Launching an organization during a time of intense activist engagement can bring on a surge of “business.” But it also requires navigating the idiosyncrasies of a movement, and how it relates to the current infrastructure.
We are now experiencing one of those rushes. Like many other Resistance organizations that sprang up between President Trump’s election and his inauguration, those of us at It Starts Today are looking to channel our expertise towards reorganizing and reinforcing the left.
We’ve each got an ambitious vision. Ours is to use recurring grassroots donations to provide campaign funding for every single Democrat running for congress and, eventually, state legislatures.
We’ve had initial successes. For example, the several hundreds of thousand of dollars our subscribers have committed complements the millions that have also been raised for 2018 congressional nominees by organizations like Swing Left and Daily Kos via ActBlue. And along the way, we’ve all had to grapple with some common challenges. Here’s what we’ve learned about working together in this brave new world.
We need to appreciate the scale of the competition.
With myriad organizations in various stages of development, it’s easy to feel that the Resistance is too scattered. But when compared to the infrastructure that we’re collectively working to oppose, this breadth is a necessity.
It comes down to money. Besides the $300-$400 million the Koch network is pledging to spend in 2018, there’s also the tens of millions of dollars the right already spends on recruitment and the long game every year. The left is keeping up in high-profile federal elections and in gubernatorial fights, but getting soundly outspent in state legislative races.
Coping with and correcting that disparity is the left’s best hope for countering Trump and the institutions that enabled him. We don’t have the concentrated wealth of networks like the Kochs, but we have the tens of millions of progressive activists and donors that have been newly inspired to fight. Viewed in those terms, the variety of new organizational players is a strength that we should leverage, by ensuring each organization has the initial resources to move forward.
We need to engage with and overcome our collective fixations.
Correctly harnessed, our diversity is a powerful weapon. But there’s a real risk of channeling our efforts towards a too-narrow set of conventional paths.
One major problem we face is overcoming the rampant, exclusive fascination with swing districts. The potential rewards are evident. Theoretically, these are the most contentious races and, therefore, the most critical places to “make a difference.”
But these handful of key races already receive the lion’s share of attention and resources, to the detriment of broader progressive success. At our firm, we’ve identified hundreds of congressional races in which the Democrats failed to field or fund a real candidate in 2016, including more than 40 districts in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina. These are states where a little more attention to, and funding for down-ballot races might have helped stop Trump’s election.
Moreover, looking beyond federal elections presents an even more dismal picture. Other organizations have their own areas of expertise, which makes them uniquely qualified to identify other such blind spots in the party’s approach to the past several electoral cycles.
If we’re going to be an effective movement, we need to be expanding into new areas, not just inventing new ways to fund and fight the same old strategy. Moving beyond the traditionally battlegrounds and approaches is a challenge, but one than we have never been better positioned to embrace.
We need to take a broader view of “success.”
In trying to move forward, we run up against an understandable emotional response: the sense that limited resources dictate that unless our efforts are being channeled to the most tangible result, then our efforts are being wasted. It’s a view that has undermined progressive politics for too long, and we need to break ourselves out of it.
The boom of interest in grassroots activism, coupled with the boom of grassroots fundraising during the past election cycle, shows that modern progressive campaign finance isn’t a zero-sum game.
We can continue to fight in the swing districts while also channeling efforts and resources into new ideas, neglected races, and abandoned people. Now, not every one of these initiatives will bear immediate or obvious results. But if we redefine the game from “how many seats does the party pick up in 2018?” to “how much stronger can we make the political left during the next several elections?” there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.
Jonathan Zucker, founder of It Starts Today is a progressive campaign finance attorney and poli-tech entrepreneur whose past projects include if.then.fund, Ruck.us, Crowdpac and Democracy Engine. He was also the first COO and second CEO of ActBlue and served as the national director of operations for finance at the DNC in the 2004 cycle.