Devil, meet Deep Blue Sea: how much should progressives spend reaching out to progressives?

I recently offered up an open letter to America’s progressive billionaires where I noted how much better conservatives have been historically at making best use of their intellectuals and at assuring that those laying the foundation for political action were taken care of. That is, the Daniel Bells of the world didn’t have to slave at two jobs to scrape together half a salary, and as a result they were able to do important work that paid off – and handsomely – for their patrons.

In truth, the problem runs deeper than just “our side’s” billionaires, or so it appears. It started the other day when some prominent Left Blogistanis decided they weren’t going to keep their mouths shut anymore. The first shot was fired in a Greg Sargent piece at Who Runs Gov:

Some of the leading liberal bloggers are privately furious with the major progressive groups — and in some cases, the Democratic Party committees — for failing to spend money advertising on their sites, even as these groups constantly ask the bloggers for free assistance in driving their message.

It’s a development that’s creating tensions on the left and raises questions about the future role of the blogosphere at a time when a Dem is in the White House and liberalism could be headed for a period of sustained ascendancy….

“They come to us, expecting us to give them free publicity, and we do, but it’s not a two way street,” Jane Hamsher, the founder of FiredogLake, said in an interview. “They won’t do anything in return. They’re not advertising with us. They’re not offering fellowships. They’re not doing anything to help financially, and people are growing increasingly resentful.”

Hamsher singled out Americans United for Change, which raises and spends big money on TV ad campaigns driving Obama’s agenda, as well as the constellation of groups associated with it, and the American Association of Retired Persons, also a big TV advertiser.

“Most want the easy way — having a big blogger promote their agenda,” adds Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos. “Then they turn around and spend $50K for a one-page ad in the New York Times or whatever.” Moulitsas adds that officials at such groups often do nothing to engage the sites’s audiences by, say, writing posts, instead wanting the bloggers to do everything for them.

John Aravosis was quick to chime in:

At some point, Democrats – progressives – need to start investing in the future. And by “the future,” I don’t mean large organizations that have been around for years but haven’t accomplished anything in the past two decades. I mean investing in progressives who can kick ass, and have a proven ability to do so.

There is the perception on the right that all of the top liberal blogs are funded by George Soros. I wish. We, for example, are funded by advertising and by your individual donations. Both are dropping in a terrible economy. No one subsidizes my blog. I wish they did. But they don’t.

For our blog to survive – for the liberal blogosphere to survive – we need support. Unlike many of the top bloggers on the right, many of the top liberal bloggers blog for a living (many of the folks on the right have “real” jobs, a lot of them work as lawyers, and blog on the side). This is our job. It’s our career. It’s our passion, to be sure. But it’s also how we pay the mortgage, invest in our retirement, and put food on the table. It makes no sense that Democrats have not found a way to invest in the blogosphere, and help us not just survive, but grow and become even more powerful. It’s almost as if we don’t want to win.

These comments touched off some lively conversations – much of it behind the scenes – and I don’t think I’d be out of line to suggest that while there are nuances aplenty, the consensus is that yes, it sure would be nice if our brightest and best didn’t have to fight the war for America’s future in their spare time, what little of it there is.

The problem here isn’t quite the same as with my hypothetical legion of prog billionaires, though. To put it simply, I’m not sure the large organizations being railed at by Hamsher, Moulitsas, Aravosis and others see much practical value in advertising to the choir. If these groups were to take those bloggers and their readers for granted – where, after all, are they going to go? – it might be hard to argue with them. Maybe. Sure, those bloggers might not campaign for the individual causes in question, but their work on behalf of others who shared the same general mission would lift all the boats together, right? Whether this is accurate or not, it’s certainly a plausible hypothesis.

Would they go so far as to say that the enduring victories we’re after require us to win the hearts and minds of those not already firmly on our side? This is ShoutWorld, after all. If we were persuaded that supporting the faithful would pay off through their redoubled energy – a very solid proposition – that would change the equation. Still, we might find ourselves wondering about diminishing returns or the incremental value of spending on new markets instead of further saturating established ones.

Regardless, the behavior of those with money suggests that not all of them are worried about their intellectuals or their footsoldiers. And those being taken for granted are in a tough spot. You can make your point by withholding your time and effort next time around, but think about the price. Eight more years of whatever neo-Bushevik wins the 2012 GOP nomination isn’t just cutting off your nose to spite your face.

No, folks, that’s more like taking an assault rifle to your nards.


  • Interesting position we find ourselves in, isn’t it? Withhold our support to show our support. A case in point, this weekend’s call to rally against the banks. Another case, the petition circulating around the net to abstain from supporting electing officials by withholding donations. The statement that each of these make seems valid to me. We can’t support what the politicians are doing so withhold our seed money.

    But then stop for a moment and think. Who is lurking in the background laughing at our naivete’? Yes, that’s right the lobbyists who will support want they want to have happen.

    I think a more useful approach would be to change the election law to limit, yes limit the expenditures a candidate can use to ONLY publicly donated funds. Just think, no more million dollar campaigns won by the richest or most lobbied. As a matter of fact, how about changing the law to state the candidates can only appear of C-span of NPR? Just think, no more interruptions of your favorite tv shows.

