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It’s the season of movements, manifestos and new ways forward for the Democrats. Many of these calls to action revolve around digital. Take Win the Future, an initiative put forward by Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman to, well, help the DNC by “digitizing democracy.” Apparently that involves buying billboards in D.C., and a few other bizarre schemes.
Many practitioners see Win the Future, or hashtag WTF for short, as a bad idea. But distressingly, it’s a bad idea consistent with much of the thinking among Democratic leaders and big donors. The truth is until Democrats learn to laugh initiatives like WTF out of the room, they won’t be able to wage an effective fight against the Republicans’ focused, long-term, lockstep counterinsurgency.
To see how deep this problem goes, let’s compare the official Resistance Summer movement to the right’s infrastructure. Resistance Summer is supposed to be the DNC’s millennial-powered counterpunch to the devastating blow of President Trump’s election. But in practice it’s a recruitment drive for a few “fellows” (interns) per state party with the expansive goal of “registering scores of new Democratic voters.” There’s no guarantee of a salary (unless you count covering travel expenses) or any public strategy to keep this handful of new organizers involved in future activism.
This initiative is going up against a constellation of conservative organizations that are spending orders of magnitude more money and which are focused on grooming and retaining talent. The Koch brothers’ youth engagement arm alone includes the Grassroots Leadership Academy, which to date has trained more than 10,000 young conservatives how to organize.
There’s also the Young America’s Foundation, which finances conservative speakers on college campuses, dispenses “conservative swag” like posters of Ronald Reagan, and elevates program alumni like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump advisor Stephen Miller. Moreover, there’s also a vast network of generously funded institutes on college campuses specifically designed to “pull students into paid internships at Koch-funded advocacy groups, teaching them Koch’s preferences along the way.”
Maybe it’s unfair to compare one nascent effort to a flotilla of well-established right-wing counter operations, but that’s exactly the point. Conservatives have spent decades building up a massive network of which youth engagement is one tiny part. Liberals haven’t, and there are consequences for that.
Consider the other parts of this ecosystem, which “spew out studies and prepare op-eds and legislative testimony.” Think tanks like the State Policy Network promote bills dreamed up by Republican consortia like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Most important, they work on the scale of decades, not summers. To wit, ALEC and the Heritage Foundation were both established in 1973 and didn’t bear fruit until the Reagan administration.
These conservative foundations’ underwriters stay patient because their methods work, something their liberal counterparts can’t or won’t recognize. While Republican donors have gotten used to spending hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle on initiatives that might not pay off right away, Democratic attempts to do the same, like the State Innovation Exchange, are chronically underfunded.
That failure has cost the Democrats almost a thousand state legislative seats since 2008 — nearly enough state governments to rewrite the Constitution — and produced an organizing base so anemic it can’t effectively fight back against ALEC-written, Americans for Prosperity–advocated policy.
Perpetuating this problem is a Democratic donor class who bounce from one idea to the next in search of a silver bullet that will allow the Democrats to, as they did in the 1960s, “win in ‘one fell swoop.’” Those priorities nurture an environment of half-baked and underfunded initiatives whose goal is first to attract the donors they need to survive and second to actually do something.
This vicious cycle has cost the Democrats their ability to sustain a grassroots movement. It obliterated Obama for America, which came out of the 2008 elections with an 800,000-person strong grassroots army determined to stay engaged. But once that was folded into the DNC, its innovative tools were used to “hawk coffee mugs.” According to South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, OFA became just another organization “recruiting the same volunteers [as the DNC], using resources from a very limited number of donors.”
Now, WTF is the perfect avatar of all these deep-seated issues and shortsighted calculations. It’s the ultimate donor pet project, using millions of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. Truly effective political technology uses a new medium as a tool in a larger kit, not as its sole instrument.
Ben Resnik is a Democratic political technology entrepreneur and advocate who works and writes on issues of political access and equality. His current project is the anti-Trump donation platform It Starts Today, and you can find him on Twitter at @benresnik.