James O'Keefe
Conservative activist James O'Keefe. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In the summer and fall of 2004, I was busy organizing Delaware and Montgomery counties in the Philadelphia suburbs. My employer was Project Vote through a partnership with ACORN, and yes, a lot of the funding came from George Soros. You can check the numbers yourself, but my teams measurably boosted voter registration in the blue areas of those counties and ran a disciplined and effective get out the vote effort on election day, helping John Kerry carry Pennsylvania. After the disappointing national results, I developed and launched my blog Booman Tribune in March 2005.

Before long, I fell in with a salon of writers that orbited around the pseudonymous Atrios, soon to be revealed as a former economics professor named Duncan Black. Animated most by antiwar fervor, this group included not just well-known writers like Susie Madrak and Chris Bowers, but others who had smaller followings but no less talent. It also included lawyers and community organizers who had brilliant minds and a willingness to sacrifice in the cause of fighting the Bush administration and bringing about an end to their adventure in Iraq. Some would become soldiers in Barack Obama’s field organization, and others would serve as delegates at the National Convention. Politicians began to flock to our meetings to seek our approval or at least to mute our criticisms. Even Pat Toomey made an appearance when he began to consider running for Senate. Cable news started featuring some of our articles during special segments they developed to look at what was being discussed “on the blogs.” But for all our energy and talent, I don’t think any of us every got a dime from George Soros. We didn’t get a dime from anyone. There was no left wing equivalent of wingnut welfare or a pipeline that would move us through think tanks and partisan magazines like the National Review and Weekly Standard to plum positions at the New York Times and Washington Post.

What happened was predictable. Most of the talent was squandered as people had no choice but to make economic decisions that precluded much political activity. On the plus side, we can look back and be grateful that we weren’t corrupted or co-opted, but it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity for the left, especially when you realize that it was replicated all over the country.

The Republicans do not have as much natural talent in the creative fields to begin with, but they certainly don’t waste what they have. You can see this clearly in Jane Mayer’s piece in The New Yorker where she details the activities of the conservative “charity” Turning Point USA.

Much of the article focuses on whether Turning Point has violated the law by engaging in overt partisan political activities, as well as on their former director Crystal Clanton, who really doesn’t like black people. But the heart of the article is really about the massive amount of money that is washing around to recruit and cultivate young conservative talent. Take a look at what we’re up against:

A copy of a Turning Point brochure prepared for potential donors that I obtained provides a glimpse into the group’s tactics. (A former Turning Point employee said the brochure was closely held, and not posted online so that it couldn’t leak.) Its “Campus Victory Project” is described as a detailed, multi-phase plan to “commandeer the top office of Student Body President at each of the most recognizable and influential American Universities.”

Phase 1 calls for victory in the “Power 5” conference schools, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten Conference, the Pacific 12 Conference, the Big 12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference. Phase 2 calls for winning the top student-government slots in every Division 1 N.C.A.A. school, of which it says there are more than three hundred. In the first three years of the plan, the brochure says, the group aims to capture the “outright majority” of student-government positions in eighty per cent of these schools.

Once in control of student governments, the brochure says, Turning Point expects its allied campus leaders to follow a set political agenda. Among its planks are the defunding of progressive organizations on campus, the implementation of “free speech” policies eliminating barriers to hate speech, and the blocking of all campus “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movements. Turning Point’s agenda also calls for the student leaders it empowers to use student resources to host speakers and forums promoting “American Exceptionalism and Free Market ideals on campus.”

Today, Turning Point claims to have a presence on more than a thousand college campuses nationwide, and to have “a stronger, more organized presence than all the left-wing campus groups combined.” Kirk told me his group had started three hundred new chapters in the past year. The Campus Victory Project brochure names more than fifty four-year colleges and universities where it claims the group helped effectuate student government victories in the 2016–17 year, including the University of California, Los Angeles, Syracuse, Purdue, Michigan State, Wake Forest, and the University of Southern California, and it names a hundred and twenty-two more schools whose governments the group hopes to “commandeer” in Phase 2. The brochure notes that completing the task will take money: specifically, $2.2 million.

One election cycle after I left ACORN, it was destroyed by James O’Keefe, who eliminated an organization that mostly dealt with serving the urban poor, particularly on housing issues. O’Keefe is still active with his Project Veritas that was recently in the news for trying to sell a false story about Roy Moore to the Washington Post. Project Veritas is funded by dark money, but Think Progress has identified the Koch Brothers, commodities trader William A. Dunn, and the Donald J. Trump Foundation as major contributors. These right wing billionaires are throwing money around everywhere, demonstrating their ambition and their determination to destroy what little resistance progressives can set in their path.

The left needs to fight back somehow, and if it isn’t going to be done with funding from sympathetic billionaires—it’s going to have to be from an army of small donors. The Washington Monthly isn’t a partisan political organization, but it has served an important function over the years. Here’s a partial list of some of the people who spent time at the Monthly before moving onto bigger platforms in the media world.

Jonathan Alter, Steve BenenNick ConfessoreMatthew Cooper, Michelle Cottle, Kevin Drum, Gregg Easterbrook, Haley Sweetland Edwards, Joshua Green, Charles Homans, David Ignatius, Michael Kinsley, Christina Larson, Nicholas Lemann,  Ezra Klein, Joshua Micah Marshall, Jon Meacham, Timothy Noah, Joseph Nocera, Amy Sullivan, and Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

For the remainder of the year, the impact of any tax-deductible contribution you make to the magazine will be doubled by matching funds from our generous sponsors at the Democracy Fund and the Knight and MacArthur Foundations. Sometimes, if no one else will do something needed, you have to do it yourself. We’ll be most grateful, and happy holidays to you and your families.


Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com