How to Build a Winning Progressive Infrastructure

(Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP)

People attend the opening of the "We the People" exhibit hosted by Wieden Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, on February 2, 2017. The exhibit features protest signs from recent social justice marches.

When you’re in the midst of multiple constitutional crises, it’s hard to focus on the future. But without that focus on the part of progressives and liberals, the fate of the republic looks bleak.

Donald Trump may not have been the dream candidate of right-wing leaders, but in the end, they deemed him close enough. For that, they’re being richly rewarded. In the course of a week, the religious right has gotten nearly everything its leaders ever longed for, short of overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. But they seem confident, given the president’s pick of Neil Gorsuch to the high court bench, that it’s just a matter of time—four, maybe eight, years before that aim is achieved.

The people around Trump know that the reality star’s ascent to the highest office in the land could not have happened without the political infrastructure built by the right over the course of the last 40 years. The Tea Party movement was subsumed and partly driven by Americans for Prosperity, a ground-organizing operation funded by the Koch brothers. The churches of the religious right have been networked for years by right-wing leaders to effect significant voter-turnout efforts. These two strains of the right enjoy significant overlap.

Much discussion is now taking place in liberal and progressive circles about the need for a liberal/progressive infrastructure that’s comparable in strength to the that of the right. You’ll get no argument from me there. But when I hear people enthusiastically cheering models that simply replicate those on the right, I see a flow of donor cash going to efforts that will ultimately fail, while progressive media starve and the work of existing grassroots organizations are never leveraged at the national level.

Our people are not their people. Our movement is a coalition of many parts—different kinds of people with a range of concerns and policy priorities. You cannot create a structure built on that of the right’s and expect progressives to sign up for whatever you’ve built. We don’t roll like that.

What we need is a structure based on needs identified by real activists, not people who barely venture outside the Beltway, or people who want to build “a Breitbart of the left.” And we need spaces—physical spaces.

I’m no expert on political strategy, but I have spent much of my career reporting on the right as it built its infrastructure. While the shape of the right’s political infrastructure is not amenable to the needs of the left, one important characteristic of right-wing infrastructure that is transportable—and necessary—to liberal and progressive organizing is that of interlocking parts. Look at the Koch network: Its parts are entirely interlocking—the get-out-the-vote groups, the think tanks, the events. For progressives, “interlocking” might yield to something less rigid, given the nature of the base. We need physical spaces designed to encourage cross-pollination between the constituencies of the left. To achieve that, the kind of donor cash that flooded certain election-based efforts could, when redirected at building progressive spaces in the cities where they’re needed, help locally based organizations amp up their efforts while encouraging interaction and collaboration between the various constituencies that form the progressive coalition.

If donors would fund strategically placed facilities for use by progressive groups—facilities that included meeting and event spaces, and were each staffed with a full-time manager and scheduler, you might greatly increase collaborative work among various groups. With collaboration, creativity is catalyzed. And right now, we need all the creativity we can muster.

In an interview with Michael Tomasky in Democracy, Theda Skocpol, a scholar of right-wing movements, introduces a promising idea that could be turbo-charged through the use of shared spaces. Working from the “sister city” model used in the 1980s to establish partnerships with the besieged towns of Latin America, she suggests forming partnerships with the progressive elements of cities in “purple” states—those that have populations that are a mix of left and right, but that went red in the 2016 Electoral College vote.

I’d like to add a thought to that idea for donors looking to invest in something innovative. It won’t be cheap, but if it worked, it would be awesome. Why not seed some of those purple-state cities with progressive young people by creating incentives for them to move there? Silicon Valley is reportedly finding itself frightened by Trump. Maybe they could plunk down some offshoot of their businesses in these places and attract talent, but do so with a plan for integrating into the surrounding community. Yes, there’s a gentrification risk. But for some of these cities, there’s also a death risk in allowing things to drift as they are.

The left doesn’t need its own version of Breitbart News. It has no shortage of pugilistic political websites that present the news through a progressive lens. It doesn’t need another organization focused solely on the election cycle. What the hundreds of thousands of engaged progressives throughout America really need are ways to connect and incubate place-based communities. An influx of cash to build a structure that will support and encourage community would be extraordinarily helpful in this moment of great consequence.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for the money. As shown by the success of the Women’s March, progressives know how to marshal scarce resources to launch an opposition. It’s time for an epic barn-raising. 

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