How the Left Is Revitalizing Itself

By Gara LaMarche
In the Nation

It’s been almost ten years since progressives, determined to undo the accumulated damage of the Reagan-Bush era, took a page from our opponents’ successes and got to work building our own policy, organizing and electoral infrastructure. At the outset of this effort, in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, I had a ringside seat as an aide to George Soros, who played a crucial role. I’ve recently become president of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of donors whose founding was one of the turning points in building a stronger, more cohesive progressive movement. So I have an unusual vantage point for reflection on what we have managed to do well in the last ten years.

First, we’ve seen much more coordination among donors. Progressive foundations such as Open Society, unions like the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), consortiums of funders like the Democracy Alliance, and strategic individual donors—for example, Herb Sandler and his late wife Marion, who were among the people providing substantial early capital for the Center for American Progress (CAP)—have built new institutions to fill in the gaps on the progressive side, as well as strengthened the capacity and sustainability of some key organizations that were already in place. Flagship institutions that didn’t exist or had just gotten under way a decade ago include CAP, a wide-ranging think tank and messaging operation that, while still outgunned financially by the Heritage Foundation, has considerably evened the score between left and right in this realm; Media Matters for America, which monitors the conservative press, publicizing and shaming over-the-top behavior and pressing for accountability; America Votes, which coordinates progressive campaigns at the state level; and the American Constitution Society, inspired by the success of the right’s Federalist Society in fostering a pipeline of ideas and personnel for the Justice Department and federal judgeships.

Longstanding progressive anchors whose funding has increased and diversified thanks to the concerted efforts of funders working to strengthen progressive infrastructure include the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the budget watchdog launched in the Reagan era, and the Center for Community Change, the organizing support group founded in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Among others, the NAACP, the Sierra Club and SEIU, the country’s largest labor union, have also shown strong signs of revitalization.

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The conservative writer Tod Lindberg, surveying this landscape from the right with some envy, writes of what he calls “Left 3.0”: “funder networks now gather periodically to strategize where best to deploy resources. Money for the cause appears to be abundant. Activists meet to share information and coordinate plans. Opinion journalists offer up articles and blog posts and tweets. None of this is unique to the Left, of course. But to the extent that the emerging Left 3.0 considered itself lagging [behind] efforts on the Right—what the Left likes to call the ‘right-wing noise machine’—Left 3.0 has now fully caught up.” Admittedly, it doesn’t always look that way from the inside, and we still have a long way to go, but the progress he notes is genuine.

Campaigns aimed at more specific issues have also been much better funded and coordinated. One of them, Health Care for America Now (HCAN)—of which the Atlantic Philanthropies, which I led at the time, was the largest funder—made a significant difference in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. As Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, a keen analyst of movements for public policy change, told The Washington Post: “The investments that philanthropies made in [the HCAN campaign] helped cement links between the national players and the state and local players…that made it possible to push at the very end when many Democrats were ready to drop the whole thing, after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts.”

Contrasting the path of healthcare reform with the parallel effort on climate change, Skocpol says she was “startled by the level of contempt that many environmentalists had for the health reform push.” But she concludes that progressives “have to build broader coalitions. That was one of the things that health reformers did this time around. They buried hatchets and forged ties with groups they needed to, like medical providers, and reached out to small businesses.”

The Affordable Care Act as it emerged, public option jettisoned, through a razor-thin margin in the House of Representatives is far from perfect. Also, the complexities of its implementation—not to mention the initial technological crashes during its launch—may, in time, when progressives manage to gain control of the White House and both houses of Congress, build momentum for a single-payer system like Medicare for All. But it was a victory, and the ACA has already provided access to health coverage for millions for whom it had been out of reach.

The Alliance for Citizenship, the broad coalition of groups now pressing for immigration reform, includes (as HCAN did) both labor and civil rights groups, along with faith-based movements and community-organizing networks, forging strategy together at the same table. Among other things, this kind of structure provides a mechanism for dealing with differences among allies, a place to hammer out a path between the sense of urgency felt in the field and the legislative pragmatism often voiced by Beltway-based advocates.

In part because these developments have been handled in a deliberate and coordinated manner, there is a great deal more collaboration between and among progressive organizations than has been the case for many years. Indeed, one of the most encouraging developments is that this collaboration is not just taking place among groups that have had shared goals like healthcare and immigration reform, which is significant enough; it is also causing a number of organizations in the progressive constellation to step outside their traditional “silos” to stand in solidarity with other movements.

I first had the feeling that something was changing back in 2009, when I attended the NAACP’s 100th-anniversary dinner and was struck by the prominence of underwriting from gay and lesbian donors. I noted that Urvashi Vaid, the longtime progressive activist, then executive director of the LGBT-focused Arcus Foundation, was sitting at the head table with Julian Bond, the chair of the NAACP board.

Not long after, the NAACP—led by its president, Ben Jealous—helped to fuel, not follow, the momentum toward support of same-sex marriage. Some months later, a number of LGBT leaders stood with black and Latino activists at a press conference in New York denouncing the stop-and-frisk policy of the city’s police. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Rea Carey had this to say: “LGBT people, of course, have their own history of unjust treatment from law enforcement, not the least of which was the raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969, launching the modern LGBT movement. But the task force does not just stand in solidarity with LGBT people; we stand against racial profiling for all people of color. The entire concept of it goes against not only the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’; it undermines the free society we fight for every day.”

More recently, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), joined by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT groups, stepped out strongly in favor of immigration reform, asserting: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with those striving for and dreaming of a nation that embraces all who come here seeking a better life.” Among the tangible results to emerge from this stance was the series of immigration-based direct actions last fall, including a powerful women-only civil-disobedience action.

Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change and a leader in antipoverty efforts as well as the movements for immigration reform and healthcare, addressed the NGLTF’s Creating Change conference in January 2013, expressing optimism about the fight for LGBT rights and immigration reform and noting, “It is no coincidence that two movements that have been unafraid to make noise and cause trouble have made real progress.”

Writing in The Washington Post in March 2013, Frank Sharry, the director of America’s Voice, talked about how the immigration movement learned from the successes of the LGBT movement, often telling his colleagues that “it’s time to go all LGBT on their ass…quite simply, that it was time to be confrontational.”

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