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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Friday, August 27, 2004


Venture-capital democracy

posted by Aziz P. at Friday, August 27, 2004 permalink View blog reactions
This landmark piece in the New York Times documents the rise of the "venture-capital" political movement on the left. There's something thrilling about the way that the complete One Party domination of the Republicans - leading to worship of party before principle - has been the impetus for a new breed of politics to rise on the Left, a new emergent infrastructure that has very little to do with the Democratic Party. It's nearly impossible to excerpt an 11-page story, but there are some important points I want to make.

The first point is recognizing what democracy in America is truly up against - a vast, right wing conspiracy of money and "vertical integration" of conservative think tanks and mainstream media outlets, that is funded to the tune of 300 million dollars a year. The story is best told by - of all things - a Powerpoint presentation:

Last summer, he got a call from Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a fund-raising and advocacy group in Washington. Would Rappaport mind sitting down for a confidential meeting with a veteran Democratic operative named Rob Stein? Sure, Rappaport replied. What Stein showed him when they met was a PowerPoint presentation that laid out step by step, in a series of diagrams a ninth-grader could understand, how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a ''message machine'' that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda.

Rappaport was blown away by the half-hour-long presentation. ''Man,'' he said, ''that's all it took to buy the country?''

Stein and Rosenberg weren't asking Rappaport for money -- at least not yet. They wanted Democrats to know what they were up against, and they wanted them to stop thinking about politics only as a succession of elections. If Democrats were going to survive, Stein and Rosenberg explained, men like Rappaport were going to have to start making long-term investments in their political ideas, just as they did in their business ventures. The era of the all-powerful party was coming to an end, and political innovation, like technological innovation, would come from private-sector pioneers who were willing to take risks.

Here's some more detail on this presentation, from later in the article (the author sat down with Rob Stein personally) :

The presentation itself, a collection of about 40 slides titled ''The Conservative Message Machine's Money Matrix,'' essentially makes the case that a handful of families -- Scaife, Bradley, Olin, Coors and others -- laid the foundation for a $300 million network of policy centers, advocacy groups and media outlets that now wield great influence over the national agenda. The network, as Stein diagrams it, includes scores of powerful organizations -- most of them with bland names like the State Policy Network and the Leadership Institute -- that he says train young leaders and lawmakers and promote policy ideas on the national and local level. These groups are, in turn, linked to a massive message apparatus, into which Stein lumps everything from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to Pat Robertson's ''700 Club.'' And all of this, he contends, is underwritten by some 200 ''anchor donors.'' ''This is perhaps the most potent, independent institutionalized apparatus ever assembled in a democracy to promote one belief system,'' he said.

The inevitable response from conservatives is that George Soros is doing the "same thing" - and they imply worse. But is it? The article goes on to analyze the relative resources being committed by Soros with a simple example:

By the time this election year ends, George Soros will have contributed more than $13 million to the independent political groups known as 527's. (The term is shorthand for the section of the tax code that makes them legal.) For this reason, Republicans insist that the 74-year-old Soros, who may become the largest single political contributor in history, has resolved to buy the Democratic Party.

This is, on its face, a little silly. To put things in perspective, $13 million is a fraction of what it takes to run a serious modern presidential campaign, let alone control a party. And Soros, who made his fortune as an international investor, is worth an estimated $7 billion; his foundation alone gives away some $450 million every year. In other words, if George Soros really felt like buying the party, you would know it. For Soros, spending $13 million on a campaign is like you or me buying 100 boxes of Thin Mints from the Girl Scout next door.

The real significance of Soros's involvement in politics has little to do with the dollar amount of his contributions. What will stand out as important, when we look back decades from now at the 2004 campaign, will be the political model he created for everyone else. Until this year, Democratic contributors operated on the party-machine model: they were trained to write checks only to the party and its candidates, who decided how to spend the money. But by helping to establish a series of separate organizations and by publicly announcing that he was on a personal mission to unseat Bush, Soros signaled to other wealthy liberals that the days of deferring to the party were over. He became what the financial world would call the angel investor for an entirely new kind of progressive venture.

That last part is key - that the point is to create a network of angel investors, who fund ideas. This doesn't require a cabal of wealthy investors, it can be done via a coalition of smaller ones - for example, the Dean campaign. The author interviewed Dean himself:

''If John Kerry loses, we're going to have a real fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, which began in my campaign,'' Howard Dean told me. His new political action committee, Democracy for America, is giving money to liberal candidates in states where Democrats are edging toward extinction. ''And whether the progressives win or not,'' Dean said, ''will determine whether the Democratic Party has a future in America.''
implicit in Dean's prediction are two possible outcomes worth considering, if only because they lend themselves to historical precedent. The first is that the new class of Democratic investors could conceivably end up skewing the party ideologically for years to come. A lot of the political venture capitalists were strong supporters of Dean in the primaries, in the fervent belief that his campaign -- which became, in effect, a classic liberal crusade, in the Jerry Brown mold, only with more money -- was leading the party back in the right direction. Although several donors described themselves to me as ''pragmatic'' in their worldview, the moderate Kerry seemed to elicit in them all the passion of an insurance actuary (Soros labeled him ''acceptable''), and they manifested a pointed distaste for Clintonism as a political philosophy. The way they look at it, centrist Democrats spent a decade appeasing Republicans while the right solidified its occupation of American government.
The second potential outcome to which Dean alludes -- that the Democratic Party, per se, might not always exist in America -- might sound, coming from Dean, characteristically overwrought. But it does raise a significant question about the political venture capitalists: what if, in the future, they decided not to support Democrats at all? Suppose there came along an independent candidate, free from the baggage of Democratic Party politics, who espoused with conviction the kind of agenda that donors of the Phoenix Group or America Coming Together really wanted to hear? The forbidding barrier to independent candidates has always been money. But the 527's aren't tied to a party; they can provide unlimited amounts of money to support any cause they want, provided they adhere to certain legal technicalities.

And that's the key to reclaiming our democracy. The thing that Dean demonstrated was that the money is there - and it doesnt need angel investors either. Rappaport and Soros and the other venture activists are themselves as non-essential as the Democratic party itself. The point is that with the passage of MCain Feingold, the patries are restricted in a way that allows other groups to thrive - and gives them incentives to cooperate. These new alliances can lead to coalitions of the many - and as Dean showed us, the needs of the many overwhelm the greed of the few.

There's a lot more to say on this topic, but the entire article is deep food for thought and deeply relevant to my review of Joe Trippi's book, The Revolution will Not Be Televised" which I expect to complete in a few weeks. I will try to tie these threads together in a more coherent fashion later.. but for now, read the whole Times article, and reflect on just what is happenning here. Not just for 2004, but for well beyond.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.