Donors, The Hollow Parties, Distance, And Democracy

Daniel Schlozman’s and Sam Rosenfeld’s new book tells how wealthy givers, on both the left and the right, have played a part in weakening political parties, and thus also politics and policymaking, in America.

America’s contemporary political parties “are hollow parties,” political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld pronounce in their new The Hollow Parties: The Many Pasts and Disordered Present of American Party Politics. They are “[h]ard shells, marked with the scars of interparty electoral conflict.” They “cover disordered cores, devoid of concerted action and positive loyalties.”

Elite, wealthy donors have played a prominent role in creating and worsening this hollowness, according to Schlozman and Rosenfeld. “Organizationally top-heavy and poorly rooted, the parties are dominated by satellite groups” supported by these rich givers.

The parties should be “vigorously and civically rooted” and “link the governed with their government while schooling citizens in the unending give-and-take of political engagement,” Schlozman and Rosenfeld believe. Parties should be “negotiating priorities among competing interests” and rendering politics “into ordered conflict.” Instead, “Nobody, whether in the formal parties themselves or in the proliferating groups that swirl around them, has effectively brought political elites and the mass public together in positive common purpose,” they write.

Schlozman is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of 2015’s When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History. Rosenfeld is an associate professor at Colgate University and author of 2017’s The Polarizers: Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.

They convincingly argue in The Hollow Parties that the satellite, “paraparty” groups amorphously swirling around both parties—in what they call “the party blobs,” many of them nonprofits supported by grants and donations—make it harder for the actual parties to properly order politics. The very political system, our democracy, suffers. For this, makers of the swirling-group grants should generally be held to some account.

Schlozman and Rosenfeld further contend that the “two major parties now manifest hollowness asymmetrically, reflecting different pathologies in their approach to power—put bluntly, Democratic ineffectuality on one hand and Republican extremism on the other.” If assessing the culpability of funders, categorized by left and right, for anti-democratic (small “d”) party hollowness, then, there’d be different types, if not levels, of culpability. These different hollownesses are worth exploring further, by them and others—including whether they really are so different and if so, to what degree and why.

Cash vs. Cohesion, Connections, and Communities

On the left, by Schlozman’s and Rosenfeld’s telling,

By the Trump years, the Democratic party blob was collectively better coordinated, more politically focused, and much butter funded than ever before. Law, technology, and political polarization all came together to flood progressive politics with cash. Reflecting the general hardening of partisan teamsmanship, many nonprofits traditionally organized as 501(c)(3) “charitable” organizations, from the NAACP to the ACLU, either branched off or fully converted into 501(c)(4)’s, able to engage in open lobbying and electioneering. But the party blob’s very growth, encompassing an endless array of old and new, worsened, rather than mitigated, Democrats’ difficulties in setting priorities, forging cohesive projects, and building meaningful connections with ordinary Americans in their communities.

There were “new legal instruments and funding strategies awaited, all curated by retinues of courtiers and donor advisers,” they continue. “Big-dollar pass-throughs and mutually contributing Super PACs and dark-money outfits,” most of which are nonprofit 501(c)(4)s, “all served to obscure funding sources while showering money on campaigns and consultants.” Specifically, they mention Hansjörg Wyss’s Berger Action Fund, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Hub Project, and the New Venture Fund—“which, like Sixteen Thirty and a wide array of other dark-money efforts, was managed by the for-profit consulting firm Arabella Advisors.”

Education Polarization and a Newfound Appreciation—Less in Tune with the Everyday

“Top to bottom,” according to Schlozman and Rosenfeld, “the participants in the contemporary Democratic party blob reflected and in turn reinforced the growing education polarization of the two parties”—the Democrats’ dependence on votes from those with college degrees and the Republicans’ growing reliance on and appeal to working-class members without degrees.

“The thicket of professional groups funded by rich liberals assumed an increasingly central role in the extended party network. The ‘professional Left’ that Obama aide Robert Gibbs had dismissed in 2010,” they write, “had, in the ensuing decade, become more professional, more left, and more influential. With few material interests on the line in election outcomes and starkly different incentives from core party actors, it had also become a driver of hollowness.

“Philanthropic foundations and the nonprofits they funded,” Schlozman and Rosenfeld continue, “had operated under long-standing legal limits on financing political activity. A newfound appreciation of edgy and potentially confrontational politics during the era of Donald Trump and George Floyd pushed their funds and energy in the direction of radical-chic advocacy rather than nuts-and-bolts activism.”

According to Schlozman and Rosenfeld in The Hollow Parties, an organizational and ideological void was created on the left by the decades-long decline of organized labor. It was filled by the philanthropically funded and influential organizations within the party blob. These groups are “less in tune with everyday material politics.”

