially digital communications, to better educate voters on how to participate; and “the largest tech team in the history of the DNC.” According to the DNC, “the team will use data and other tools to identify and contact voters affected by suppression efforts and voter roll purges, to ensure that all eligible voters have the information they need to cast a ballot.”
All that sounds great, but it also describes a very top-down and reactive approach to the crisis facing Democrats, which is the regular and predictable collapse in voter turnout that the party goes through in almost every mid-term election. 2018 was obviously an exception, thanks to the Organizer-in-Chief, whose 2016 victory prompted a huge surge in grassroots Democratic activism. That activist surge hasn’t completely faded, as the DNC’s big fundraising take shows. But while the data wonks on the DNC’s mobilization team may think that people aren’t “crisis giving,” that off-hand comment betrays a strange complacency. According to the course we’re on, the iceberg is less than 365 days away and there’s no sign that the ship isn’t just going to keep chugging right towards it.
I went looking to see how much of the money the DNC has raised is going to state party building, mindful of DNC chair Jaime Harrison’s May announcement that state parties would start getting $12,500 from the national committee, up from the $10,000 a month they got through the Trump years, with 18 swing state parties getting $15,000 a month. (Let’s leave aside for a moment what a paltry sum this is, a topic I covered back in July.) According to its FEC filing, the DNC has yet to live up to Harrison’s promise. By his declaration, through May the DNC would have given state parties $2.5 million; after May with the extra boost targeted to swing states, another $2.68 million would have flowed downward, for a total of $5.18 million. In fact, according to the filing, through the first nine months of the year the DNC transferred a total of $5,581,960 to the state Democratic parties. Woo-hoo, right? Well, a closer look shows that almost 43% of that total, $2.4 million, went to the Democratic Party of Virginia, for the disastrous Terry McAuliffe campaign for governor. Meaning that most state parties are still going wanting.
For example, so far this year, the New York State Democratic Committee has received about $34,000 in total from the DNC. The Nebraska Democratic Party has gotten $66,000. By comparison, in the same period the DNC has paid Lexis-Nexis, a NY-based data firm, more than $800,000. The Michigan Democratic State Central Committee, in one of the swing states of greatest concern to Democrats, has received $138,800 in the first nine months of the year, slightly more than Harrison’s promise. The Arizona Democratic Party has gotten $148,000. The Pennsylvania Democratic Party has received $143,000.
Compare the pitiful sum sent from the DNC mothership to its Pennsylvania affiliate to the $500,000 that Paul Martino, a right-wing venture capitalist and James O’Keefe fan who lives in the Central Bucks school district, personally poured into local school board politics this past year to support candidates who supported reopening schools and loosening anti-COVID mask requirements. Much of that he dispersed in $10,000 increments to local committees and let them use it however they wanted. And here’s what is so important about what he did, as he told New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson on The Daily podcast recently: “We almost by accident built a completely bottom-up, grassroots, parents-based organization in six months. That is not an easy thing to do…. It turned out that activating a grassroots set of parents would be a potentially new powerful political force. I had no idea that that was going to be the case.” He goes on:
“I think the core of this is that we woke up parents who were apolitical in the past to that the school boards were very fundamentally important to their family because it was their kids’ education. And so certainly, that would then mean other things like curriculum, et cetera, downstream. But having a network of activated previously apolitical parents, that’s a pretty interesting group of people who didn’t used to show up. These aren’t your every two-year voters. These aren’t people who probably even knew there were odd year elections. And it’s exciting to see those kinds of people be active for the first time.” [hat tip to the always perspicacious Lara Putnam for flagging this interview.]
Let’s put aside for the moment Martino’s disingenuous claims that he had no idea what he was doing, or that he built the movement in just six months, or that he had no deeper partisan political intentions. (Those are all tartly debunked by Dina Ley, a 2021 Democratic school board candidate in Central Bucks, who describes how Martino started organizing “performative town halls” back in the summer of 2020 in what he called “the purplest of districts” with the help of a political consultant friend, belying what he said to the Times.)
What’s important to see here is what happens when relatively modest resources get into the hands of local political formations responding creatively to local conditions. The GOP seems especially good at hunting for new ways to stir up voters to change the political dynamic; the Democrats, by contrast, seem to spend most of their time reacting to the weather instead of trying to change it.
