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The Rise of the Democratic Philanthocracy

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, September 25 2007

Google the words “DailyKos” and you’ll get about 2.6 million results. Google the words “Democracy Alliance” and you’ll get about 44,000 hits, and from them you won’t find out much. You’ll learn that the DA is a partnership of some 80 to 100 wealthy liberals, who have each pledged to contribute $1 million or more over several years to fund think tanks and advocacy groups, inspired by the hundreds of millions that a handful of rich conservatives spent in the 1970s and 1980s building the infrastructure of the New Right. You’ll learn the names of some of its biggest supporters, like George Soros, Peter Lewis and, indirectly, Herb and Marion Sandler. If you go to the group’s modest website, you can find out the names of its staff and board, people you’ve probably never heard of, like banker Robert Dugger of the Tudor Investment Corporation, real estate developer Al Dwoskin, and social worker and foundation president Deborah Sagner.

But you won’t find out much about what the group stands for, beyond some vague generalities like justice, prosperity and security for all Americans. And you certainly won’t get any sense of how the group makes its decisions or whether it is spending its money well. (Notably, the word “transparency,” which was prominent in an early draft of the alliance’s statement of principles, has been dropped from same.) The Alliance doesn’t disclose whom it is funding, or who its member-funders are. Nor will you learn anything about how this powerful new pool of money is altering the dynamics of the center-left side of American politics. Think of it—a small group of people, meeting and deliberating in secret, is dangling hundreds of millions of real and potential funding before a historically cash-starved crowd. And yet we know almost nothing about them.

That’s why I’m writing to praise Matt Bai’s new book, “"The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics." By befriending the DA’s founder, Rob Stein, and doggedly pursuing the group since its earliest incarnation as the post-2004 Phoenix Group, Bai has almost single-handedly opened up a new vein for discussion of money’s role in politics. The picture he draws may be distorted somewhat by his closeness to Stein, who comes off in the book as a hero and visionary, while Bai paints most of the other leaders of the Alliance as self-absorbed political neophytes or overly ambitious corporate consultants. But apart from one feature article by Ari Berman in The Nation that appeared a year ago, it’s just about the only picture we have of this new force in American politics.

To be sure, thanks to the internet, big piles of money matter a little bit less than they used to. The Democracy Alliance may be funding anachronisms. Creating a parallel infrastructure to the New Right’s panoply of think tanks (Heritage, AEI, Hoover, Cato), training centers (Leadership Institute), legal centers (Federalist Society) and media (Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc.) might have made sense in the 1980s, but would such a message machine work as well in an age of decentralized network-centric media? By giving big grants to older advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or ACORN, is the Democracy Alliance reinforcing more hierarchic, less dynamic models of political action?

It would be interesting to see some discussion of these questions. So far, much of the commentary about Bai’s book has focused elsewhere, mainly on his depiction of “the bloggers” who make up part of his book’s title, and on his assertion that the Democrats lack new answers to the problems of the 21st Century. He’s come in for a lot of criticism on both fronts, some of it warranted in my view (see Don Hazen and Joan Walsh’s reviews) and some of it, from a few bloggers like Digby and TalkLeft, of a surprisingly petulant and close-minded variety.

That said, his picture of “the bloggers” is far too narrow. By pinning much of this part of his narrative on pioneers Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, and on two snapshots of members of the netroots in action (at the first YearlyKos convention debating then-presidential candidate Mark Warner, and in the final days of the 2006 primary fight between Sen. Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont), Bai makes the political blogosphere seem like a place “where the mob gathered to make its own demands and mete out its own justice,” as he writes near the book’s conclusion.

The idea of a multi-voiced, networked public sphere where hundreds of thousands of people participate in communally sifting the news and opinions of the day, and where well-known bloggers like Moulitsas are often scolded by his own readers, just isn’t broached by Bai. Moulitsas is depicted as a talented entrepreneur whose website somehow magically turned into a hub for angry progressives with pitchforks. Based on conversations I’ve had with Bai, I think he knows better, but this is a view held by many inside the Beltway, and unfortunately Bai reinforces it.

And for a book that is searching for the Democratic “argument” to respond to new, paradigmatic challenges like non-state terror networks and “world-is-flat” globalization, it strikes me as a bit unfair that Bai somehow manages to not look where those arguments ARE being hammered out every day in great details, in the liberal think tanks and opinion journals that have long been the breeding grounds for Democratic policy, as well as on many political blogs that make up the netroots’ home base. Bai doesn’t mention any of the journals of the center-left—The Nation, Mother Jones, Harpers, the American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, and In These Times don’t even show up in his index, and the New Republic gets a passing mention. Economist Jeff Faux is mentioned in one sentence. Writers from Tom Friedman to Jacob Hacker to William Greider are nowhere to be found; likewise policy bloggers like Mark Schmitt (who coined the term “wonkosphere”--oops, I stand corrected, Henry Farrell coined it, details here), Brad DeLong, Ezra Klein, or Elizabeth Warren. Mike Tomasky’s trenchant “we’re all in this together” essay goes unmentioned. The Apollo Alliance and the Campaign for America’s Future garner not a word.

Now, one could probably write a whole book on why the little opinion journals and the big thinkers of the left haven’t succeeded much in moving their ideas further. Indeed, one could profitably tease some answers from between the lines of “The Argument.” As Bai points out, many of the younger bloggers who are the leaders of the netroots (as opposed to the footsoldiers who read and comment on the blogs, but don’t have the ability to quit their jobs and start new lives as netroots activists) tend to be in the twenties and early thirties, and thus stand a generation apart from the mostly middle-aged lefties and liberals who run big advocacy organizations and edit the opinion journals. The older, more established types have spent most of their adult lives aiming their arguments at elite audiences and thus have generally been slow to recognize and embrace the new energy flowing through the netroots. Often, also, these people simply don’t know each other (though this is steadily changing).

