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The Poverty of Democratic Organizing Reaches a Crisis Point
Key organizational leaders are sending up the 'Bat Signal': Unless money starts to rain down, a 'massive, Canada-sized wildfire' will burn through the progressive political and organizing sector.
Just fourteen months from now, we will know whether our future is in the hands of a narcissistic madman or a genial grandpa. But the choices we make now, many months before Election Day 2024, can have a real impact on that fateful outcome. Unfortunately, just when local, state and national organizations should be staffing up and deepening their efforts to engage their constituencies, the opposite is happening.
Two new documents from the heart of the progressive ecosystem make the current crisis very explicit. According to The Movement Cooperative, which is made up of more than 1,000 national, state and local community organizations, in the first seven months of 2023, the voter contact data that the group processes on behalf of all its members shows a decline of 40% compared to the same period two years ago. The data is anonymized, but it shows that individual organizations that made millions of voter contact attempts in early 2021 have only been able to do a fraction of that amount of work so far this year.
This is especially worrisome in the battleground states that will probably decide the 2024 election. TMC’s memo notes that while voter outreach was up in Wisconsin this year due to its intense Supreme Court election, “otherwise the decline in battleground state activity is truly dramatic: for instance, we see this year’s activity in Arizona at just 14% of 2021’s, Michigan at 31%, and Pennsylvania at 33%.” If you are wondering why the polls show tepid support for Biden and increasing numbers of Black and Brown voters tilting toward Trump, in addition to all the political arguments you might cite, just remember this: the organizations that do the grunt work on the ground are also starving for funds.
That’s the big takeaway from a seminal memo just released by the Movement Voter Project, a key fundraising vehicle for progressive community organizations nationwide. Written by MVP founder Billy Wimsatt and co-authored by Zo Tobi, along with a cast of two dozen key progressive strategists and donor advisors, “Sending Up the Bat Signal,” pulls no punches:
“Donations to progressive organizations are way down in 2023 across the board. In the 2019-2020 election cycle (and to some extent in 2021-2022), donors gave like our lives depended on it. This has not happened yet in the 2023-2024 election cycle.”
Indeed, data from Actblue, the liberal fundraising clearinghouse, shows that the total number of donors in the second quarter of 2023 was down significantly compared to this time four years ago, 1.6 million compared to 2.4 million. Wimsatt notes that the pandemic was tough on organizations, but that as a field many have come through it “stronger, wiser, and more resilient.” Some of the personnel changes and cutbacks at organizations, he is implying, is part of the natural ebb and flow of movement life. But, he then adds, “the funding shortfall of 2023 is different – it’s the movement equivalent of an extended nationwide drought. If we don’t get some rain soon, I am worried we could have a massive, Canada-sized wildfire burn through the progressive political and organizing sector over the next few months, leaving us with dangerously weakened infrastructure going into the 2024 elections. Going into a big election year, we need organizations to have confidence in their financial position and a healthy sense of stability from which to respond to crises and opportunities, and to do their best work. Instead, I am hearing fear, desperation, and resignation.” [Emphasis added.]
You might think that current assaults on women’s reproductive health and freedom and on LGBTQ+ rights would be translating into more funding for those causes, and in some instances – particularly statewide ballot fights over abortion rights – that does appear to be the case. But not everywhere. As Wimsatt notes, “Equality Arizona, Arizona’s major statewide LGBTQ organization, had ten paid staff as recently as 2022. They worked hard and defeated a scourge of 22 anti-LGBTQ bills. But money didn’t come. So they had to lay off their entire staff. Their Executive Director is now an unpaid volunteer.”
What’s the answer? At first glance, it’s simple. Just get people to open their wallets and send money, the sooner the better since it takes time to hire and train staff to do effective voter outreach. Wimsatt estimates that $100 million to $300 million deployed strategically to grassroots voter organizations for the rest of 2023 would put them in a position of strength for 2024. These are very do-able numbers. And he makes a very strong case for getting donors to switch their giving from candidates to grass-roots groups, picking up on one of my favorite metaphors: do we want to be building sand-castles that get washed away as soon as an election cycle ends, or the kind of year-round power that is embedded in local organizing? As he writes, “Elections are mainly won based on who votes, not who runs — plus, election campaigns end, but local organizing doesn’t (if we fund it). These groups are our best defense against authoritarianism; a catalyst for state progress in case of federal gridlock; and necessary pressure for good bills if we have the votes.”
At this point, dear reader, I’m going to stop and ask you to ask yourself a question: “How much money have I donated in the last 12 months to candidates vs organizing groups? You can find your own donor history here, at least in terms of political donations to candidates, party committees and PACs. Have you given as much to organizing groups? If you want to quickly change your own ratio, you can give to Movement Voter Project, which redistributes money to local groups (in 2020 it moved between $100 million and $120 million, ten times what it did in 2016).
