Democracy In Peril: Progressive Billionaires to the Rescue?? (Well, Maybe . . .)

“Money,” truthfully spake the legendary California pol Jesse Unruh, “is the mother’s milk of politics.”

And if money, rather than love, is All You Need (as spake, or crooned, the legendary Beatles), Democrats & their worried (“terrified” is more accurate) and beleaguered progressives ought to be breathing easier today, despite the fate of Roe.

The morning papers bring news that, busting through the encircling hordes of vote suppressors, election stealers and insurrectionists, the cavalry is coming. They’ve been sent by a pentagon of the biggest Dem billionaire campaign donors, and bear saddlebags stuffed with cash (and bitcoin?) to help the Dems fend off the MAGA assault:

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, one of the nation’s top political donors, gathered more than a dozen billionaires or their representatives over Zoom Friday to sound an alarm about the coming elections.

“MAGA leaders intend to use 2022 midterm wins to install Trump in 2024 regardless of the vote,” read a slide of the PowerPoint Hoffman presented to the group, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

He was pitching some of the nation’s wealthiest people on a doomsday idea that has become a growing obsession among the liberal donor community. Another slide, titled “How MAGA midterms can install Trump,” laid out a step-by-step hypothetical scenario: Republicans win statewide offices in key battleground states in 2022 and then change state laws in 2023 to give legislatures control over presidential electors. After the next presidential election, they declare votes from urban centers “tainted” and overrule the popular vote by sending their own slate of electors to Washington.

The goal [here] . . . was to raise tens of millions of dollars for groups that the PowerPoint described as being able to increase Democratic turnout, persuade swing voters to vote Democratic and “dissuade” Republican voters from going to the polls.

You get the idea. The plot to use 2022 as the stepping stone to a Trump or successor MAGA coronation will be familiar to most of us who can read, listen, or remember their nightmares. I for one am not a doubter.  The MAGA-orange drive is as real as Covid; and stopping it, if that can be done, will cost beaucoup bucks.


Just as I doubted the universality of the Beatles “All You Need . . .” anthem (which, after all, was churned out to fill the Fab Four’s slot on a big international TV broadcast), not to mention that it was a musical dud; I’m also skeptical about a truckload of progressive doubloons as delivering the Dems the way to escape their feared November bloodbath.

Which is to say, money may be the “mother’s milk” of politics; but as all active parents of an infant know, while necessary, mama’s lactation is not sufficient. On the long list of additional nurturing requirements, one of the most persistent in the years of baby/toddlerhood is not an elephant in the room, but the changing of what seems like endless stacks of poopy diapers.

Is this about politics??

Any surviving parent, once toilet training is in the rear view and they’re relaxed enough, can tell a number of messy, smelly can-you-top-THIS? stories.

So Love, with an infant, is NOT All you need: there must also be a reliable source of nappies, a continuing  supply of clean-scented wipes, and a reasonably strong stomach.

The analogy is apt here, because in progressive America, not only are the MAGA hordes at the gates outside, filling up inboxes and voicemails with detailed death threats for the great and the humble, the Member of Congress who has a security detail, and the rank-and-file stalwarts like election workers Wandrea Shaye Moss, and Ms. Ruby Freeman, who don’t. On top of that, the progressives have a pachyderm-sized smelly diaper problem clogging up things inside the house.

To deal with that sh*tshow, progressive Washington now has to figure out how to face and absorb the revelations of a renegade reporter named Ryan Grim.

Who is Ryan Grim? We’ll get to him in a moment. First we need to review some previous reports about the impact of fat campaign war chests on political fortunes.

Pop Quiz:

1. How much money did Amy McGrath raise for her 2020 Senate race against Mitch McConnell?

(Answer: $96 million, compared to McConnell’s $60 mil.)

2. How did it turn out?

(Answer: she lost by nineteen points.)

3. In 2015, how much money did Jeb Bush have to kickstart his 2016 Republican presidential run?

(Answer: NY Times – “When Jeb Bush formally entered the presidential campaign in June, there was already more money behind him than every other Republican candidate combined.” [About $103 million.])

4 . How did that turn out?