  • The fact progressives don’t invest in their messaging and people is part of why they have the problems they do. And it absolutely has to change if they don’t want to keep losing – badly.

    To give you some idea of the scope of the problem, the NYTimes today has a piece on former Inhofe aide and climate disruption denier extraordinaire Marc Morano. In it Morano reveals that he was paid a salary of $134,000 working for Inhofe, and that his new job at the conservative foundation CFACT was paying more than that.

    How is that progressives are expected to produce serious and effective messaging campaigns against professional PR flaks like Morano with part timers like most progressive bloggers? And how is that progressives are expected to fund those campaigns with with mere advertising? I see to main options to pull this off – either the conservative funds are shut down somehow (raising estate taxes a lot would help, for one) or progressives need to build their own infrastructure up to match the conservative infrastructure. And progressives have got to pay their people well enough to make a decent living.

    If I could make a significant percentage of my current pay and benefits as an electrical engineer as a journalist or someone who works on educating people on climate, I’d probably do it in an instant. Ask me how likely I think that is, though….

    Progressives can do a lot with legions of unpaid or poorly paid volunteers, but progressives will hit (if they haven’t already) a point of diminishing returns. When that happens, the next step is adding to that legion a smaller but still large number of moderately or well paid researchers, sympathetic journalists, and other misc. professionals. And so far as I can tell, progressives don’t have anywhere near the number of professionals that conservatives do.

    And it doesn’t help that there are progressives who think that the legions are all we need or that “organized” smacks too much of authoritarianism to be a foundation for future change.

    That’s simply got to change.

  • Brian makes a good point. But on the issue of progressives supporting Democrats and getting nothing in return. . .

    At this point throwing money at progressive blogs is secondary to Obama potentially — or already — losing progressive support with his only-incrementally-left-of-Bush policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, and, even worse, his massive mishandling of the banks.

    Funding for Democratic congressional races, never mind bloggers, will become that much harder when our Democratic president is leading the country down the tubes.

    • This is a much bigger problem than Obama, though, Russ. It’s looking more and more like a fundamental problem in how progressives operate.

      There are certainly advantages to having a massively decentralized and diverse group of volunteers. Convince those masses of volunteers that they’re going to change the world and it’ll change almost overnight. The problem is that it takes people who know what they’re doing and can do it full time to effectively mobilize the masses. That’s what the progressive side is lacking – and that the conservatives (real or otherwise) have in spades.

  • Neither of you is addressing the real problem. If you are going to influence the vote of the politician you need something that will match or cancel out the influence of the lobbies and the partisanship vote. Progressives are already at a disadvantage in this arguement since they welcome discussion while neocons/redstate sites avoid it and use our attempts to talk as a further sign of our weakness as liberals and progressives. By the way, the last time I looked the masses have been mobilized into the lines outside the job fairs and unemployment offices across the country.

  • The problem isn’t just that progressive institutions take bloggers and activists for granted (though they certainly do), it’s the simple truth that there’s more money available for the bad guys.

    The funding for right-wing think tanks, astroturfers, paid operatives like Morano, etc. all comes from the heavy investment in things like oil, defense, agribusiness, etc. As I said elsewhere, these industries have a vested interest in dominating the intellectual debate and making sure their side gets heard.

    Look at Koch Industries–a company that is so vast as to beggar belief, yet almost no one has heard of it. They pour tons of money into corporatist/libertarian operations like Cato, Reason Magazine, etc. Or look at National Review–that magazine bleeds red ink, but the people behind it have an ideology at stake, and won’t take “No” for an answer.

    Progressives can build their own infrastructure by finding counterparts to the Koch family, Scaife and his empire, etc., and getting them on board to fund a long-term shift in the debate. CAP and the like simply can’t match Heritage, AEI, CEI, Cato, etc. dollar-for-dollar.

    And as I keep saying, a lot of these groups are seeing hard times because of the economy as well. Shelly Adelson is bankrupt. Heritage is cutting back on its efforts because its donors are broke. There will never be a better time than now to step up and take over the debate arena, while the beast is wounded and bleeding.

    • No doubt that now is the moment, Martin, which is part of what sparked my initial post a few weeks ago. But we need the people with cash to get this, and I’m not sure they do. I worry about this a lot, because despite all that is going more or less right in society, the fight damned sure ain’t over and the side that spends more money on guns and ammo, figuratively speaking, is going to have an advantage.

  • in my opinion..

