Monday, July 4, 2022

Rob Stein’s Liberal Legacy | Inside Philanthropy

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This submit beforehand appeared in The Connector, Micah Sifry’s publication. Subscribe right here

Monday, Could 2nd, Democratic strategist Rob Stein, handed away from most cancers on the age of 78. Coming the identical day because the leak of the Supreme Courtroom’s pending abortion resolution in Dobbs v. Jackson Girls’s Well being Group, Stein’s dying understandably bought little consideration, even amongst politics junkies. However there was a bizarre type of cosmic injustice to the juxtaposition of each occasions. For the novel proper Supreme Courtroom majority that’s on the verge of demolishing abortion rights (and probably way more) is barely there due to a decades-long effort by conservative funders and motion builders, who, beginning within the early Seventies, invested billions in pushing a right-wing agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, privatization and “restoring household values.” Stein made it his life’s work to do one thing comparable on the liberal left, catalyzing the founding of the Democracy Alliance, a community of rich donors that has steered $2 billion to a handful of fastidiously vetted organizations just like the Heart for American Progress, Media Issues, America Votes and Catalist.

The very first thing I did once I heard of Stein’s passing was pull out my copy of “The Argument,” journalist Matt Bai’s revealing 2007 guide on the efforts of a motley band of billionaires, bloggers and bastions of the Democratic get together to reboot the liberal-left within the wake of nationwide election failures of 2000 and 2004. Stein is certainly one of Bai’s key figures, a gifted connector of individuals and data who was a comparatively low-level official within the Clinton administration underneath Ron Brown within the Commerce Division. Beginning within the late Nineteen Nineties, Stein had tried to pitch prime Democratic politicians and donors on the necessity for a extra coordinated communications effort to go toe-to-toe with Republicans, however he didn’t hit his stride till 2003, when he pulled collectively a PowerPoint deck titled, “The Conservative Message Machine’s Cash Matrix.”

Why was the best ascendant? Stein’s reply got here all the way down to cash and infrastructure. Beginning in 1971 with a confidential memo laying out the case from Lewis Powell, a future Supreme Courtroom justice, the best had constructed a $300 million message machine consisting of suppose tanks ($180 million a yr flowing into the Heritage Basis, American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Hoover Establishment alone), authorized facilities, non secular teams, management coaching institutes and coverage journals, all producing a continuing stream of speaking factors, op-eds, coverage proposals and laws.

Stein’s PowerPoint wasn’t an evaluation of the structural roots of white Christian patriarchy in America or the methods the Structure advantaged rural white voters as a lot because it was a practical description of how a nexus of enterprise elites and non secular blocs wielded energy. Thus, it provided a rising wave of wealthy liberal businessmen and girls a comfortingly believable resolution. Simply cough up comparable sums and spend money on our personal messaging machine and shortly the nation can be again on observe. As Bai writes, “None of what Rob was saying concerning the conservative motion was terribly new, however by no means had it been so fastidiously quantified, so tightly packaged, so properly visualized… Rich contributors on each coasts informed me that Rob’s slides had woke up in them, ultimately, to the reality of what was taking place in American politics. They stumbled again onto Wall Road or Wilshire Boulevard or the Embarcadero blinking into the daylight, as if having witnessed a revelation.”

Revelation, nonetheless, didn’t result in a brand new faith, although Stein wielded his deck the identical approach the Catholic Church used to deal with the Shroud of Turin — as a holy relic to be made accessible solely to the choose. For a corporation with “democracy” in its identify, the DA certain didn’t suppose a lot of transparency, although I suppose it’s a tribute to the boldness Stein impressed in his audiences that so far his authentic PowerPoint has by no means leaked.

Extra importantly, the Democracy Alliance was by no means as strategic or supportive as any of the best’s key funders. Stein’s evangelizing among the many Democratic moneyed class — a mixture of hedge fund billionaires like George Soros, tech VCs like Alan Patricof, rich trial attorneys like Man Saperstein, and Hollywood celebrities like Rob Reiner — had the inadvertent impact of centering their values and methods of doing issues. Thus, as Bai describes, the Democracy Alliance was structured from the beginning as a market: “a lean, minimalist group whose solely function can be to carry conferences the place entrepreneurs may pitch traders on their concepts. This mannequin mirrored the peculiarly adventurous and antiestablishment tradition of Silicon Valley, which favored start-ups over established teams and excessive threat over regular return.”

