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April 16, 2008

Non-partisan Elitism

Cross posted on Open Left

Matthew Yglesias, Matt Stoller, and myself have all pointed out a rarely noticed, elitist aspect of the constant calls for greater bipartisanship by the likes of David Broder and many other pundits. Here is Matthew Yglesias summarizing the argument:

Pushing things further, though, I would make the case that polarization is a good thing. Polarization means you know, as a citizen, how to translate political activity -- voting, volunteering, donating -- into policy results. If every Democrat is to the left of every Republican on some issue, then if you want to move the status quo to the left you support Democratic candidates but if you want to move it to the right you support Republicans. Under conditions where there's very little polarization, like the congressional politics of civil rights in the 1950s, you get chaos. Perhaps a certain Democratic incumbent is slightly better on civil rights than his Republican challenger. But the Republican ranking member on some key committee may well be better on civil rights than is the Democratic incumbent. Thus it's possible that backing the incumbent is good for civil rights unless beating the incumbent would cause the balance of power to shift and bring the Republican ranking member into the majority. What's a voter to do? Who knows?

Weak parties make the life of a Washington power broker more interesting. Basically, there's more power brokering to do. There are more horses to trade. There's more dealing to wheel. Politics becomes a fascinating game of three dimensional chess. Polarization is boring. Two parties lay out there programs, people vote, and depending on the election outcomes and the veto points in the system, legislation results. But polarization is simpler for voters. It connects actions to results. And it brings about higher levels of participation as a result.

Simply put, polarization creates transparency in the impacts of voting, while bi-partisanship creates more obscurity. When you know what Democrats stand for, then you know what you get when you vote for Democrats. When you know what Republicans stand for, then you know what you get when you vote for Republicans. When it isn't clear what they stand for, or when there is wide variance among individual Democrats and individual Republicans, then the process becomes far more obscure for everyone who isn't a Washington, D.C. insider.

I bring this argument up to place context around a new claim I want to make: there is also a distinct element of elitism among many non-partisan politics, including many of the tax-exempt 501c(3) and 501c(4) organizations that serve as the institutional framework for non-partisan politics. While some such organizations are based on small donations (PIRG), mass membership (Sierra Clud), or communicate with the public and / or grassroots on a regular basis, many are hermetically sealed from everyone except elites. The organizations I have in mind are funded almost entirely by large donations from people with a net worth of seven figures or more, communicate and direct their activities only at political and media elites, and are staffed by professional political elites who are either good at talking working the latter or raising money from the former. It is a hermetically sealed elite circle, with no need to ever come into contact with the grassroots. In such an environment, it stands to reason that even the progressive organizations that operate in such an elite political ecosystem will ultimately engage in a type of politics that is only responsible to the concerns of the elite.

This is a bit abstract, since I have not identified any specific organizations that operate in such a manner, but bear with me. Compare this elite ecosystem to electoral campaigns for federal office, which are often decried as being solely about money or considered disgusting because they raise so much money for their campaign. While Clinton, Obama and McCain have combined to raise about $450 million so far in 2007-2008, all of their donors are disclosed and huge percentages of it are now coming from small donors. In fact, in February, about 80% of their fundraising came from small, online donors, now that most of their larger contributors have maxed out. In order to do this, they all had to make direct appeals to grassroots activists, and then publicly disclose who those activists were. By contrast, some c3s and c4s never have to make an appeal to the grassroots at all, and never have to disclose their donors. Now, you tell me: which situation is more of an example of organizations who are only accountable toelite donors, and which situation is more democratic? The answer is obvious, and I think it throws into question exactly where in politics is money a problem.

Or, consider life as a blogger. In order to make ends meet, we full-time bloggers need to sell advertising, hold fundraisers, and pick up second jobs on the side. In order to sell advertising, you need a decent amount of readers, and in order to pull that off without any advertising budget of your own you need to appeal to grassroots, political junkies who can't get enough of politics. In order to hold fundraisers, you need to have a few hundred highly dedicated fans who not only read your blog, but who are willing to support it financially. And, even if you can manage this, then still every article you write, every job you take, every advertisement that appears on your site, and every gift you accept is heavily scrutinized for potential biases, conflicts of interests, or other potential disservices to the cause. Consider, for example, that after a few emails, I felt it was necessary to post an explanation for why I am in Israel right now, even though someone else is picking up the tab. The level of interaction with and direct accountability to the grassroots that bloggers face is truly extreme.