(Answer: NY Times: “When he suspended his campaign on [Feb. 20 2016] . . . Mr. Bush had burned through the vast majority of that cash without winning a single state. [Bush finished fourth in the South Carolina primary.] His campaign, said the Times, “may go down as one of the least successful campaign spending binges in history.”)

Maybe, but it didn’t hold that record for long.

5. How much did Maine Democrat state legislator Sara Gideon raise to push Susan Collins out of a Maine U. S. Senate seat?

(Answer: $68 million, which was $40 million more than Collins raised.  Most polls put Gideon in the lead all during the campaign; but Collins won by a decisive nine points.)

6. Last (but not least): How much did Michael Bloomberg spend on his three-month long 2020 presidential campaign? What did it buy him?

(Answer: Bloomberg spent more than a billion dollars; over $10,000,000 per day. He hired a national staff of 2400. Despite this juggernaut, he collected a mere 59 delegates [out of 1,991 needed to win the nomination.] The only jurisdiction he carried was American Samoa, with 175 total votes, that netted him four delegates.)

The Bottom Line: money is necessary in politics, but not sufficient.

Now, then, back to Ryan Grim.

Grim is mid-forties, and for years was a kind of utility outfielder in the D. C. professional muckraking leagues: he’s reported for Rolling Stone, Politico and the Washington Post, and now heads the Washington Bureau for The Intercept. He’s had some big hits: e.g, breaking the story of the  Christine Blasey Ford letter alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school.

When he moved to The Intercept, Politico opined that “Grim was—and is—seen in Washington as hardworking, talented and, depending where you sit, something of a left-populist attack dog. ‘A lot of the legacy liberal media was basically in the establishment Democratic tent,’ says Zaid Jilani, a former Intercept reporter. ‘Ryan was a [Ralph] Nader voter. It’s probably unique to have someone like that running your shop.’”

Under Grim’s stewardship, The Intercept has not feared to rush in where legacy media “angels” fear to tread: “The first goal is to break news,” Grim said in Politico, “but where we focus is where other outlets are afraid to go.”

Given this starting point, “As the [Democratic] party grapples with fractures emerging in its coalition, the Intercept is a crowbar working those fractures apart . . . . The [Intercept] has become a routine headache for the Democratic establishment and its leadership.”

But they’re more than a gadfly. They were among the first Washington outlets to take seriously the long shot insurgent congressional run of an unknown Alexandria Ocasio Cortez against establishment Democrat heavyweight Rep. Joe Crowley. Few other media outlets followed their lead.

But then AOC upset Crowley in a June 2018 primary: “The race was not close,” wrote the stunned New York Times.  “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had more than 57 percent of the vote, with almost all precincts reporting.”)

Who knew? Grim and The Intercept did.

Now Grim has turned his unsparing spotlight on the woes of Washington’s progressive groups and culture. A curtain-raiser came from columnist Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times:

After four years of Donald Trump, more than two years of a pandemic, and an unending right-wing onslaught, a lot of people with feminist sympathies are numb and exhausted. “People deep in reproductive justice struggles feel burned out and taken for granted,” wrote Arielle Angel, editor in chief of the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents. “People who have long organized direct action campaigns in response to every other political emergency have no faith in the capacity for mass movement while the left is so weak.”

Loretta Ross

Instead, their anger and agitation has turned inward, aimed at their own organizations and colleagues.

Goldberg cites pioneering feminist Loretta Ross, who is writing a book about the current self-devouring movement culture, and name-checks Grim himself. This “culture”

which [Ross] points out, plagues much of the left, not just feminism — is demoralizing for individuals, but it’s also paralyzing for institutions. This week, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim published a long investigation into progressive groups that have essentially ceased to function because they are caught up in internal turmoil, often blending labor disputes with fights over identity. In the last days of Roe v. Wade, reproductive health groups including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America have been locked in what Grim calls “knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations.”

Some of this turning inward is an understandable response to deep frustration and impotence. If you don’t feel that you can save democracy, preserve a path to racial and gender equality, or stave off environmental calamity, at least you can decolonize your office.

Besides, plenty of the employee complaints are surely legitimate: in recent years Planned Parenthood has been credibly accused of both pregnancy discrimination and of mistreating Black employees. Still, if it seems no one is leading the resistance to the unfolding widespread criminalization of abortion, it could be because so many seasoned activists are mired in workplace reckonings.