Besides it actually didn’t take dangers. Saperstein, an authentic member of the DA who served on its technique working group, complained to me bitterly yesterday that Stein had no long-term imaginative and prescient for what the DA ought to drive towards and neither did most of its members. “Rob was only a standard Democrat, nothing extra,” he stated. “He didn’t have an authentic thought in his life.” He added, “The obvious lesson of his analysis ought to have been how adventurous and entrepreneurial the best was. They began investing in writers and thinkers with a 20-year time horizon; they didn’t care about political conventions.” Joel Rogers, a progressive educational who co-founded the New Get together and tried for years to construct the mental infrastructure for a brand new progressive politics, was much more dismissive, telling me, “DA conferences had been mainly costly, strategically confused, confabulations of befuddled wealthy individuals making unredeemable pledges to modern individuals making self-serving arguments and never themselves being prepared to be held to any movement-building requirements of conduct. Not fairly the best way I’d spend thousands and thousands to take over the political financial system of essentially the most highly effective nation on earth.”

The DA didn’t give new concepts a lot help, betting as an alternative totally on trusted faces and resisting giving anybody the type of long-term backing that main donors on the best just like the Kochs, the Scaifes and their ilk had showered on a technology of conservatives. Reflecting the mindset of its moneymen, the DA’s donors, for all their supposed dedication to social justice values, was way more capitalist and short-termist than its opponents, who poured cash into their establishments like Large Authorities Socialists.

To hitch the DA, a donor needed to pony up annual dues of $30,000 after which pledge to offer not less than $200,000 a yr to organizations really helpful by the DA’s employees and board. Some early donors wished to create an enormous pooled fund that might help a central technique and rent a big employees that might do strong analysis and evaluation, however at Soros’ urging, the group selected to not. (Ostensibly his cause was that a lot of the large donors had their very own staffs to try this type of work.) The consequence, writes former DA president Gara LaMarche in his chapter on Soros’ political giving within the 2022 guide “George Soros: A Life in Full,” was to make “funding considerably extra of a reputation contest, with an edge to charismatic leaders who had been good at schmoozing the donors, a ability that was not all the time correlated with influence.” Whats up Activist Starvation Video games, Large Democratic Version!

Sadly, as an alternative of constructing the type of establishments and investing within the type of leaders who may genuinely counter the New Proper, the Democracy Alliance’s donors prioritized establishments that had been meant to strengthen the present Democratic get together, not exchange it with one thing extra ideologically coherent or much less beholden to company energy. Or frankly, led by individuals who weren’t white males. As LaMarche wrote final yr in The Forge, “once I got here to [run] the Democracy Alliance in 2013, its portfolio was closely weighted towards coverage teams, most of them white led.” Its donors additionally targeted extra on constructing think-tanks and media watchdogs and far much less on matching the type of leadership-development or native organizing infrastructure that the best has constructed. LaMarche led a visioning course of that helped make the case for “supporting year-round organizing in securing enduring progressive change, leading to a set of funding suggestions that included the Working Households Get together, Individuals’s Motion, Religion in Motion, Colour of Change, and Working America, in addition to movement-connected suppose/motion tanks like Demos, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Financial Coverage Institute.” However as I famous in The Connector final summer time in a submit known as “The Poverty of Grassroots Organizing,” he admitted that a lot of the DA’s funders hadn’t shifted a lot past white-led Beltway teams and that, “It’s unacceptable that the sources wanted to construct energy are depending on occasional allies like me.”

David Callahan, creator of “The Givers” and writer of Inside Philanthropy, and earlier a co-founder of the progressive think-tank Demos, informed me, “Stein’s imaginative and prescient of a lot larger investments in core progressive establishments was by no means totally realized as a result of most liberal funders by no means signed onto the venture of offering long-term basic help to ideologically pushed organizations. Whereas varied large particular person donors did begin giving to locations like CAP, Media Issues and Catalist, most large liberal foundations continued to offer venture help for issue-based work in a siloed approach. That’s restricted the flexibility of suppose tanks and different infrastructure establishments to scale. The failure to spend money on management coaching is one instance; we nonetheless don’t have anything like what the best has right here, as you be aware.”

