Special Report

The State of the Left: The Movement Evolves


The State of the Left (full series)
The Movement EvolvesBucking the Party SystemDonors Take the ReinsTechnological Revolutions

The Left has always been a hydra. It’s encompassed media companies and universities, unions and activists, celebrities and scholars. It’s difficult to keep up with, and harder to track. For a long time, conservatives needed something like the Encyclopaedia Britannica to catalog all the heads. In 2017, CRC unveiled InfluenceWatch.org—our answer to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch—to try to fill the knowledge gap. In building out this important resource, CRC has tracked numerous trends and advancements the Left employs to further its cause.

Conservatives and libertarians need to ask if they’re not witnessing the birth of, call it, the “Regressive Resistance” or even the Left 3.0. (The terms Old Left and New Left were already taken!) When CRC last took a 30,000-foot view of the Left in 2013, the biggest development was the growth of nonprofit organizations. The party—principally the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—is less important than it used to be—and that’s the fault of the Left 2.0. Driven by a desire to “get money out of politics,” arch-progressives of the late 1990s and early 2000s like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) teamed up with the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and other misguided centrist Republicans to pass the McCain-Feingold “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act” in 2002. The effect of McCain-Feingold was not “getting money out of politics”—the money and the power moved from parties and party committees to independent, often radical organizations, even as partisan loyalty surged.

That appears to be even truer today. The DNC isn’t fundraising well and still owes nearly $3 million in debt. Independent nonprofit organizations—their donors, their leaders, their tactics, and even a few of their for-profit friends, are more important. And while the Left focuses on the independent-advocacy “501(c)(4)” space where conservatives had a mild advantage back in 2014, liberals’ own, larger advantage in the charitable nonprofit “501(c)(3)” sector powered is largely ignored. The liberals’ 501(c)(3) advantage—a three-to-one dwarfing of conservative expenditure in a nearly $10 billion game, as identified by a CRC report—overwhelmed conservatives’ advantage in 501(c)(4) organization spending, which was a mere 56 percent to 44 percent in a $538 million universe.

Let’s consider a few specific differences between the Left 2.0 and 3.0, and then go into the history.

  • The Democratic Party—the party’s leaders and the party organs like the DNC —ran the show in Left 2.0. The DNC, Congressional leadership, and Presidential candidates directed the party agenda, controlled the critical information, and decided what to fund. But McCain-Feingold limits on campaign contributions and controversy arising from the DNC appearing to favor Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries have led both small-dollar and large-dollar donors to become more independent. Large-dollar donors have formed donor groups—most prominently Democracy Alliance—to help each other decide how money flows and where; small-dollar donors using progressive internet-based tools like ActBlue have empowered far-left insurgencies. The bottom line? More money has gone into efforts independent from the party.
  • Another difference: the Obama campaign specifically mastered the art of microtargeting. Nowadays, the Regressive Resistance’s entire apparatus prefers to microtarget not just its get-out-the-vote work, but almost all of its communications. Have you given a few bucks to the Sierra Club? Great, we’ll have the Club message you about a couple of environmental issues that most voters don’t care about—or worse, issues where other parts of our coalition disagree with you (the Laborers Union may not hate the Keystone Pipeline, for instance, and yellow-dog Democrats in West Virginia may not want your war on coal). Are you an unmarried woman in her 20s? Planned Parenthood will bore in on you with messages to register and vote yourself “free” contraceptives so you don’t lose in the “war on women.” This targeted messaging may sound outlandish to many, but as the 2018 midterm elections showed, white suburban women determined the outcome of many congressional races.

Facebook’s relatively easy-to-use advertising platform makes this even easier, allowing organizations and campaigns to find new audiences cheaply and effectively.

  • Even unions, long important to the Left, are evolving. Remember, unions were always nonprofits of a type—501(c)(5)s to be legally precise. But the old model of unions—big groups of mostly working men in heavy industry—is disappearing. The first part of the change, which has been around awhile, is the shift from heavy industry in the private sector to government workers. In 2018, only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers were unionized, compared to 33.9 percent of government workers; and that same year 7.1 million government workers belonged to the union, narrowly trailing the 7.5 million private-sector workers. More recently, unions have modified their tactics, relying on other nonprofit organizations including 501(c)(3) “public charities” to avoid regulations on union organizing. These groups, collectively labeled “worker centers” despite great variances in their legal structures, boost union power and messaging and hide the often-controversial union label. As CRC found, this isn’t as bad for unions as it may sound, since they can still cause lots of trouble, as New York City restaurants that have had protests in the middle of their dining rooms can tell you; worker centers which are organized as 501(c)(3)s can more easily receive money from foundations; and most importantly unions have a lot more legal restrictions on what they can do, and a lot more disclosures of their inner workings to make, than do public charities or other advocacy groups.
  • Another difference involves heightened networking and coordination. The last generation of leftists would of course focus on helping Democrats get elected, but the effort was often divided into silos—teachers unions here, a radical agitation group like ACORN there, a group of environmentally concerned suburbanites elsewhere. Now these groups are much more likely to be receiving more coordinated instructions from their donors, and they are meeting a lot more in action-focused networking groups, at both the national and state levels, and they are sharing reams of data with each other that helps everyone hone their messaging, drive up their fundraising, and improve their voter mobilization. One of the biggest projects the Left is undertaking is the upcoming 2021 redistricting fight. Almost every level of the Left’s infrastructure is involved in this from grassroots voter registration all the way to the DNC.
  • In the past, messaging and get-out-the-vote was broken into the silos of the different groups, and it was done by veteran operatives who thought they could fly by the seat of their pants. Nowadays, the Left 3.0 has an entire network of scientific pros who work as ruthlessly as any big business’s brand manager to test new packaging, new types of advertising, social media strategies, and on and on. Despite having certain institutional advantages in knowledge sharing through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council or the State Policy Network, concerted coordination between right-of-center groups is lacking.
  • This leads into the final difference between the Left 2.0 and 3.0 that I want to highlight: The Left’s message also has veered further and further away from fact-based policy making and into feel-good emotive rhetoric. The very language the Left uses predisposes Americans to find progressive arguments more persuasive, morally righteous, and sympathetic. However, the policies masked by this emotive language are damaging to vast swathes of the American public.

In the next installment on the State of the Left, learn how donors banded together to create a new left-wing infrastructure.

Scott Walter

Walter is president of the Capital Research Center. He served in the George W. Bush administration as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and was vice president for…
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