As Bai also points out, the current leaders of the Democratic Party, from Howard Dean to Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, are far more interested in tactics than ideas. They may disagree about those tactics (and Bai does a solid job of explaining the conflict between the congressional leadership and the Dean forces over issues like the “fifty-state strategy”), but ultimately neither of those groupings have done much to develop a new governing philosophy. Certainly there’s nothing like Newt Gingrich’s Progress and Freedom Foundation behind Nancy Pelosi’s “Six for 2006” agenda.

Finally, though, one has to consider how the new money sloshing around the center-left from the DA might be having an impact—or leaving a vacuum. Bai offers two cogent examples, citing how the Center for American Progress has been “careful to steer clear of challenging Democratic orthodoxy on the most important issues of the day. After all, the vast majority of CAP’s funding came from the same three families—the Soroses, Lewises and Sandlers—who provided some 40 percent of the alliance’s funding.” He also takes two pages to report on how the Alliance gave short shrift to a new publication, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, writing it a check for $25,000, “less than what the alliance probably spent on all the limousines and logos” at one of its closed-door ultra-posh meetings in Austin. The group appears to be prioritizing tactics over ideas, Bai suggests, and privileging certain topics over others.

Unfortunately, a big pile of money distorts all conversation around it—and the DA is waving around grants of a magnitude rarely made by most sources of funding to liberal groups. The recipients of DA funding are hardly going to bite the hand that feeds them, and given the amounts available, just about anyone else who is in the hunt for funding is hardly going to utter a word of criticism that might kill off their chances. Call it rule by philanthocracy. If we don’t know who makes up the DA, who they are funding, and at what levels, we have no way to judge the alliance’s work.

And worse: by insisting that grantees also stay mum, the DA is promoting a culture of opaqueness precisely when the times demand greater openness. As Bai put it recently during a radio interview,

“They are very secretive. They’ve not identified their membership list publicly. They do not allow people into their meetings. They do not do interviews. They allow no scrutiny. This, to me, has been a constant source of tension because you can’t fight for a transparent society and then dump $100 million into American politics and not expect to have some level of accountability.”

Amen to that. Here are a few of the things we do know, thanks to Bai’s reporting:

-The bulk of the DA’s money has so far gone to a handful of groups. The Center for American Progress got $9 million and Media Matters for America got $7 million over two years. Progressive Majority, which trains candidates for office, got $5 million (Ari Berman’s September 2006 Nation article on the Alliance reports somewhat different figures.) Other reported recipients of funding include Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ACORN, the Center for Community Change, USAction, New Democratic Network, Young People For, Center for Progressive Leadership, Women's Voices Women Vote, EMILY’s List, and the Sierra Club.

-Asked by the SEIU’s Andy Stern to contribute money to a labor-led PR campaign against Wal-Mart, many of the DA’s partners refused. Bai reports that Stern “had the impression that they found it distasteful to take on the nation’s largest employer, with whom some of them had business dealings.” Could this have something to do with the fact that many of the DA’s funders made their money in finance, insurance and real estate, the towering pillars of the postwar economy? Historically, people from these industries have tended to corporate deregulation and lower taxes on capital gains, while tolerating or embracing enlightened social policies.

-Like many foundation boards, the DA’s members apparently believe they had the expertise themselves to evaluate the nation’s political problems—instead of trusting the work of people who spent their lives in policy research. Bai scoffs, “The partners were no better equipped to identify the best investment opportunities in Democratic politics than your average political operative would have been to identify the next big trend in the bond market.” I can only imagine what kind of headaches this must be causing development directors from the ACLU to the World Wildlife Fund.

It’s worth pondering who isn’t getting DA money—or at least who hasn’t been reported to have hit a DA payday. (I’m happy to update this review with additional data or corrections, by the way.) None of the big DC reform groups—Common Cause, Public Citizen, the PIRGs--are on the list. Nor are any media outfits, or groups fighting for media democracy or internet freedom. Nor are any groups with a focus on U.S. foreign policy or human rights. And as Ari Berman wrote in his article on the alliance, “The same topics that are off-limits in the Democratic Party--US policy on Israel, the bloated military budget, the role of big money in both parties, the grip of corporations--are shunned by the Alliance. Groups like MoveOn.org that target corporate Democrats, as the Club for Growth does to moderate Republicans, are brushed aside.”

So, why are some aspects of the progressive agenda getting funding and others are being neglected? Are there certain topics—such as labor rights vs corporate power, or reinventing entitlements programs, or our bipartisan entanglement in the Middle East—that make too many wealthy liberals uncomfortable to touch? If so, then another major reason progressives can’t develop a new “Argument” is the same, very old reason we’re so familiar with. Money. If not, let the Democracy Alliance come forward and disclose its funders and its grantees, so we can all judge for ourselves.

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Speaking of disclosure, here are some relevant ones from me. From 1983-1997 I worked for The Nation magazine. In 1998-99, I received an Individual Project Fellowship from George Soros's Open Society Institute, which helped fund my research and writing on third parties in American politics. At present, I am doing some part-time consulting for the Campaign for America's Future, which is mentioned in this essay, as well as the Sunlight Foundation and Air America, which are not.