Grim’s long piece is, “The Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History”. It was a deep dive into the biggest pile of unacknowledged, reeking political poopy diapers outside the old Staten Island landfill:

[Emphasis in red added.] For progressive movement organizations, 2021 promised to be the year they turned power into policy, with a Democratic trifecta and the Biden administration broadcasting a bold vision of “transformational change.” Out of the gate, Democrats pushed ahead with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, funding everything from expanded health care to a new monthly child tax credit. Republican efforts to slow-walk the process with disingenuous counteroffers were simply dismissed.

And then, sometime in the summer, the forward momentum stalled, and many of the progressive gains lapsed or were reversed. Instead of fueling a groundswell of public support to reinvigorate the party’s ambitious agenda, most of the foundation-backed organizations that make up the backbone of the party’s ideological infrastructure were still spending their time locked in virtual retreats, Slack wars, and healing sessions, grappling with tensions over hierarchy, patriarchy, race, gender, and power.

“So much energy has been devoted to the internal strife and internal bullshit that it’s had a real impact on the ability for groups to deliver,” said one organization leader who departed his position. “It’s been huge, particularly over the last year and a half or so, the ability for groups to focus on their mission, whether it’s reproductive justice, or jobs, or fighting climate change.”

Starting with an account of extended staff-executive infighting at the highly-respected Guttmacher Institute, Grim argues that this spat was no isolated outburst:

That the [Guttmacher] institute has spent the course of the Biden administration paralyzed makes it typical of not just the abortion rights community — Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and other reproductive health organizations had similarly been locked in knock-down, drag-out fights between competing factions of their organizations, most often breaking down along staff-versus-management lines.

It’s also true of the progressive advocacy space across the board, which has, more or less, effectively ceased to function. The Sierra Club, Demos, the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives, Human Rights Campaign, Time’s Up, the Sunrise Movement, and many other organizations have seen wrenching and debilitating turmoil in the past couple years.

In fact, it’s hard to find a Washington-based progressive organization that hasn’t been in tumult, or isn’t currently in tumult. It even reached the National Audubon Society, as Politico reported in August 2021.

And that’s not all, Grim writes:

Twitter, as the saying goes, may not be real life, but . . . Twitter, Slack, Zoom, and the office space, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former executive directors of advocacy organizations, are now mixing in a way that is no longer able to be ignored by a progressive movement that wants organizations to be able to function. The executive directors largely spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of angering staff or donors.

“To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years,” one [Executive Director] concluded. “This is so big. And it’s like abuse in the family — it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. And you have to be super sensitive about who the messengers are.”

Grim acknowledges his limitations, but in Intercept style, he still goes there:

For a number of obvious and intersecting reasons — my race, gender, and generation — I am not the perfect messenger. But here it goes anyway.

“All my ED [executive director] friends, everybody’s going through some shit, nobody’s immune,” said one who has yet to depart.

One senior progressive congressional staffer said that when groups don’t disappear entirely to deal with internal strife, the discord is still noticeable on the other end. “I’ve noticed a real erosion of the number of groups who are effective at leveraging progressive power in Congress. Some of that is these groups have these organizational culture things that are affecting them,” the staffer said. . . .

At the ACLU, as at many organizations, the controversy quickly evolved to include charges that senior leaders were hostile to staff from marginalized communities. Each accusation is unique; some have obvious merit, while others don’t withstand scrutiny. What emerges by zooming out is the striking similarity of their trajectories. One foundation official who has funded many of the groups entangled in turmoil said that having a panoramic view allowed her to see those common threads. “It’s the kind of thing that looks very context-specific, until you see a larger pattern,” she said.

Such broad dysfunction would be bad enough in good times. But American democracy is not in a good time, remember? You know, the coup of January 6? The end of Roe. The midterm elections and the dire forecasts of a Red Tide? Have you noticed that thousands of MAGA diehards are swarming over conventional politics — and their gun-centered unconventional impulses are heating up more each day?

[SIDEBAR: The stench also afflicts religious groups; in fact, I think they invented it, and some keep blessing it. They even made up their own names — heresy, blasphemy, and others. Then they formalized it with centuries of book bans, witch burnings, the rack and the gallows for other suspects, crusades, holy wars, antisemitism and more. Recently the ordure has been piled higher in some sanctuaries than most anywhere else (Looking at YOU today, Southern Baptists), and has even heavily afflicted my own tribe, the Quakers. But we’ll get to that story in another post.]