    Tragically, against my strongest hopes, the Obama administration has taken only a few months to illustrate that it is continuing most of Bush’s policies .. in fact, in areas of civil rights, monetary policy and the potential introduction of catastrophically destructive hyperinflation in around 12-24 months, strengthening the class of the very rich while simultaneously laying waste to the middle class, haebeus corpus, pervasive electronic surveillance of all, including anyone in particular, for any reason or no reason, the foolhardy / criminal implementation of a reckless monetary policy which will lead to and create uncontrolled corruption at every level of society, shredding of the constitution, etc etc, it may well prove, given its decisions and direction to date, to be far worse

    And i might add that all of these policies are now fundamental pillars of the Democratic party .. which has morphed, by intent and design, from what it used to represent, into an oppressive, corrupt institution (and lets not forget about the current incarnation of the Republican party, which would feel completely at home and most comfortable in the Germany of the mid-to-late 1930’s .. say 1938)

    Regrets and angst voiced above with respect to non-funding of progressives by the Democratic party are unfortunately based on a false hypothesis .. that the major financial backers of the party are simply not ‘stepping up’. Objective observation of democratic party actions over the last 16+ years indicates that they have no intention of ever doing so .. they have become every much as hard-boiled in their fascism as their opponents, though not as extreme in their language.

    The only ‘solution’, if there is one, is a third party .. the Libertarian Party coming to mind as one possibility, perhaps .. anyway, the storm clouds have gathered, and its starting to pour, not water, but acid.

  • Unfortunately i can’t remember the title of the book, but i read one some time ago that addressed this issue. Much of the book centered on “The Phoenix Project”: an idea to replicate the think-tank/publication/mobilization machine of the Republicans. The idea was turned down pretty flatly by both Bill Clinton and the DLC, but embraced – to some degree – by people like Soros and Huffington.

    The problem, outside of the stupid amounts of money that lobbyists pump into the political system, is that the Democratic Party is not very whole. And a fair portion of it isn’t much better than those across the aisle. Though an attempt by progressives to gain control of the Democratic Party is the only one that made much tactical sense, it made no strategic sense because it’s just too easy for the progressive movement to be used and thrown away.

    It’s hard to argue that it didn’t happen in the ’08 election, but what are progs gonna do, vote third party next time around? I’d argue that the Bush years should have been spent developing a progressive party…not with any intent to win a national election necessarily but built to win up to the Representative level and force the Dems to adopt progressive platforms. (as opposed to talking them up and then ignoring them once the votes are counted)

    And Russ is correct, imo. Though Obama’s approval numbers are still good, i’d bet that he’s already lost his margin of victory. I know that unless he starts walking the walk, i won’t be voting for him in ’12…not even if he’s running against Palin. This was the Dems last chance with me, and the only light i see at the end of the tunnel looks like an oncoming train.

  • How about getting the money out of politics instead? Isn’t that the problem in the first place? If it takes billionaires to effectively advance and promote your agenda then maybe you’re just part of the evil horde and need to eliminate yourself from the population for the good of the rest of us.

  • The obvious parallel is the right’s use of the religious base. They too have put forth a great deal of effort in support of a political party, the republicans, only to see the issues important to them ignored. Both parties have taken their ‘base’ for granted. In fact, I suspect a large part of the decline of the republican party is that they used and abused their base.

    As to the donors who fund the think tanks, and the like, they are not putting that funding forth out of charity. That money is spent to influence/manipulate the political agenda to achieve a profitable economic environment. The billionaires are investing in these groups out of greed, not a political ideology. And, the people who work for them are intellectual whores. Or, perhaps in some cases, they are actual idealogues, but most would work for any position that paid the bills.

    On the other hand, I think this whole debate is poorly framed. It is not an issue of progressives vs conservatives. The issue is really one of class warfare. The next time some one accuses you of class warfare, don’t deny it. Tell them, “Damn right, it’s class warfare! And, my side is losing.” That is the issue that non-billionaire progressives need to recognize, and then quit whining about a lack of patronage on the part of billionaires, and instead figure out how we, with numbers and votes, can defeat the de facto oligarchy that runs our country…And, soon, if not already, the entire planet.

  • Definitely and most wholeheartedly, I agree Rick. With the Frumpy one, too. But since the election has passed we need an issue that will unite and ignite. Something not healthcare, green infrastucture, or energy. My personal choice would be to bring an end to the DRUG WARS. As Obama noted at his town meeting, it was at the top of the list. I believe we need to frame the issue for the Fed and solict in each and every state a representative or three who bring an amendment to the voters. Think about this. The saving of lives, the reduction of prison populations, the standardization of the profits and income from the taxation, the removal of income from the drug lords, the change in attitude towards the health issues and the creation of a renewed interest in healthcare occupations. I know, I saw the smile on Obama’s face. No one wants to take this seriously. But that is my point. We can form this into a non-partisan issue that will bring voters from all sides to our table.

  • The blogs are virtual think tanks. The Party et al could help make them real, and the counterpoints to rightwing dogma more accessible, effective, and powerful. Our bloggers already have the edge in creativity, resourcefulness, and openness to new ideas. Greater funding would really crash the gate!

  • Government is the problem. And I don’t mean “our” government or China’s government or Russia’s, but GOVERNMENT. It is an anachronism. Government is obsolete. We do not need a monolithic group of priveleged government workers controlling what we do, don’t do, can do, can’t do, etc. I can as easily interact with and do business with some guy in China as I can the local grower at the farmer’s market. I don’t need government to act as an interface any longer, especially when government has become a hindrance to my conducting business (criminally I might add).

    No politicians, no governments. We have the internets. We don’t need you anymore. Get a real job.

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