The Poverty of Grassroots Organizing (DNC Edition)

How national Democrats have yet to shift strategies. Plus, why the climate justice movement isn't a Potemkin village.

Last Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a $25 million expansion of the Democratic National Committee’s “I Will Vote” advertising campaign to increase voter registration and turnout. On the same day, a new group, the Persuasion USA Coalition, released an open letter to Democratic funders, titled, “What Does it Take to Build a 30-year Communications Plan?” Unfortunately, this juxtaposition of events can only be described as ships passing in the night.

Since Joe Biden’s election victory, the national Democratic party has done little to change its playbook, which is heavily tilted toward expensive short-term advertising campaigns, candidate-centric fundraising where the most popular federal candidates soak up the lion’s share of funds regardless of their strategic value, and last-minute field efforts. In May, one of those failed federal candidates, DNC chair Jaime Harrison, a former Podesta Group lobbyist who raised a record $109 million to lose by ten points to incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham in 2020, ballyhooed a new $23 million fundraising deal with state Democratic parties that he claimed was built around Biden’s promise to not abandon down-ballot Democrats as the 2022 election heats up. According to the AP’s Bill Barrow, “Under the agreement, state parties will get $12,500 each month from the DNC, up from the $10,000 they received during much of President Donald Trump’s tenure. State parties will have no restrictions on the money, though most are expected to hire more staff.” State parties in 18 Republican-dominated states will get an extra $5,000 a month instead of $2,500 a month. There’s also $5.5 million that state parties can apply for to develop and implement innovative programs tailored for their own states, plus enhanced sharing of voting data between the national party and state parties.

How many more staff can a state party hire if it gets $150,000 or $180,000 a year from the DNC instead of the $120,000 it used to get during the Trump years? Surely someone must have passed Bill Barrow some edibles before he reported that Harrison’s new program would lead to a meaningful change in state party staffing levels. The DNC doesn’t lack for funds, by the way. In the first quarter of 2021, it raised $48 million and ended May with $60 million cash on hand. But for all the talk about a “50-state strategy,” what’s clear from the Harrison and Harris announcements is that the national party wants to keep spending heavily on short-term advertising campaigns rather than anything lasting that would represent a real commitment to grassroots organizing.

If every state Democratic party got $120,000 a year from the DNC during Trump, that was $6 million a year. Over four years, the DNC gave state parties an amount equivalent to one national advertising campaign like the one just announced by VP Harris. Upping to the numbers in Harrison’s announcement means the DNC will be spending $8 million a year subsidizing its state affiliates. Even if we add in the costs of sharing voter data and the improvements the national party has made in the voter file, and throw in the DNC’s new campaign training school, we’re not talking about a dramatic shift in the DNC’s budget.

Meanwhile, some progressive Democratic communications and advertising professionals have gone public with a five-alarm level warning that, “At a moment when voting rights, climate, equity, wealth redistribution, and the For the People Act all hang in the balance, there is a one-sided advantage that favors purveyors of untruths.” Persuasion USA, a coalition of creators, communicators, and advertising professionals led by Laura Dawn, the founding creative director of MoveOn.org, is calling on Democratic funders to get serious about what it will take to win back hearts and minds in today’s America: “Stop waiting until the last minute to persuade Americans about the issues that decide elections. Build campaign infrastructure that is always-on, rather than stood up and taken down between election cycles. Winning trust in communities requires a 365 day-a-year offense against an opposition that has weaponized the internet.” Amen to all that.

One effort already underway is called Front Page Live, a new online news aggregator founded by John Eaton, Stacy Whittle and other colleagues of Laura Dawn’s. Ben Smith’s latest column in the New York Times rounds up some promising examples of new media equally worth watching. In the wings is an even more ambitious effort, the Project for Good Information, which is being led by Tara McGowan, a Democratic strategist who previously founded ACRONYM. PGI is hoping to raise $65 million to fund investments in for-profit media start-ups as well as nonprofit media efforts, Theodore Schleifer reports for ReCode. What’s good about these efforts is they are putting money into actual media entities rather than burning it on advertising, which just fattens companies like Facebook, Google and cable. But neither is filling the grassroots organizing funding chasm. As I noted a few weeks ago in “The Poverty of Grassroots Organizing,” at best perhaps just one percent of all philanthropic monies go to grassroots organizing in America. If all Dems do is invest in more media while starving local organizing it won’t be enough.

Are Climate Justice Groups Not Real Enough?

The phrase “Potemkin Village” refers to fake structures built to impress public opinion or the ruling class; it dates back to 1787 when Grigory Potemkin built a portable fake village that sought to impress his former lover the Empress Catherine II as she traveled to Crimea. Now iconoclastic Substacker Matthew Yglesias is charging that climate justice groups like the Sunrise Movement are a Potemkin Village built by far-left funders who want to push radical climate action policies that don’t have real public support. His argument in a nutshell: Climate justice groups are wrong to be pushing the Biden Administration for larger commitments to a rapid transition away from the carbon-fueled economy, but they are doing so because they are propped up by funders, not grassroots activists. And he says this is happening because those same funders are responding to an influential critique written by Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, who argued back in 2013 that a previous attempt by Democrats to pass a climate policy called “cap and dividend” failed because it was too much of an insider-driven solution not backed by “a broad popular movement to tackle climate change.”