I can’t think of any national Democratic or progressive organization making meaningful microgrants to local grassroots activists. Well, I suppose I should note Indivisible National, which has harvested tens of millions from big and small donors alike since its founding in early 2017 mainly by claiming that it was prioritizing building up thousands of local groups when it did no such thing. It just launched what it’s calling its “largest ever reimbursement program, IndivisiGather,” offering up to $1000 to cover costs for local groups’ community building events. Prior to that, Indivisible National had two programs offering groups local aid, a fundraising inducement offered local groups up to $500 in matching funds if they raised $500 for National, and a GROW Grant program that dangled up to $4000 to groups but only if ten or more locals were collaborating together. Indivisible National reports making a whopping ten of these grants in 2021, one-third as many as it did in 2020. Woo-hoo! (Befitting its DC-centric status, Indivisible Civics and the Indivisible Project report raising a total of $11.3 million in 2020, of which perhaps two percent was funneled back to local groups.)
Actually, there is one national network focused on supporting local grassroots organizing: the Movement Voter Project. Between 2016-2020, it helped more than 48,000 donors move more than $120 million to 750 local organizations in 47 states and 300 counties, along with providing trainings and technical support. Don’t waste your money giving to the DNC; give it to MVP.
Tech and Politics
While Facebook and to a lesser extent Google/YouTube have borne the brunt of negative press attention in recent years for their toxic effects and wholesale trampling on user privacy, Amazon has maintained its reputation as the most trusted corporation in America. Only the military and “my personal doctor” are viewed more favorably in public surveys. Some of that golden reputation has tarnished as journalists like Alec MacGillis have detailed how the giant company avoids paying taxes, uses economic blackmail to crush local communities, overworks its warehouse pickers to the bone, and undermines many businesses that sell on its platform by using internal data to create its own in-house competitors.
Now two major stories have come out in the last few days that ought to make more people rethink their love of Amazon. The first, by Will Evans for Reveal News and WIRED, exposes huge gaps in how the company manages consumer information, based on leaked internal memos and former top employees. Amazon has dangerously weak internal controls on who can view that its massive database, meaning that employees as low as customer service representatives working from home can look up what someone has searched for, what they bought, what they watch, what pills they take, what they said to Alexa, and who stopped by their front door. Many of them apparently do this for fun, looking up celebrities’ purchase histories, or for profit, selling vital customer data to bad actors seeking to game Amazon’s marketplace. In addition, outside actors have figured out how to exploit services that Amazon provides to sellers to harvest information on millions of its customers, an exploit reminiscent of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook’s own loose rules for third-party developers. (I cover this in greater detail in OneZero, but you need to be a Medium subscriber to access the story.)
The second story, by Jeffrey Dastin, Chris Kirkham and Aditya Kalra of Reuters, details how at the same time Amazon has built a massive lobbying operation that has killed or weakened privacy protections in more than three dozen bills across 25 states. They write, “In Virginia, the company boosted political donations tenfold over four years before persuading lawmakers this year to pass an industry-friendly privacy bill that Amazon itself drafted. In California, the company stifled proposed restrictions on the industry’s collection and sharing of consumer voice recordings gathered by tech devices. And in its home state of Washington, Amazon won so many exemptions and amendments to a bill regulating biometric data, such as voice recordings or facial scans, that the resulting 2017 law had ‘little, if any’ impact on its practices, according to an internal Amazon document.”
The mastermind of this lobbying juggernaut, which has grown from two dozen to 250 employees, is Jay Carney, President Obama’s former press secretary. In the annals of former Obamanauts cashing in on their knowledge and networks, Carney may be the worst, though David Plouffe proved that he was no piker with his stints at Uber and then as a top adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, and Robert Gibbs, who preceded Carney at the press secretary’s podium, found his true calling plugging greasy meats for McDonald’s. But today let’s give the cashing-in crown to Carney, who just brokered a $100 million gift from the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos to his former boss’ foundation. One of his achievements was the expansion of an internal Amazon program called “watering the flowers” which tracks more than 1,000 engagements of politicians and other influencers categorized by their strategic importance and targeted for meetings, Amazon site visits or annual campaign donations.
The Obama Foundation’s chief executive, Valerie Jarrett, praised Bezos for the donation, the single largest it has received to date and a big step towards its overall $1.6 billion fundraising goal. Slightly more than half that target is going to be converted into glass and stone, aka the Obama Presidential Center, which will be the most expensive presidential library ever built. Just think of all the grassroots organizing that could be paid for if the ex-President wasn’t so in need of yet more monumental validation. In a statement, Jarrett said, “We believe that there is incredible power in lifting up the names of extraordinary change agents upon whose shoulders we all stand, and we are thrilled by Mr. Bezos’ offer to name our magnificent Plaza in honor of John Lewis. What’s more, Mr. Bezos’ generous unrestricted gift will enable us to help train a new generation of leaders through programs including the Girls Opportunity Alliance, My Brother’s Keeper, and our Global Leaders Program, while also supporting the Foundation’s Hometown Fund, which invests in the expansion of economic development opportunities for residents of Chicago’s South Side.”
