The crushing defeat suffered by Democrats and their presidential candidate last year inspired many party loyalists to reconsider their political strategy and their funding priorities. It was a healthy, if overdue sign, and some hopeful new work has commenced. But despite the needed questioning of business as usual, there's little evidence of any widespread shift away from the failed paradigms that have dominated liberal activism for many years.
In one encouraging development, progressives who realize the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been advancing corporate ideology and lawmaking at the state level effectively for 32 years are working to counter it. The new Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN) will develop and spread model progressive legislation and build a communication network among progressive state officials.
ALEC was one of many corporate-funded think tanks initiated in the early 1970s -- a flurry many attributed to the influential Powell Memo, a call to arms by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. He called upon business leaders not to replace Democrats with Republicans, but to focus on systemic change to strengthen corporate power via "careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years."
Powell emphasized the importance of the judicial branch and called on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to intervene in court cases with legal briefs and PR campaigns to balance the influence of liberal groups like the ACLU.
Powell, who died in 1998, would have been thrilled to hear the ACLU's arguments in the 2003 Nike v. Kasky Supreme Court battle. Rather than oppose expansion of corporate dominance, the ACLU argued for Nike, right alongside the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, stating the corporation should enjoy a constitutional right to lie in its public relations material (the Court dismissed the case without a substantive ruling, leading to an out-of-court settlement).
While PLAN is a positive development in the realm of state legislation, I see little overall change coming from the big-money players in progressive politics (and no, "reframing" the same messages is not substantive change). Indeed, fresh thinking seems less common than acting out Benjamin Franklin's definition of insanity, "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
A typical recent bulletin from MoveOn proclaimed: "starting now, we're going to be a lot more focused on getting rid of the radical Republicans in the 2006 elections." They added, they need $200,000 within the week to succeed. Glad to see they'll finally put a little energy into electoral politics.
Their prior missive was to buy ads to stop the nomination of John Roberts. Before that was a call for donors to pitch in $250,000 that would again promptly be transferred not to grassroots activists, but to transnational media conglomerates in order to run "fire Tom Delay" ads.
My purpose isn't to pick on MoveOn (though their constant stream of reactive mobilizations are the enemy of the focused organizing work we need), but to illuminate the absence of movement-building strategy among the well-funded progressive organizations.
A handful of visionary organizations tackle the root issue of government of, by, and for corporations and the very rich. Grassroots organizations like ReclaimDemocracy.org, and Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, along with regional groups like Democracy Unlimited in Eureka, CA, and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Pennsylvania, have worked for years to shift people's energy from damage control to taking the offensive against corporate dominance.
Both ReclaimDemocracy.org and Democracy Unlimited, for example, are advancing campaigns to strip corporations of the power to corrupt ballot initiatives with corporate cash. While starting with local and state-level campaigns, their sights are clearly set on overturning the court-created fiction of "corporate free speech" that overwhelms citizens' ability to govern.
So what's are the obstacles to building this movement? At the top of the list is money.
Of the four groups mentioned, the three I got budget information from reported combined anticipated income for 2005 of about $150,000 -- less than MoveOn often expects to raise for its crisis of the week.
Foundations, including those purporting to fund systemic change, largely have ignored repeated funding proposals from such groups. Browsing the web pages of many of those foundations reveals their funding goes almost entirely to one-time grants for individual projects -- the polar opposite of systemic change.
I'm both encouraged that these organizations could have made major impacts with so little money and angered they had to scrape by without funds to build a solid infrastructure. It seems progressives need to heed the advice of our progressive counterparts to Powell: worry less about replacing Republicans with Democrats, and instead focus on structural change.
Someday we too can enjoy "no lose" elections like corporate interests had with Kerry vs. Bush.
In the meantime, all of us have a choice to make with our own contributions of time or money that can lead the way to change. One great success of MoveOn is proving that average citizens can collectively raise funds that, if properly channeled, could change the future of our country.
Now we all must choose. Will we continue to give our money to damage control and fighting one crisis after another or will we fund those groups capable of shifting the balance of power from corporate elites back to we, the people?
Jeff Frant is a retired attorney in Boulder, CO. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.