So, for all the fulsome funding from plutocratic progressives, then, the left’s party splotch is …: Disordered. Devoid of loyalty. Unrooted. Un- or non-charitable. Opaque. Credentialed. Professional. Edgy and confrontational. Radical chic. Proclaiming a New Gospel of Justice. Distant from the ordinary, everyday give-and take of regular people and places.

And the Democratic Party itself, hollow.

Sharp Questions, Hard to Ask

“The rise of millionaire and billionaire megadonors bankrolling the thicket of dark money groups and independent expenditure campaigns on the left,” Schlozman and Rosenfeld write, raises sharp “questions about the potential limits of the progressive world’s material politics.”

Given the stakes, they’re hard for many to ask. They quote then-Arabella Advisors chief executive officer Sampriti Ganguli as equivocally telling Emma Green for an article in The Atlantic in November 2021, “I think a lot about the role billionaires have to play. Maybe they’re part of the problem and part of the solution.” Within weeks, Ganguli was Arabella’s outgoing CEO. Maybe its progressive donors didn’t want to brook such equivocation about their role. One could understand that, honestly; you want to be considered maybe “part of the problem and part of the solution” when you’re pretty much picking up the tab on all of it?

The Hollow Parties is in large part trying to accurately describe and properly assess the nature and effects of the billionaire-backed, party-surrounding blobs, of one of which Arabella is such a big part, placing them in the proper place on various spectra. One spectrum is from whether they’re merely just ineffectual to whether they’re outright extremist. Another would be from whether they should be engaged in mere, D.C.-based advocacy to whether they should engage in actual, local, on-the-ground, grassroots organizing and activism.

Its exploration of the two party blobs’ placements on these spectra should be deepened and widened—including to be able to fairly and intelligently hold their respective donors to account, for any resulting culpability in democracy-harming party hollowness.


Continuing to look first at the left, some others of the few who recently have explored its paraparty blob’s placement on these spectra agree with where Schlozman and Rosenfeld put it. A 2021 special edition of The Forge that they cite, for one example, urged greater donor support of grassroots organizing to achieve progressive ends. It was guest-edited by former Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society Institute executive and then-outgoing Democracy Alliance president Gara LaMarche. He was admirably willing to bring some institutional and ideology-wide self-criticism to the task.

“Trust in the groups on the ground and give them the support they need, keep bureaucracy and earmarking to an absolute minimum, and spread commitments out over at least several years so recipients can plan ahead with some measure of stability,” LaMarche recommends in the issue’s introduction, with more than a whiff of anti-elitist populism. “[I]t’s unacceptable that the resources needed to build power are dependent on occasional allies like me or the foundation leaders I spoke to for this issue.”

Earlier this year, for another example, labor journalist Hamilton Nolan’s The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor argued strongly against the philanthro-funded left blob’s plush-officed ignorance of the grassroots, in the particular context of labor. “Currently, labor organizing is not a major spending priority for do-gooder foundations,” Nolan laments. “Even those that do concern themselves with labor and equality tend to fund meta-labor nonprofits that produce white papers far more than they produce actual unionized workers.” Another pretty pro-people whiff there.

And in this year’s Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea, echoing Harvard sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol before them, Solidaire Network and Way to Win co-founder Leah Hunt-Hendrix and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor harshly depict an “activist Left” during the decades following the successful civil-rights movement that is

characterized by a shift to a shallow, professional, and often philanthropically funded model of “advocacy,” one that elevates self-appointed leaders and elite experts to speak on behalf of constituencies to whom they are not directly accountable. Rather than organizing people to fight for themselves, these groups promote professionals who attempt to exert influence inside the halls of power. Instead of protests, they publish white papers; in place of strikes, they circulate statements; instead of cultivating solidarity, they seek access to decision-makers.


Others of different worldviews who’ve looked at the left’s flush blob think it’s not merely ineffectual white papers, but also the very progressive ends to which it aims that pose its problem and cause the Democratic Party’s hollowness. In other words, what non-elites might consider its substantive extremism—reflective of its donor-driven distance from those everyday’ers for whom it purports to speak and act.

According to authors and commentators Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in last year’s Where Have All the Democrats Gone?: The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes, for instance, Democrats’ electoral failures have come about because their “economic policy, when in power, has been heavily influenced by Wall Street and Silicon Valley,” its old “New Deal liberal economic agenda” has been undermined by the “decline of the labor movement,” and “the influence of cultural radicals and their organizations within the Democrats’ shadow party”—what Schlozman and Rosenfeld call the blob.

