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May 04, 2005

Why Progressives are Divided

Progressives regularly bemoan the division of left politics into factions and single issue organizations, even as we face a coordinated political apparatus from the rightwing.

Some attribute this to chronic ideological divisions on the left, but I think that's wrong. I've spent two decades working across the progressive movement, from being an environmental activists to being a union organizer to raising funds for pro-choice groups and my experience is that most progressive people agree with each other far more often than not. Sure, there are specific issues where people may disagree, but these are hardly so large as to explain the chronic inability of the left to mount a coordinated popular campaign against the rightwing.

So what's the problem?

This New York Times article a week ago on why even progressive foundations and charities don't support economically populist initiatives like a high estate tax is a clue.

Despite the fact that charities stand to lose over $10 billion per year from cuts in the estate tax, foundation leaders have opposed any coordinated opposition to this giveaway to the wealthy. Why?

No one wants to alienate the wealthy donors and board members who would benefit from a repeal.

"It's not difficult to see why organizations are keeping quiet about this potential estate tax cut," said James S. Tisch, president and chief executive of the Loews Corporation and a major donor to Jewish and other causes. "It's because they don't want to make their donors irate. You only have to make one or two irate to have a real problem."

And the same foundations refusing to fight the estate tax repeal are the ones that fund many progressive non-profits.

This creates an inherent restraint on most progressive organizations. They are funded by foundations either funded directly by wealthy people or with those types of folks on their boards. Now, these rich progressive funders may be liberal on some issue -- the death penalty, childrens issues, abortion rights or whatever -- but they don't want a broad-based movement that would threaten their wealth.

So the best way not to alienate potential funders is for progressive organizations to keep a narrow mission and talk about as few issues as possible. That way they can attract the ideosyncratic wealthy funders interested in that one issue, while not alienating them with broader politics.

The important thing to understand is that this narrow politics does not derive from broad-based divisions among progressive voters but from the ideosyncratic politics of wealthy progressive funders.

Which makes the Deaniac and MoveOn style sources of direct fundraising from regular progressives extremely hopeful. Whether it can overcome the structural divisions reflected in current progressive nonprofits is an open question, but when people bemoan the narrowness of nonprofit advocacy, keep in mind where it comes from.

Posted by Nathan at May 4, 2005 08:25 AM