He provides, “The opposite factor is that progressive funders have constantly failed to take a position sufficient in state and native grassroots organizing. I can’t keep in mind how a lot Stein advocated such giving. However regardless of the case, it didn’t actually begin to occur in any vital approach till after the 2016 election. And we’re nonetheless approach behind right here — witness, for example, the belated scramble to lastly interact rural voters or how there nonetheless isn’t a lot robust progressive infrastructure in sure key states, like Michigan.”

Peter Murray, founding father of Speed up Change, has a extra charitable view, arguing that Stein’s “capability to encourage a set of donors to spend money on long-term motion infrastructure was spectacular and impactful.” He additionally says that, “Rob labored laborious to include management improvement into the DA construction, however management bought much less funding than different areas for quite a lot of causes (donor curiosity, maturity of management organizations, and so forth.).” Murray blames the left’s weak point in comparison with the best on a deeper problem, one which he first articulated in his 2013 article “The Secret of Scale,” which is how a lot “the best is primarily constructed on practical organizations (organizations which might be related to individuals’s day by day lives — that folks be part of in an effort to get tangible worth (financial, info/media, or group), [while] the left is primarily constructed on issue-based organizations.” Thus, the best has church buildings, the NRA and gun golf equipment, rightwing media and enterprise associations, which its suppose tanks, media teams, management improvement and PACs sit on prime of. The left’s practical organizations — labor unions and liberal and Black church buildings — have been in steep decline (the previous due to the best’s onslaught on organizing). He provides, “We’ve tried to switch practical organizations with problem organizations, however problem organizations by no means really scale — by way of cash, depth of engagement, or scale of relationships — as a result of they cater to the tiny fraction of People who’re activists. Situation organizations play a vital function, however they can’t serve the perform of scaled, deep base-building. Scaled, deep base-building is achieved by practical organizations.”

Josh Nussbaum, a youthful progressive organizer who was a Civic Corridor organizing fellow, took a distinct method to fixing the Starvation Video games when he based the Motion Cooperative in 2018 to pool progressive teams’ entry to key voter knowledge and instruments. “I do imagine the DA has been altering positively over current years and their cash’s getting unfold round way more than it did beforehand and now have working teams targeted on points just like the surroundings and democracy,” he stated. However he agreed that the type of Democratic donors centered by the DA have by no means been as targeted on motion constructing as the best. The GOP’s donors, he stated, “constructed infrastructure to help a conservative motion that’s meant to additional conservative concepts and outcomes over and above merely having redundant electioneering infrastructure to the Republican Get together. In actual fact, they appeared to have been motivated equally by constructing a motion that might take over the Republican Get together in addition to obtain governing majorities. In the meantime, Democratic donors primarily appeared, after Kerry’s loss [in 2004], to be motivated primarily by frustrations with the Democratic Get together’s failure at reaching governing majorities and felt they might do a greater job on the electioneering essential to win these majorities, so that they constructed redundant electioneering infrastructure. There’s no actual underlying progressive ideology binding collectively most of those Democratic donors or the Democracy Alliance and so they haven’t constructed infrastructure to help a progressive motion certain collectively by some progressive imaginative and prescient exterior of ‘Democrats successful elections.’ To be clear, I do suppose a lot of that infrastructure that’s been constructed play vital capabilities and that electing Democrats is profoundly essential, now greater than ever. However I feel it’s a basic misunderstanding to suppose that what the conservative motion has constructed is barely electoral. And perversely, as we’ve seen, specializing in constructing infrastructure that’s solely centered on near-term election outcomes clearly doesn’t construct a motion, however long-term it’s additionally been fairly shitty at successful elections as properly.” 

Earlier than Stein died, he had shifted his consideration to constructing a cross-partisan alliance that might defend democracy from the rising forces of the authoritarian proper. I’m informed that he was engaged on a brand new PowerPoint deck that presumably would have mapped out who was funding what and the place sources had been wanted. Maybe that may finally floor. No matter else one would possibly say about his legacy, we may certain use that now.

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