Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

Fix the Segmentation Problem

By Scott Nielsen

Tagged activism

A common sentiment holds that money drives the right’s cultural and policy agenda, while people drive the left’s. In our post-Citizens United context, money mostly prevails. Public opinion research bears this out: While the majority of Americans support progressive policy positions, elected officials of both parties—especially at the federal level—tend to deliver center-right legislation. How can this dissonance between public will and evolving public policy be overcome? What is the role of civil society advocacy groups in informing and mobilizing an electorate able to petition effectively for its values and policy priorities?

With unlimited resources I would create America Together: a ten-year investment program—two general elections, three midterms—to expand and rationalize the large, center-left local/state/national civic engagement and issue advocacy infrastructure.

As it stands, this infrastructure is generally comprised of established nonpartisan research, organizing, and advocacy groups that work intimately and year-round with a base of like-minded community members, organizational allies, and volunteers. Some of these groups organize around issues—climate, health care, education, criminal justice, and so on. Others advocate on behalf of specific constituencies—immigrants, youth, African Americans. These organizations largely share a vision of a virtuous and prosperous America, yet they rarely collaborate across their issue and constituency sectors. Part of this segmentation stems from their funding, which comes from membership dues, donations, and foundation grants. These parochial funding patterns are unlikely to change.

America Together would work underneath this sprawl of groups and strategies to support practices that help aggregate and rationalize this infrastructure in service of shared policy and political agendas. It would do so by providing core resources—money, research and data, technology, convening and networking, technical assistance, and capacity building—to groups and networks that agree to collaborate.
For example, center-left organizing and advocacy groups mostly lack the data-driven, demographically tested and culturally specific coordinated communications programs that well-funded groups on the right possess. For the right, communications around core legislative policies are almost always presented in terms of their social and political pillars: strong defense, small and weak government, low taxes, individual responsibility, and family values. Specific messaging is passed through these frames to coordinated business, religious, and issue groups, which combine to create a media and grassroots echo chamber. The center-left has no such narrative clarity or institutional alignment.

By establishing a central communications hub that would supply national, state, and local groups with curated research and messaging content, able both to mobilize an energized center-left base and also persuade those open to new ideas and arguments, America Together could help civil society groups expand cultural and policy conversations in the public sphere. This communications hub would be a bilateral pipeline; both sending and receiving content to and from the grassroots. Because this grassroots infrastructure has such deep and continuous community relationships, such an exchange of ideas, values, and narratives would be a powerful advantage and inoculant over the propagandistic narratives of political opponents who often traffic in vague fear and coarse stereotypes to attract adherents.

Pieces of this communications supply chain already exist but are separated at key junctures and utterly disconnected from a host of allies. America Together would remedy this by seeking to centralize research, analysis, and communications and making these available to allies across the country. This streamlining would save significant resources.

Similar aggregation and coordination would occur in the field, leadership and candidate development, data and technology growth, and future planning. America Together would also encourage other institutional and individual donors to join this effort and to develop a broad public interest agenda. Using matching grants, donor convenings, and pilot projects, America Together would make the intellectual and empirical case for a permanent shift in the ways donors envision and sustain the machinery of social and policy change.

These civil society investments would pay electoral and public sector dividends. Candidates would meet an erudite electorate already knit together through affiliation with neighborhood/local/state/national groups aligned on a broad public interest values and legislative vision.  Scapegoating, disinformation, and propaganda will be more difficult. Rather than a kaleidoscope of micro-targeted talking points, parties and candidates will be encouraged to submit a whole-cloth policy agenda for which they are accountable.

In sum, America Together aims to support and mobilize the broad constellation of civil society leaders, groups, and community voices in service of a renewed public interest policy agenda and a more responsive politics.

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Scott Nielsen is managing director of advocacy at Arabella Advisors.

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