Inside Philanthropy: Beyond Trump: A Call to Action for Progressive Donors
By Leah Hunt-Hendrix
Inside Philanthropy – August 26, 2020
There is a lot of work to be done to ensure that, three months from now, we are inaugurating Joe Biden as president. Even then, the work will not be finished. On the contrary, holding Democrats accountable for truly addressing the challenges society faces will take on new importance as the party moves into governance.
Recently, the donor collaborative that I co-founded, Way to Win, published a report outlining a theory of governance for 2021 and beyond. Co-written with Max Berger, and based on interviews with a range of organizers and movement leaders, we argue that it is not enough to elect Democrats. We also need to build an ecosystem of independent organizations, rooted in the communities most impacted by injustice, that can push the party to be the best version of itself. This will entail ongoing fights within the Democratic Party, but we should not shirk from these—they are a natural part of the process of governance. We must always remember the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s request to like-minded reformers: “Make me do it.”
Transformation in Political Parties
In “Beyond Trump,” we demonstrate that for the past 50 years, conservatives have been loyal to an agenda of expansive corporate power, limited government and white supremacy. They have been willing to fight other Republicans for the sake of these principles. To further that agenda, conservatives built an array of outside organizations—the John Birch Society of the 1970s (where my uncle was a major funder and participant), Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA organization, the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, and the Koch’s network, including Americans for Prosperity. Conservative donors pulled the Republican Party toward their agenda, helping to shift the entire nation’s intellectual landscape, and Democrats went with them.
Meanwhile, Democratic donors have mistakenly believed that winning seats for the Democratic Party is the goal, rather than understanding that the party is a vehicle within which a contest for ideas takes place.
Over these past decades, Democrats should have been making the case that it is the government’s role to respond to crises like climate change and pandemics, rather than relying on the market. They should have been making the case that corporate monopolies hurt our economy, and that mass incarceration is truly the new Jim Crow.
But instead of engaging in these deeper debates, many Democratic operatives and donors have focused on short-term wins, allowing the ground beneath their feet to shift to the right. They have supported candidates who they think can win a narrow slice of the electorate, rather than candidates who will appeal to an emerging electorate. For example, Democratic leadership has continued to promote anti-choice and pro-business candidates, and then wonder why they are still fighting to protect the right of reproductive freedoms, even in “blue” states like Colorado, where a conservative ballot measure on the topic is currently gaining steam.
The Role of Democratic Donors
Democratic donors have tended to dislike intra-party fights. They see them as a messy waste of time. But this stance misses the fact that within our two-party system, internal contests are the way we determine the character, culture and platform of our parties.
The party today is still caught in a question of progress or nostalgia. The progressive wing sees the election of Trump as a symptom of enduring failures, such as wealth inequality and systemic violence against Black and brown communities, against the backdrop of devastating climate change. If we gain power in 2020, Democrats must work to solve these deeply rooted problems or run the risk of facing a swing in the 2022 midterms and a President Tom Cotton in 2024.
Democrats should embrace extra-party efforts from the left that encourage the potential Biden administration to be bold about structural reforms, as the Sunrise Movement has with the Green New Deal, and the Movement for Black Lives has with the Breathe Act.
Primary contests, presidential and down-ballot, are an important part of this process. Because of a robust presidential primary, Biden created unity teams that have made great strides with his climate and care plans. When the new Congress convenes in 2020, it will be occupied by primary challengers like Cori Bush, Marie Newman, Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones and many other new representatives of a bolder political vision. This new Congress will be buoyed by the wave of progressives who are taking state and local power, creating more opportunities to incubate progressive policy to export federally.
A Call to Action
Our guidance for progressive donors, therefore, is that—as we fight to defeat Trump and elect Biden—we also need to keep engaging in debates about a vision for our common future. This involves ongoing funding of political organizing through 2021, and a willingness to challenge Democratic leadership when necessary.
We need to win these elections, and we also must support continued base-building and grassroots organizing among communities that are not represented by current party leadership. We should fund social movements that are transforming what is politically possible, think tanks that are creating bold policy ideas, and organizations that support progressive elected officials as they seek to govern. This requires constant funding from both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) donors year round—not funding that is simply tied to one election cycle or partisan organization.
This work will need to continue throughout Biden’s term. It is uncomfortable when it puts you across the table from those with formal political power. But it is necessary, because it is the only way we will truly create the liberty and justice to which our nation should aspire.
Leah Hunt-Hendrix is an organizer and co-founder of Solidaire and Way to Win.