Funding Progressives and Moderates

I’ve been thinking about that American Prospect article that I referred to a few days ago. Tomasky writes, “The fact that this imbalance exists, however, is partly the Democrats’ fault. Democrats don’t have the money Republicans have, and they never will. They can never match Republicans dollar-for-dollar on message creation and dissemination. That said, it’s also true that they have not set up the structures to do that. Republican backers slowly and methodically set out to build those structures in the 1970s, knowing full well that they wouldn’t bear fruit for a generation or two. Democratic money people, and party leaders, have not been as engaged in such long-term thinking. As one leading Democrat told me not long ago, they’d rather spend their money on a full-page ad in the Times than seed and water a long-range, partisan strategy group or think tank. Accordingly, Democrats have developed no organic relationship with the intellectuals and activists on their side, while Republicans have.”

I agree with Tomasky that moderate and progressive money would do better if it were applied with a long-range view.

I’ve recently been talking to the people at The Commonweal Institute (CI). CI is just starting up now, and hopes to get full funding to develop a multi-issue policy “think tank” that will be able to support moderate and progressive groups by building up mainstream support for moderate and progressive philosophy in general and for the moderate and progressive perspective on a broad range of particular issues that are so important to all of us.

Let me explain their view of this. There are moderate and progressive foundations with money for progressive projects, and there are lots of well-to-do moderates and progressives with a philanthropic attitude. But moderate and progressive philanthropy has been directed differently from how the right-wingers are doing it. Clearly the right-wingers have been much more successful. Right-wing-oriented foundations are funding organizations like The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute and The Cato Institute. (Note, these links point to a list of their funding sources so you can see how this works.)

By funding multi-issue organizations like these, right-wingers have used foundation money to build a general policy “infrastructure” that supports the web of right-wing organizations while appealing to a broader mainstream audience. I think that moderate and progressive foundations have focused their grants and donations toward more narrow-target projects, like environmental groups or community housing projects as just a couple of examples. These groups are great and support great causes, but they reach narrower, usually sympathetic audiences and focus only on their particular issues.

But here’s what happens. Because the right-wingers have a well-coordinated (and very, very well-funded) web of organizations that provide underlying SUPPORT for the efforts of their own narrow-project groups by pumping out right-wing propaganda to the masses, their investment in those narrow projects is able to achieve maximum bang-for-buck. Moderate and progressive investment in individual projects, on the other hand, shows a lower ROI (return on investment) because the effectiveness of that right-wing web has put enough right-wingers in powerful positions that the achievements of moderate and progressive organizations are wiped out with one Presidential Directive, or one ruling by a well-placed Federalist Society judge! In other words, the well-funded right-wing multi-issue, broad-based, mainstream audience work gets people like Bush and his Federalist judges in position to support their causes and destroy moderate and progressive achievements.

If the moderate and progressive foundations were willing to support more general, multi-issue, “infrastructure” organizations, like Commonweal Institute, which could help progressive politicians and activists and organizations make their case to the public on a broad range of issues, and moderate and progressive philosophy in general, then perhaps the achievements of environmental and other organizations wouldn’t be in peril and they wouldn’t always be trying to hold on to what they have achieved, constantly fighting to keep from being pushed backwards instead of building on their achievements. It’s great to fund narrow-focus environmental and other groups, but that funding is always in danger of being wasted, doing no one any good at all, if the success of the right’s web of organizations allows them to wipe out so much of the progress that moderates and progressives are trying to make.

The moderate and progressive foundations need to fund organizations like the Commonweal Institute – “Heritage Foundations of the left” – because their work will PROTECT the work of environmental and other moderate and progressive organizations.