Joel Kotkin, for another instance, told me earlier last year that among those with newly generated wealth, mostly on the West coast, “what you’ve got is, you’ve got a common culture of progressive, very often highly educated, politically motivated people, all of whom sign on to essentially the same agenda,” which is reflected in and implemented through their funding priorities. “What’s really interesting to me is that people like me” and others with similar thinking and attitudes, “all of whom come from the left, have no place else to go.” He also said there will be “conflict between this sort of philanthropic progressivism and what I would call real progressivism.”

Similarly, in 2020’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial EliteCompact and Tablet columnist Michael Lind criticizes the “shift of the center of gravity from local chapter-based member associations and church congregations to foundations, foundation-funded nonprofits, and universities.” It “represents a transfer of civic and cultural influence away from ordinary people upward to the managerial elite.” He specifically lists the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates Foundations, along with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

And in last year’s Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America, Lind characterized the progressive elite a bit more colorfully. “The local mass-membership organizations that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century, like the Shriners and Jaycees, have been displaced by a new kind of nonprofit organization, funded by the rich or by small donations and employing a college-educated overclass staff,” as he tells it.

The professional staff of these “astroturf” organizations tend to view local working-class populations rather as nineteenth-century European and American missionaries viewed non-Western “natives”—as primitives in need of rescue from barbarism by enlightened saviors, not as neighbors and peers whose major problem is a lack of economic and political power.

Maybe Schlozman’s and Rosenfeld’s finding of only ineffectuality on the part of the party blob of the left is too, well, charitable. Too nice. The left’s blob may be both ineffectual and extreme—which is all they find the right’s to asymmetrically be. In fact, maybe the left’s blob is ineffectual in large part because it’s extreme.

Defund the police. Reparations. Radical environmentalism. The pronouns.



On the right, “There is more than a germ of insight in tracing what super-rich donors like Joy and Holly Coors, Bunker Hunt, Richard Mellon Scaife, Rich DeVos, and various right-wing foundations have wrought,” according to Schlozman and Rosenfeld. Historically, however, “large portions of the Right have run not from their largesse but off the advertising from gold coins and real-estate schemes and the alchemy of direct mail.” This may be that which has given rise to the right’s “different pathology in its approach to power,” as they put it.

“Contrary to much commentary, the Trump years hardly occasioned the displacement of business-friendly politics by populism on the right,” they write. “Since the 1970s, the pro-capital strand and the us-versus-them populist strand have braided tightly together inside the Republican Party. In the making of this ‘plutopopulism,’ long-standing patterns have intensified—not transformed.”

That “plutopopulist synthesis” on the right, The Hollow Parties says,

rests upon the support of critical elements in American business. In an age when business loyalties vary tremendously by sector, Republican loyalists concentrate in what Godfrey Hodgson termed ‘Little Big Business’—firms dependent on low-wage labor and centered in manufacturing and extractive industries far from the global cities that prospered in the neoliberal era. Elites tied into the political economy of the South and the nation’s interior prove key. Charles Koch and his network of fellow super-rich ultra-conservatives come from exactly this milieu. Resistance to taxes and regulations mingle with the same rock-’em, sock-’em style that colors the Right’s battles over race, gender, and status. Look at business with an eye less to explain discrete policy outcomes than to understand the particular character of the contemporary Republican Party, and these sectoral and geographic influences snap into place.

Schlozman’s and Rosenfeld’s analysis of the Republican Party’s and its blob’s opportunistic, plutopopulist exercises of power since the 1970s show that they occur wherever they can be exercised—“increasingly unshackled from a vision of national majority.” They’ve been sought and wielded in the courts, the filibuster-frustrated U.S. Senate, and the gerrymandered House and state legislatures. The right’s attempts to pursue its aims have not been as limited as what could be called the “plutoprogressives’’” attempts to further their aims.

Tea and Summits

The Hollow Parties well-sketches the right’s blob’s Tea Party, including the FreedomWorks group, and the Koch political operation—“the Kochtopus”—centered around Americans for Prosperity. The Kochtopus “yoked the politics of the Long New Right and the carbon economy together with the priorities of the new super-rich and worked through para-organizations that encroached on the terrain of the political parties,” according to Schlozman and Rosenfeld. “The Koch brand of political action, exploiting loose campaign finance rules on independent expenditures, reflects the era of hollow parties.

“Koch Industries grew to become the biggest little big business of them all,” they write, “with its family ownership, deep roots in Wichita, and profits reinvested in growth rather than sloughed off to shareholders.” It convened regular donor summits, more than 40% of the attendees at which “came from the traditional mining and manufacturing sectors, with their long-standing hostility to taxes, unions, and regulations. Many of their businesses also remained under family control.”

