As we stumble toward another existential election, panic is setting in among some progressive groups because the donors who buoyed them throughout the Trump years are disengaging. “Donations to progressive organizations are way down in 2023 across the board,” said a recent memo from Billy Wimsatt, executive director of the Movement Voter Project, an organization founded in 2016 that channels funds to community organizers, mostly in swing states, who engage and galvanize voters. He added, “Groups need money to make sure we have a good outcome next November. But. People. Are. Not. Donating.”
As both big and small donors pull back, there have been layoffs across the progressive ecosystem, from behemoths like the Sierra Club to insurgent outfits like Justice Democrats, the group that first recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to challenge the Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018. According to a July analysis by Middle Seat, a Democratic strategy and consulting firm, in the first half of this year, grass-roots donations to Democratic House and Senate campaigns were down almost 50 percent compared to the same point in 2021. Wimsatt, who had to lay off 15 people from a 55-person staff in June, told me, “I haven’t experienced a situation like this before when there’s been such a sense of scarcity.”
This isn’t just about political operatives losing their jobs: It means that organizations that should be building up their turnout operations for next year are instead having to downsize. And it speaks to a mood of liberal apathy and disenchantment that Democrats can’t afford ahead of another grueling election. “To the degree that there isn’t enough organic enthusiasm, we have to generate it,” Wimsatt said. That’s hard to do when you’re broke.
It was probably inevitable that left-leaning fund-raising would fall once the immediate crisis of Donald Trump’s presidency ended. Activism, like electoral politics, is often thermostatic: There’s more energy on the right when Democrats are in power, and more on the left during Republican administrations. After a pandemic, an insurrection, and innumerable climate disasters and mass shootings, people are burned out and maybe even, as Ana Marie Cox argues in the New Republic, traumatized, a state that can lead to hypervigilance but also avoidance. And, of course, there’s inflation, a big part of the reason that charitable giving is down overall.
Yet if liberal lassitude is understandable, it’s also alarming, because we’re going to have to fend off Trump once again. And even if some of the pullback is cyclical, some seems to be rooted in a more enduring malaise. “There was a huge amount of additional grass- roots funding in the Trump era, because people were so scared,” said Max Berger, the co-founder of progressive groups such as If Not Now and the Momentum Training Institute. “And I feel like we’re at the end of the wave of what people are willing to do out of sheer terror. So now, if we’re going to keep that level of momentum, we need something more positive.”
One small, characteristic piece of this problem — and perhaps the easiest part to solve — involves the way Democrats use email. If you’re on any progressive mailing lists, you surely know what I’m talking about: the endless appeals, sometimes in bold all caps, warning of imminent Democratic implosion. (Recent subject lines in my inbox include, “We can kiss our Senate majority goodbye” and “This is not looking good.”)
In the short term, these emails are effective, which is why campaigns use them. Over time, they encourage a mix of cynicism and helplessness — precisely the feelings leading too many people to withdraw from political involvement. “We and others in the field have argued that, long term, it’s disastrous, because you don’t build a trusting base,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party when I asked him about these hair-on-fire missives.
But this is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that, right now, progressive politics are necessarily organized around preventing imminent catastrophe rather than offering up a vision of a transformed world. Joe Biden has an impressive legislative record, but because of the counter-majoritarian roadblocks in our system, the case for his re-election is largely about staving off disaster rather than the promise of new accomplishments. “It’s really hard to get people to give money when you do not have a coherent theory of change,” said Berger.
Where there is a prospect of real change, progressives are still getting mobilized. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, “there was a resurgence of both activist energy and donor energy,” said Tory Gavito, the president of Way to Win, a network of progressive donors channeling money to pro-democracy grass-roots groups. “And those things are often correlated.” As she pointed out, Janet Protasiewicz raised “more money than God” in her race for a pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court seat. In Ohio, organizers fought off a sneaky statewide ballot measure meant to kneecap a campaign to protect reproductive rights. (Planned Parenthood has recently laid people off, but the organization insists this was because of restructuring rather than a fund-raising shortfall.)
As the prospect of Trump redux moves from looming horror to daily emergency, Gavito expects people to throw themselves into politics once again. “I have faith in the anti-MAGA coalition, that we will not go back,” she said. I hope she’s right, and democratic forces can rouse themselves one more time. It’s a depressing paradox: We need politics that are about more than just the miserable business of stopping Trump, but unless Trump is stopped, we’re not going to get them.
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