Building a Better Movement

BUILDING A BETTER MOVEMENT….There’s a pair of interesting articles out this week about Democratic efforts to improve their electoral fortunes. First, Matt Bai has a piece in the NYT Magazine about Howard Dean’s insistence on spending DNC money to build enduring state organizations instead of blowing it all on a single election:

Every Democrat in Washington says he?s for expanding the party?s efforts beyond the familiar 18 or 20 battleground states, but only Dean, among his party?s leaders, has been willing to argue that there is a choice involved, that you cannot actually invest for the long term unless you?re willing to forgo some short-term priorities.

It takes courage, Dean told me, to try something new in the face of failure, which is why Washington Democrats were resisting his plan. ?I think politicians are incredibly risk-averse, especially legislating politicians,? he said. ?This is like deciding to go to a psychiatrist ? the risk of staying the same has to be greater than the risk of changing.”

That’s exactly right, and it’s the reason I support Dean. This kind of long-term planning ? in politics, in business, in nearly every walk of life ? is something that nearly everyone says they support, but when push comes to shove very few people are willing to back it up. There’s always something this week, or this month, or this year that seems uniquely crucial and demands our attention. Next year there will be something else, and the year after that something else again. The long-term stuff simply never gets done unless someone like Dean is willing to go to the mat for it.

The big question, of course, is whether Dean is doing a good job of building the long-term infrastructure he’s been fighting for. This is also the theme of a piece this week by Ari Berman in The Nation about the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy liberal donors who decided after the 2004 election to stop focusing on individual campaigns and instead focus on funding think tanks and other liberal organizations that would have a more enduring effect. But do they have the guts to see it through?

At the first meeting in Phoenix, Alliance partners agreed that funding media would be a front-and-center priority. Instead, says one early member of the media committee, “it keeps getting shuttled to the back, over and over.” Partly that was because at the beginning of the process few members were familiar with progressive media. In time, the media committee developed a plan to fund bloggers, investigative reporting and media reform efforts. Now, in the run-up to Miami, says another media committee member, that plan has been slashed in half.

….Alliance staff originally conceived of an “innovation fund” to funnel smaller amounts of money (between $25,000 and $250,000) to newer ventures, such as the blogs and MeetUp-type gatherings, at the discretion of the managing director. That concept, too, has yet to get off the ground. Instead of directing the fund [Judy] Wade, with her McKinsey background, appointed yet another committee to oversee it, reinforcing the inside joke that the Alliance at times resembles a “let’s have a meeting about having a meeting” self-parody.

I have to confess that I don’t quite get the whole Democracy Alliance concept, even though I’ve now read three or four long articles about it. They seem to be merely a clearinghouse for people who are already big donors, and it’s not clear to me what those big donors get out of the deal. Sign up to join DA, commit to donating a bunch of money, and what do you get in return? A limit on who you can give your money to. Why is that appealing to them?

I dunno. Frankly, I suspect the biggest problem with liberal donors is that they already funnel their money too narrowly into a limited number of already well-heeled groups. The idea behind DA ? build infrastructure that will help shift public opinion over the long term ? is good, but do they have the stones to waste money on a hundred startups with weird ideas in the hopes that two or three of them will pan out? It doesn’t seem like it.

Likewise, Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy is a good idea, but is he actually building effective state organizations? Bai’s article certainly gives one pause on that score.

But at least both of these efforts are steps in the right direction. There are still a few steps left to go, though.

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