At a practical level, it shouldn’t be hard to find the money needed to stave off disaster in 2024. But why, after years of plenty, are we in a drought? Michelle Goldberg explores that question in her New York Times column today (gift link), offering a few cogent explanations. First, that grass-roots engagement is “thermostatic,” meaning that people relax when their side is in power, and they rev up when the other side holds the reins. Second, that many of us aren’t just taking a breather, but that the cumulative effect of the pandemic, January 6th, innumerable mass shootings and climate disasters has so traumatized people that they’ve shut down—an argument made with considerable persuasive force by Ana Marie Cox in The New Republic (and well worth careful reading). And third, that the downturn reflects the overall belt-tightening since inflation jumped and the Federal Reserve starting hiking interest rates.
Beyond that, Goldberg suggests that expecting people to keep responding to fear-based appeals for their money won’t work. “I feel like we’re at the end of the wave of what people are willing to do out of sheer terror,” Max Berger, a young progressive organizer, tells her. “So now, if we’re going to keep that level of momentum, we need something more positive.” Likewise, Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party tells Goldberg that the sky-is-falling tone of so many fundraising emails is counterproductive, “because you don’t build a trusting base.” (Hey Mo, can you stop texting me with last-minute asks for candidates, then?)
If you’ve been reading the Connector for any amount of time, you know I already agree with these arguments. But there’s one more reason why the whole Democratic ecosystem is facing a drought. While Max Berger is right that we need a positive vision, something more than “Stop Trump” or “Stop Fascism,” having a unifying vision is not enough. Various people have offered beautiful visions of progress over the years—think of Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream campaign in 2011, or Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything or Arundhati Roy’s essay on the pandemic as a portal. Right now I’m reading Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger memoir and “revolutionary love” is certainly a compelling vision too. In their bat-signal memo, Billy Wimsatt and crew offer a beautiful vision of what we could win in 2024. But how we organize is just as important as what we organize for.
As long as we keep pouring beautiful dreams on soil that has been over-farmed, nothing much will bloom. Our communal infrastructure is too thin. There's a whole syllabus of books about why, I'm not going to regurgitate them here. Money doesn't just flow because people feel threatened or inspired; it flows as a byproduct of real relationship. All of us are most inclined to respond to an appeal for help from people we know and care about; the structures that foster that kind of caring have been hollowed out and abandoned by Democrats and digital fundraisers alike and now we’ve hit Peak Email, as I wrote a few issues back. The way too many Dems organize and campaign these days, relationship-building is viewed as a cost to be reduced not an investment to be expanded.
Individually we can all do something to change this pattern, starting with doing more local get-togethers. Shift your attention away from the doom-predicting emails and your own doom-scrolling and towards more life-affirming activities. But that will only get us so far. Somehow we have to also get the big drivers of political money and campaigns to adopt different strategies and tactics. The current Hunger Games approach to resourcing our movements is failing. Perhaps necessity will be the mother of invention.
—Related: Dave Fleischer explains how to help a nonvoter realize they want to vote in another installment of his Substack newsletter about deep canvassing.
Odds and Ends
—Congressional lawmakers and candidates quintupled their spending on security between 2020 and 2022, the Washington Post reports. The US Capitol Police report that threats to lawmakers, defined as statements or declared intent to commit violence, rose from just 900 in 2016 to more than 10,000 in 2021 and 7,500 in 2022. While Congress has increased funding for security and the FEC has relaxed the rules to allow more campaign funds to be spent on it, clearly the atmosphere hasn’t improved much. What’s not being talked about: how much threats of violence intimidate politicians into silence (especially of the kind reported by retiring Senator Mitt Romney, who says most of his Senate colleagues laugh at Trump behind his back but give him standing ovations otherwise).
—Yoel Roth, the former head of trust and safety at Twitter, explains in the New York Times what it’s like to have a digital mob loosed after you by your former boss. This is hair-raising stuff and bodes very badly for 2024. Digital brown-shirts, anyone?
—If you think Tucker Carlson’s interview of Donald Trump the night of the first Republican presidential debate got 231 million views, John Herrman of New York magazine is here to tell why social media metrics are garbage. It’s a great take-down of the whole field, though I would have appreciated some attention to “impressions,” another vanity metric that lots of advocacy campaigns use to impress their funders, as in “our video got a billion impressions in just one week.” How many impressions happen in a week? Trillions, quadrillions? A billion sounds like a lot until you realize that every three seconds, Americans collectively have experienced another billion impressions.
—NGP-VAN, a key piece of Democratic party digital infrastructure, is making layoffs as part of a broader restructuring, Campaigns and Elections’ Sean Miller reports. ActionKit, a key online fundraising and volunteer management tool, is taking the biggest hit.
—If you want a good laugh, read this review of Walter Isaacson’s new book Elon Musk, which reviewer Gary Shteyngart calls a “dull, insight-free doorstop of a book.”
—Attend: People Powered is releasing its new Participation Playbook, a “choose your own adventure” guide for planning participatory programs, September 27 at 10am ET.
Who says the Internet can’t calm you down?