In this situation, one might think the progressive forces would be busy building and deploying pushback coalitions, aimed squarely at the pressure points where the authoritarian thrusts can be rolled back.

Grim shares that priority, but says his reporting shows the Washington-centered progressive culture is largely paralyzed by internal strife:

For years, recruiting young people into the movement felt like a win-win, said [one senior leader in an organization]: new energy for the movement and the chance to give a person a lease on a newly liberated life, dedicated to the pursuit of justice.

But that’s no longer the case. “I got to a point like three years ago where I had a crisis of faith, like, I don’t even know, most of these spaces on the left are just not — they’re not healthy.

“Like all these people are just not — they’re not doing well,” he said. “The dynamic, the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.”

Except Grim did manage to coax many progressive movers and shakers into talking about it, in convincing, if depressing detail, which makes his piece a definite must read. The frequent recurrence of fecal similes points us back to the soiled diapers analogue. There’s even perhaps a bit of an upside to it: Pampers and Huggies can stink to high heaven, but they’re more susceptible to being cleaned up than what’s in the paralyzing total family dysfunction frame.

How might the progressive institutional base get out of this mess? Well, time is short and I’m not Mr. Clean, or trying to break into the lucrative diversity consulting biz. But a few tips seem obvious:

One I call, Doing Your BIT, which stands for, Building an Internal Truce. Organizations better learn how to put some issues “on the shelf” at least long enough to keep their “eyes on the prize,” and fulfill their key organizational mission. As one executive director told Grim, he felt like one of the many

Black mayors across the country, [elected] just as cities were being hollowed out and disempowered. . . . “I just got the keys and y’all are gonna come after me on this shit?” “‘It’s white supremacy culture! It’s urgent!’” [They say.] “No motherfucker, it’s Election Day. We can’t move that day. Just do your job or go somewhere else.”

The other may be harder, but it’s potential is huge, and its impact has been enacted for us in every public session of the January 6 Committee hearings. I call it CRC: Construct a Real Coalition.  As Grim puts it:

Winning power requires working in coalition with people who, by definition, do not agree with you on everything; otherwise they’d be part of your organization and not a separate organization working with you in coalition. Winning power requires unity in the face of a greater opposition, which runs counter to a desire to live a just life in each moment.

Reps. Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney are near polar political opposites. Yet they have collaborated almost seamlessly and relentlessly to strip the cover off Trump, his mountain of lies, and his overthrow crimes.

Once the Committee is done, I predict that Thompson and Cheney will not have much else in common. But with their discipline, focus and professionalism, they’ve both achieved more in this one brief alliance than most of the “movement” groups in Washington have since 2017.

So here’s a memo to Reid Hoffman and his deep-pocketed billionaire rescuers: Watch out for the Sara-Amy Fallacy: that if you throw enough outside cash at seemingly appealing candidates like McGrath and Gideon, building the internal truce and constructing a real coalition don’t matter.

Instead, demand that grant-seekers clean up the internal crapola, air out the place, and prove their bona fides by being ready to shelve some demands for now while building real coalitions, especially those that can save democracy.

Otherwise they’re wasting your money. And our future.


One thought on “Democracy In Peril: Progressive Billionaires to the Rescue?? (Well, Maybe . . .)”

  1. McGrath made her first public appearance, before she announced, in the Berea, KY library. It’s small, and we filled it.

    After, I went up to her and said “you need to talk about examples of what people care about, not ideas. The voters you need in order to win respond to real examples, especially ones from their communities.”

    And then the consultants took over.

    As for the reformationists (and they are everywhere, even in the RSOF): reformation breeds reformation, each arguing against all others, until a circular firing squad has been constructed.

    The Jesuits had it partly right — they were created to counter the reformation. Genuine intellectual inquiry will indeed resolve all differences. The part they didn’t have right is the assumption that the population-at-large was able and trained to use intellectual discernment processes. They would have gotten better results fostering the widespread use of a commoditized version of Loyola’s spiritual exercises. Spirit unites.

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