Yglesias writes, “Movers and shakers in the climate universe had an odd reaction to this critique [by Skocpol]. They did not embrace cap-and-dividend as a policy (I think that’s probably wise given the fiscal policy realities) but more importantly did not embrace Skocpol’s view that real grassroots mass mobilization was necessary to make progress on climate. Instead, they decided to invest a lot of money in creating a simulacrum of a vast and highly energized social movement funding lots of groups to ‘do grassroots activism’ without genuinely building accountable membership organizations. This Potemkin Village version of what Skocpol called for does deliver some of the benefits of real mass mobilization (mainly by fooling gullible journalists), but it doesn’t move the needle on things that really matter.”

Yglesias is wrong for three reasons. First, the climate movement that has grown up in the last ten years is both genuinely grassroots and far broader than the old “Big Ten” environmental organization sector, which was heavily white and upper middle class. More than 300,000 people (including me) were at the first US Climate March in 2014 in NYC; 200,000 showed up at the second big Climate March in DC in 2017. As political scientist Dana Fisher has documented, the climate justice movement in the US—people who have been participating in Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future rallies and the global climate strikes tied to them—is far younger and more diverse than the bulk of the anti-Trump resistance movement. The leadership is predominantly female, young and one-third of color. To call the effervescence of climate action “ersatz” is just Yglesias showing that he is completely out of touch.

Second, there is evidence—contrary to Yglesias’ gloom—that the needle is moving on climate issues. Not among older Republicans, however: that’s a group that is locked into Trumpist denialism. But recent polling shows that 2/3 of younger Republicans believe that humans are the main cause of climate change (compared to just 1/3 of Baby Boomer Republicans.) One-quarter of younger Republicans say they worry a great deal about global warming. So to the degree that climate funders have sought to invest in new groups like the Sunrise Movement, led by millennials and Gen Zers, they’re on the right track.

Third, it’s a joke to suggest that “movers and shakers” in the climate movement decided to invest “a lot of money” in the climate justice movement. Sunrise, Yglesias’ main target, reported $600,000 in funding in 2018 and $3.8 million in 2019. That’s a decent increase, but a fraction of the budget of the big established enviro groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council ($187 million in 2019) or even Greenpeace ($36 million in 2019).

Where Yglesias and I might agree is on whether climate justice groups are yet strong enough to push the needle as far as we need it to go. He says they’re not because they’re supposedly the darling of funders, which is allowing them to supposedly take far-left positions instead of being accountable membership organizations. I think the opposite: climate justice groups are still struggling for sufficient support from funders (recall what Gara Lamarche, the head of the Democracy Alliance until recently, had to say about his donors preferring to back white-led groups in DC over grassroots, multiracial organizers), but the one thing they do have, in spades, is a very energized base.

Rather than dump on climate activists for not moving the needle faster, Yglesias ought to get real about the sorts of imbalances we’ve been covering here at The Connector for a while: there is no pro-climate action media machine as well-resourced and organized as the climate denier nexus built by the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, and as noted above, too many Democratic leaders and funders are sticking to shortsighted strategies for public engagement that just aren’t working.

Share

Mothership Strikes Again

Lachlan Markay shared this screenshot of his email inbox:

Odds and Ends

-The good folks at Consumer Reports, along with 40+ regional and national partner organizations, are today launching a crowdsourcing campaign called BroadbandTogether to collect thousands of consumer broadband bills, test people’s internet speeds, analyze their bills and build out some true comparisons of prices and service nationwide.

-Between scorching heat waves, flooding subways, and multi-victim shootings, the gloomy news seems to never stop, but a new survey from Gallup suggests that Americans are entering an age of good feeling not seen since, well, the company started asking about their level of life satisfaction. In mid-June, a whopping 59.2% said they were “thriving,” compared to “struggling” or “suffering.” Gallup interprets this shift as a response to the widespread availability of Covid vaccines along with improving economic conditions, and I’ll bet that the contrast with the privations of the previous year is making a lot of people feel better than they might otherwise.

Food for Thought

Is communal living on the rise in America? Or is this New Yorker feature story by Nathan Heller on Treehouse, a “co-living” community backed by VC investors and populated by a colorful group of young, mostly well-educated, searchers, a trend piece that is way ahead of its skis? I’ll be sold on the idea that Americans want to give up their hyperindividualistic lifestyle choices when real estate developers stop building new single-family homes and apartments. There’s always been a few people on the margins in America interested in alternatives to the anomie of the American dream home (witness the flurry of attention to co-housing a generation ago), but for my money the main reason this story is in the New Yorker is because Joe Green, a former roommate of Mark Zuckerberg’s at Harvard who later failed upward into running Zuck’s pro-immigration reform group FWD.us, has now found his latest passion project and had the PR connections to get his investment featured.

End Times

Need a Juicero? Dead Startup Toys is for you.

I’m taking next week off to stare at the ocean. See you in two weeks! And don’t forget, if you aren’t a subscriber, please sign up below—and if you are a regular reader and can afford to make a donation, use the paying options to help keep this newsletter free.