The Democrats’ Progressive Organization Problem
They’re an Albatross Around the Party’s Neck
The secret is out. Progressive organizations—nonprofits and advocacy groups—which form a vital part of the Democrats’ supportive ecosystem have become massively dysfunctional due to internal meltdowns, mission creep and maximalist goal-setting. For those close to this world, this has been apparent for some time though there has been reluctance to call it out for fear of helping the right (the Fox News Fallacy) and/or being ostracized by their own side. But with the publication of Ryan Grim’s exposé on The Intercept and Zack Colman’s Politico piece focusing on green organizations, the rot is out there for all to see.
There are three key aspects to this rot:
1. Internal Dysfunction. The new generation of activists coming into these organizations tends to see internal hierarchies as reflecting their radical critique of society as a whole as a system that oppresses all “marginalized” groups: black, Hispanic, anybody nonwhite, female, gay, trans, indigenous, colonized, etc. Therefore, these internal hierarchies are by definition unjust and must be struggled against with little regard to what function these hierarchies might actually serve.
Needless to say, this plays havoc with an organization’s ability to run a merit- and efficiency-based internal system, since so many “diversity” boxes have to be checked to do practically anything. And the need to placate staff demands and smooth over the endless conflicts this produces leads to a stunning misallocation of time and internal resources. The resulting inefficiencies can virtually paralyze an organization. Said one former executive director of a progressive organization quoted by Grim: “My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife”. Said another current executive director: “I’m now at a point where the first thing I wonder about a job applicant is, ‘How likely is this person to blow up my organization from the inside?”
2. Mission Creep. If society is an intersectional nightmare of different vectors of oppression, mirrored in the internal hierarchies of one’s organization, what sense does it make to concentrate on whatever narrow issue or set of issues that organization was originally set up to deal with? For activist staff in these organizations, it makes no sense. All these oppressions and problems are interlinked; to attack one it is necessary to attack them all. This is how you get, on the cusp of the Supreme Court abrogating Roe v. Wade, the main abortion rights organization, NARAL insisting:
If your feminism doesn't include trans women and girls, it’s not feminism. If your feminism doesn’t understand how anti-trans policies disproportionately impact BIPOC folks, particularly Black trans women and girls, it’s not feminism.
The connection of this declaration to the immediate task of defending abortion rights is, to say the least, unclear. Or how about the Sierra Club, the venerable environmentalist organization, deciding to back slavery reparations for black Americans and broadening its environmental remit to the:
…environmental health of all communities, especially those communities that continue to endure deep trauma resulting from a legacy of colonialism, genocide, land theft, enslavement, racial terror, racial capitalism, structural discrimination, and exclusion.
Perhaps they left out something here from the intersectional rogues’ gallery but I’m not sure what it is.
The problems with this bundling of all progressive issues with any one progressive issue are, or should be, obvious. You are by definition raising the bar for taking action on a given issue since, apparently, someone has to agree with a vast litany of other progressive positions to join the righteous cause in any particular area. Want to defend abortion rights? Well, what’s your view on trans issues? Want to defend the environment? Well, that means joining the fight against racial capitalism. From the standpoint of building broad popular support, this approach is a clear loser. As a former staffer for another environmental organization, Earthjustice, put it: “For the most part, people funding Earthjustice signed up to protect the polar bears, not defund the police.”
3. Maximalist Positions and Rhetoric. Twinned to the bundling together of all progressive positions, there is also a tendency to make demands in any given area more radical. Activist staff who are primarily concerned with pushing radical reforms into the policy conversation (moving the “Overton Window”) advocate for these positions and frequently, as with the adoption of unrelated progressive positions, institutional leadership will go along with staff to prove their progressive bona fides and head off internal rebellion.
Thus abortion rights organizations are unwilling to consider any limits on abortion availability. Immigrant advocacy organizations don’t want to talk about border security or any limits on immigration. Climate groups want a Green New Deal and insist on an immediate transition away from fossil fuels, despite the obvious impracticality of such a path. Criminal justice reform groups want maximum decriminalization and decarceration without consideration for public safety and social order. You name the area and the tendency of groups ostensibly focused on the area has been to make positions and rhetoric more absolute and less compromising with political/policy reality. The result is an inability to formulate effective political strategy and achieve lasting reform.
It would be bad enough if the damage here was limited to the progressive organizations themselves. Good and important work has been done by them in the past and now these organizations are much less capable of doing such work.
But the damage goes far beyond that. The Democratic party has long benefited from the ability of these groups to mobilize support around specific and attainable goals. That role has now been compromised, if not turned into its opposite, and undermined Democrats’ ability to govern effectively.
Even more fundamentally, the evolution of these groups is contributing to the Democrats’ inability to form a stable electoral majority. The Democrats may no longer be helped much by these groups’ activities but they are bound ever more tightly to them due to the groups’ ideological evolution. With their totalizing embrace of progressive positions and cultural obsessions, they are unmistakably partisan groups of the Democratic party left, not big tent issue advocates as they once sought to style themselves. That means Democrats are inevitably and closely associated with these groups’ public-facing activities and rhetoric—and given the state of these groups today that’s a very bad thing for the Democrats.
Moreover, to the extent Democratic politicians want to move in a more moderate direction and get closer to the sweet spot of American public opinion, progressive organizations, as currently constituted stand in the way. From cracking down on criminals and putting public safety first and foremost to securing the border and containing illegal immigration to pursuing a clean energy transition that includes an “all of the above” approach to meeting America’s current energy needs to keeping abortion safe, legal and rare but accepting some restrictions, particularly past the first trimester, progressive organizations persistently pressure Democratic politicians not to move in these directions that are clearly called for by public opinion and common sense.
A party that is serious about winning would be wise to start ignoring these organizations and concentrate on what is really important: connecting to the values and concerns of the broad majority of the American electorate. No doubt they’d get some flak from these organizations for doing so. But I suspect the trade-off in support where it really counts--among actual voters--would be very much worth it.