However, far from being a negative, the level of accountability that bloggers have to the grassroots is, I think, on balance a huge net positive. If all political organizations, including c3s and c4s had anywhere close to this level of accountability to the grassroots, then our political system would change dramatically. Right now, it is mainly responsive to elites, because in general it just doesn't have to deal with the grassroots. Maybe this is all not only very abstract, since I don't name any names, and perhaps this is all a little goo goo (good government) idealist of me, but if you have to go through a different group of people in order to get anything done, and if you interact with a different group of people in your political life, then you will end up engaging in a different type of politics with different sorts of outcomes. How different it would be, I have no idea. However, right now our political system is pretty much only responsive to elites, and the growing dominance of c3s and c4s that are hermetically sealed within an elite political, financial and media ecosystem is one of the reasons for this.

April 22, 2008

Rockridge Closing -- Why Building Progressive Infrastructure Matters So Much

This post originally appeared at Speak Out California

On the same day that Barack Obama raised one million dollars in one minute for his campaign George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute announced that they will be closing their doors.

In the comments at the OpenLeft blog post, The Rockridge Era Ends, Paul Rosenberg wrote,

As If We Needed Any More Proof That Democrats STILL Don't Get It!
This is really terrible news--not just because of the loss of Rockridge, as if that wasn't bad enough, but because it shows so clearly that there is NO recognition of the need to build progressive infrastructure.

Just look at how many millions have been raised by the Presidential campaigns this cycle. And just a tiny fraction of it could have not just kept Rockridge afloat, but DOUBLED it in size. ...

I want to say this about that:

Donating a dollar to a progressive infrastructure organization like Speak Out California and Commonweal Institute today is like giving ten dollars to EACH progressive candidate in every local, state and nation race this November, two years later, and every election following.

Let me explain what I mean. Progressive infrastructure organizations like Speak Out California and Commonweal Institute are working to help the public understand and appreciate what progressives are about. By explaining the benefits of a progressive approach they help build public acceptance of and demand for progressive policies and candidates -- across the board. As more people understand why progressive solutions benefit them more than conservative proposals, they develop a lasting positive identification with the progressive "brand." Then later, during the election cycle, they vote for progressive candidates -- across the board.

This is how the conservatives have been so successful. They work year-round to convince people to identify as conservatives. (You've probably complained or heard people complain that that have managed to turn "liberal" into a bad word in people's minds.) When election time comes around it's as though all that their candidates have to do is point at the opponent and shout "liberal" to win. They ride a wave of nationally-advanced propaganda convincing people to support "tort reform" or "tax relief." This has been going on for years, so at election time everything is laid out for them on a silver platter, with the public prepared and primed.

Progressive candidates, on the other hand, are generally on their own, starting from scratch for each election. Their general campaign begins in the late summer or fall, they have to decide what "issues" to run on, they have to develop a message from scratch, by themselves, and then they have to reach their voters from scratch. And they have to do all of this on their own in just a few months. No wonder conservatives, even with their awful "you're on your own" philosophy, have managed to do so well and gain so much traction.

This is why building up a national progressive advocacy infrastructure would leverage all of those campaign donations and help us build a sustainable progressive majority. A few dollars to progressive advocacy organizations on any given TODAY builds long-term support for every progressive candidate on any given TOMORROW. It provides leverage -- lowering the need for massive election-cycle funding.

The demise of Rockridge Institute demonstrates that the Democratic Party donor base hasn't yet gotten that message. Instead, masses of money have to be raised for candidates at the very last minute -- for example a million dollars in one minute, the day before the big Pennsylvania primary. And almost all of that money will just literally go up in the air to pay for TV ads that leave nothing behind to show for the money. They don't build the brand, they don't tell people about the benefits of progressive ideas, they don't help other candidates... But almost nothing for the Rockridges and Speak Out California's and Commonweal Institutes.

Please think about donating to help build a solid progressive infrastructure of organizations that will work year-round to help the public understand why progressive policies and candidate are better for them than the conservative solutions. This will help build a sustainable progressive majority in America. Please help these organizations grow. It's about building a progressive ecosystem that benefits all of us.

About April 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Commonweal Institute Blog in April 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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