The summit-bundled money funded “various groups under Koch control, which collectively served to re-create the political party under its own roof,” by Schlozman’s and Rosenfeld’s telling.

The Kochtopus would define issues, pick its favored candidates up and down the ballot, and reach out to voters and influencers, both for direct electioneering and for longer-term work to shape the political terrain. In the past, outside groups had undertaken each of these functions individually. Now a single umbrella actor performed all of them.

Finally, “the politics of little big business—merging pro-capital and populist commitments—flourished in the states after the critical 2010 midterms, as Republican state legislative majorities slashed taxes, regulations—and access to abortion.” To Schlozman and Rosenfeld, extreme.

Synthesis and Scission

At least one of the very few who recently have explored the paraparty blob of the right essentially agrees with Schlozman and Rosenfeld’s placement of it on the extreme pole and why it’s there—the pluto- part, however “little big” it may be, of what they consider the plutopopulist synthesis. “[C]onservative voters repeatedly vote for communitarian, populist, and nationalist policies, while elected Republicans give their libertarian donors the tax cuts that they want,” Lind writes in “Why there is no economic conservatism in America,” his contribution to The Giving Review’s symposium on conservativism and philanthropy last year.

Lind would like to see much less of the plutopopulist synthesis that The Hollow Parties descriptively sees on the right and in its blob, however asymmetric it is from that of the left’s. He and others are prescriptively for breaking that synthesis. They likely all noted FreedomWorks going out of business earlier this month, as well as the performance of Americans for Prosperity Action-approved candidate in this year’s Republican presidential primaries.

Instead of synthesis, they seek scission. “Perhaps someday,” Lind concludes, “wealthy communitarian conservative philanthropists who do not seek to repeal the New Deal, crush organized labor, eliminate the minimum wage and Social Security and Medicare, and create a free-market, open-borders global economy”—to Lind too, extreme—

may appear. Until then, genuine conservatives in the U.S. should minimize their reliance on conservative, or rather libertarian, philanthropy. The Republican Party should create its own in-house legislative and executive policy shops, paid for as part of government, that formulate policies reflecting the interests and values of Republican voters instead of Republican donors. Meanwhile, genuine conservative think tanks and journals should reject libertarian money and find other methods like small donations and subscriptions to fund their operations. Otherwise, Americans who vote for conservatism will continue to be served warmed-over libertarianism instead.

Parties and Splotches, Pluto-’s and the People

Serious scholars Schlozman and Rosenfeld might not be looking for any rabble-rousing, right-wing allies to share agreement with them on anything, but others who may be could find non- or anti-polarizing receptivity. “I think one of the most-exciting potential developments in America, and which the philanthropic community will do everything it can to prevent in most cases … is this growing convergence between, you could say, the Bernie Sanders left and the populist right,” Kotkin (not self-considered on the right) noted in our conversation.

More largely, there is agreement with Schlozman and Rosenfeld from others whom they may not expect on the value of a better, regular old, to-and-fro politics in and for the lives of everyday Americans who seek, bottom-up, countervailing power against the pluto-’s, top-down bigness, even if “little bigness,” in our democracy. “[W]e must restore a political give-and-take in relations between the asset rich and the asset-less,” Compact founder and editor Sohrab Ahmari writes in the concluding chapter, “In Defense of Politics,” of his Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It last year. Ahmari calls for the pursuit of politics as a, maybe the only, way to do so. Unhollowed parties would help.

And yet more expansively, and in what will have to be the longer term, perhaps we can somehow together stop longing for establishment institutional philanthropy and individual mega-wealthy donors to offer some sort of salvation for democracy. “[T]he displacement of American democracy was the primary intention of modern American philanthropy,” as Giving Review co-editor William A. Schambra recently reminds us. “[M]uch of the growing polarization in today’s politics,” he concludes,

is precisely the consequence of our major institutions pursuing grand (and conflicting) causes, with the results that the Founders had predicted when they sought to avert democracy’s propensity to “turbulence and contention.” Only by surrendering pretensions to once-and-for-all solutions and enabling citizens once again to pursue their own modest proposed fixes can philanthropy be helpful to democratic revival. But that would require foundations to overcome their longstanding disdain for the small-bore, piecemeal, scattershot solutions everyday citizens typically come up with when they try to solve their own problems their own way.

We can see and should hold donors to account for—and work, be it through politics, policy, and/or practice, for less of—that which The Hollow Parties shows so well that lies between the well-funded, actual party-supplanting splotches, on both the left and right, and those people who don’t fund and aren’t in them.


Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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