John Lewis, the civil rights icon who the world’s richest man has now appropriated to whitewash his miserly reputation, was not available for comment, because he’s no longer with us. Lewis was one of Congress’ poorest members, with an estimated net worth of $10,002 as of 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He, along with the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus was a vocal opponent of Amazon’s facial recognition software (which grossly misidentifies Black people), a product Carney’s lobbyists has helped protect from regulation. He was an original author of the 2014 Employee Empowerment Act, which sought to give labor organizers the same legal protections against discrimination as those given to people subject to racial or sex bias. At a press conference announcing his support for that bill, he declared, “In every corner of our country, there is a constant effort to roll back protection and freedom for workers, who have a right to organize and protect themselves from any unjust and inhumane action of employers. In the twenty-first century, . . . workers should not be afraid to demand a living wage. Workers should not face intimidation for organizing and bargaining collectively.”
I don’t know what Lewis would have said about Obama selling his good name to Bezos, but it’s not hard to imagine.
—Bonus link: Go here if you want to find out all the data that Amazon has collected on you, courtesy of a California law the company failed to stop. A Virginia lawmaker, Ibraheem Samirah, was appalled to discovered that the company had more than 1,000 contacts from his phone, records of which part of the Quran he had listened to on a particular day, and every search he made on the platform, including sensitive health inquiries and one for books on “progressive community organizing.”
Odds and Ends
—Citizens assemblies are getting more popular, especially in Europe, but as Shannon Osaka reports for Grist, when French President Emmanuel Macron invited a randomly selected group of 150 citizens to craft solutions to climate change that would be submitted to the Parliament, put up to a public referendum, or signed directly into law, he made a promise that he eventually couldn’t keep. By last July, only ten of the assembly’s 149 proposals made it into law. Still, citizen assemblies might someday come into their own; the movement bears watching.
—Related: New America’s Mark Schmitt and Hollie Russon Gilman are out with a new report on experiments across the US in collaborative governance, from community-driven zoning and development in Chicago and Bushwick, NY, to a Milwaukee youth organizing effort that developed an alternative vision of public school safety.
—Say hello to Coworker.org’s sparkling new Bossware and Employment Tech Database, which catalogs more than 550 labor-focused tech products many of which it says are harming working, labor standards and the economy.
—Here’s an excellent piece on Momentum, the organizing network born out of the ashes of the Occupy Movement, and how it blends structure-based organizing with mass protest work, written by Akin Olla for Waging Nonviolence.
—Even as independent civil rights auditors were scouring Facebook’s practices to issue a report on how it handled racial issues back in 2018, the company withheld internal research showing that its own algorithms disproportionately harmed minorities, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Nitasha Tiku and Craig Timberg report for The Washington Post. Self-identified white conservatives agreed that the worst of this content was objectionable and deserved blocking. But the company’s leadership, heavily influenced by the head of its Washington office and its most influential Republican Joel Kaplan, backed off on an overhaul that would have automatically removed hate speech against Blacks, Jews, LGBTQ, Muslims and people of mixed race because they feared it would have censored too much rightwing speech.
—Could it be a trend? Lush, a global cosmetics brand, is shutting down its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat pages until “they take action to provide a safer environment” for users, the BBC reports. Oddly, it’s continuing to operate on Twitter and Youtube. Still, kudos to its co-founder and chief executive, Mark Constantine, who said: "I've spent all my life avoiding putting harmful ingredients in my products. There is now overwhelming evidence we are being put at risk when using social media. I'm not willing to expose my customers to this harm, so it's time to take it out of the mix."
There are few things that infuriate me more than the appropriation of the yellow Jewish Star patch by anti-vaxxers, so I found this essay-rant by Talia Bracha Levin deeply satisfying. As she writes, “Did you know Anne Frank died of typhus?” along with her sister Margot and 17,000 others in Bergen-Belsen. Did you know that a few brave resisters developed a home-made typhus vaccine and smuggled tens of thousands of doses into the Warsaw Ghetto, while others inside the Buchenwald concentration camp managed to sabotage doses meant for German troops while giving working vaccines to their fellow inmates?
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