Smells like victory
by Tom Sullivan
Still image from Apocalypse Now (1979).
Democrats’ lack of permanent infrastructure has launched too many listserv gripe sessions for me to count. “Infrastructure,” however it’s defined, is tagged as a principle reason Democrats have lost ground to Republicans in state after state. Election-cycle thinking is to blame, in part. Focus on winning the presidency is another culprit. Lack of stable funding year to year is yet another.
A series of interviews last week with journalist Meaghan Winter, author of “All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States,” examined the roots of the left’s struggle to compete.
“One of the things that I heard, over and over again, from longtime progressive organizers and various movement leaders is they have had a lot of trouble getting big donors or institutional donors to sustain long-term organizing at the state and local level. So on the left, there’s just not the money to sustain a 10-year, 20-year program the way there is on the right.”
“People like Tom Steyer don’t have an incentive to give money to a bunch of people who are now disenfranchised and who, if they actually had power, would change his tax code and take away a lot of his social status,” Winter explains.
Conservative donors think in terms of investment for the long haul. They expect a return, Winter says. Liberal donors tend to be socially liberal but economically conservative. They tend to contribute to interest groups rather than to movement-building efforts. Plus, she said in an interview with KALW “Public Radio Remix,” liberal donors like to shop each year for fresh, new groups to support rather than sticking with a single effort with a years-long planning arc. Tax laws have some influence here, but liberal foundations tend to steer clear of overtly advocacy or political organizations while conservatives are unashamed about supporting groups with longer-term, society-changing, government-changing agendas.
Plus, “Republican, conservative, and libertarian strategists have chosen to exert power through state-houses because they can do so in obscurity,” Winter told the Gotham Gazette. At the start of 2019, Republicans controlled 31 of 50 state legislatures. This focus on the states has allowed conservatives near-free rein to gain ground incrementally, law by law, on issues conservatives support, including sample legislation distributed by corporate-funded national organizations.
The left is more big-campaign focused. Winter told KALW, “The Democratic party also will build up these giant presidential, or sometimes Senate, races. And then, the moment the election‘s over, win or lose, they pack up and fold up and go home.” It’s a boom-and-bust cycle that leaves behind no permanent infrastructure.
“So the idea being the left — Democrats, progressives all of those people — need to build long-term institutions, long-term organizations. And that can only happen, one, if we all show up long-term, and two, if … the owners are willing to fund organizing groups on the ground all of the time. And if we transition from these look short-term bursts of interest in electoral work right before the election.”
Winter told WAMC’s “Milk Street Radio” people need to commit beyond the boom-bust thinking of presidential campaigns:
“The best thing people can do is commit to year-round organizing around issues — showing up going to council meetings going to the legislature working on campaigns for state candidates and city council candidates where you can make a huge difference just by showing up. Because these campaigns are run on a shoestring and you can really help. And if by changing, by showing up constantly, you may not win that year, but you change the cultural narrative, and you change what’s acceptable and you show people that things are possible. And that it’s not just these crazy Democrats who live in New York or California. You kind of destigmatize some of the messaging because you’re neighbors, and you can talk in a way that is more resonant to people who live near you than someone coming through the TV screen.”
All of that is true. Not having read the book, I cannot say if Winter notes how showing up constantly, building infrastructure locally from what is at hand obviates the need for large donors to air-drop large donations before infrastructure-building can happen. The spurious Goethe quotation that “boldness has genius, power, and magic in it” has truth in it as well.
In “For The Win” webinars, I encourage county committees not to wait for fundraising to fuel their organizing efforts. Rather, planning and building Get Out The Vote programs from free and cheap resources will attract donations. What local Democrats need is not boom-and-bust organizing imported from national organizations or national campaigns. They can build longer-term themselves. (I show them how.) As for sustaining donations, if you build it, they will come. I suggest committees begin with countywide GOTV programs during election years because that is when non-activists (and donors) are paying the most attention.
Having a visible GOTV program will attract higher-caliber candidates, inspire volunteers and bring them back again and again. It will fuel fundraising efforts when donors see yours is an organization that’s got “game” and deserves their support.
I tell audiences this story.
You all know these guys. They show up every presidential election. You’ve never seen them, don’t know their names. All they want is a yard sign. But if at your storefront they see volunteers arriving for a phone bank, signs bundled and staged to go out, people with clipboards headed out to canvass? I’ve seen this multiple times: People who are never going to knock a door or pick up a phone get their signs and – unprompted – pull out a checkbook and ask, “Who do I make the check out to?” And leave $100.
Because they can see with their own eyes your team has got it going on. And they don’t even know what It is, but it smells like … victory. And they want a piece of it.