Progressive Infrastructure Information Page
This is Commonweal Institute's collection of articles, reports and resources focusing on development of Progressive infrastructure organizations
We hope that you can take the time to become informed on these issues, and inform others.
We also have an Information About the Right Page, Commonweal Institute's collection of articles, reports and resources for studying the right-wing ideological movement, and a Progressive Philosophy and Values page, with articles, reports and resources focusing on Progressive philosophy and values.
Listed alphabetically, by author:
Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, Mat Bai, New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2004
Big $$ for Progressive Politics, Ari Berman, The Nation, October 16, 2006
Almost two years along, the [Democracy] Alliance's 100 donors have distributed more than $50 million to center-left organizations and activists--a lot of money, yet still largely symbolic given the deep pockets of its members. Even as the donors pour millions into a new political infrastructure, however, problems have emerged that mirror many of the problems of the Democratic Party today and the progressive movement in general.
[. . .] Between 1972 and 1999, conservatives created at least sixty new organizations with mission statements modeled after that of the Heritage Foundation, a radical think tank at the time of its founding: "free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." When pollster Celinda Lake asked a group of white Midwestern swing voters in 2004 what conservatives stood for, most of them repeated those catchphrases. When she asked the same question about liberals, half the voters responded, "I don't know."
A Party Inverted, Bill Bradley, The New York Times, March 30, 2005
If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.
Left moves to boost its intellectual bulwark: Well-heeled Democrats rally to craft a network of think tanks - a message machine to counter conservatives, Josh Burek, The Christian Sceience Monitor, August 18, 2005
Making Connections, Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke, In These Times, April 27, 2005
"Recently, new think tanks, such as the Center for American Progress and the Rockridge Institute, have started disseminating progressive messages, providing talking points and conducting fact-finding missions to discredit the misinformation coming from conservative think tanks and pundits. Online mobilizing groups such as MoveOn and progressive 527s like Americans Coming Together have re-energized a progressive voter base that is politically engaged and active.
Yet these Washington-centric efforts are still not connected to grassroots, single-issue organizations. Too often, they lack the involvement of women, people of color and those who are not upper-middle class.
Looking at "The Emerging Progressive Media Network," it's important to note the disconnect between the vast, well-funded "Issue-Based Nonprofits," the "Emerging Message Machine" of the think tanks, politicians and message creators and the struggling "Progressive Media." To participate in the mainstream dialogue, each of these spheres needs to be connected to each other and appropriately funded. "
The Progressive Strategy Brain (PSB) is a dynamic visual map of the universe of American progressive strategy within the broader context of progressive politics. It shows connections between individuals, organizations, issues, concepts, and ideas, giving a sense of both the strengths and weaknesses of various progressive networks working on progressive strategy. The Commonwealth Institute's Progressive Strategy Studies Project team plans to update the database and map on an ongoing basis.
George Soros’s Democracy Alliance:, In Search Of A Permanent Democratic Majority, [Note, small PDF document], James Dellinger and Matthew Vadum, Foundation Watch, Capital Research Center, December, 2006
A good article from a conservative perspective, drawing from The Nation's “Big $$ for Progressive Politics,” which is listed above
Rich Liberals Vow to Fund Think Tanks, Aim Is to Compete With Conservatives, Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post, August 7, 2005
"The goal of the alliance, according to organizers, is to foster the growth of liberal or left-leaning institutions equipped to take on prominent think tanks on the right, including the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, as well as such training centers as the Leadership Institute and the Young America's Foundation.
[. . .] In 2003, the 19 progressive organizations with budgets exceeding $1 million spent a total of $75 million, he said. In contrast, the 24 national think tanks on the right had $170 million in spending, along with state-based policy centers' $50 million and campus-based conservative policy organizations' $75 million to $100 million, according to Stein.
Liberal groups have been disproportionately dependent on one-year foundation grants for specific projects, Stein said, while the money flowing to conservative groups has often involved donors' long-term commitments with no strings attached. Stein noted that of 200 major conservative donors, about half sit on the boards of the think tanks they give to, increasing the strength of their commitment."
The Time to Grow Stronger Is Between Elections, Katherine Forrest, MD, Commonweal Institute, July 14, 2006
This paper discusses some of the things that grassroots activists can do between campaigns to strengthen their groups and enhance the position of progressives in their communities. These actions, which incorporate marketing concepts, fall into four areas: (1) expanding and diversifying a political group’s membership; (2) strengthening the group’s position and influence in the community; (3) increasing individual activists' knowledge and effectiveness as political players; and (4) learning how to become more effective when talking about politics with others.
Wrong About the Right, Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava, The Nation, November 7, 2005
"While the focus of progressive movement-building is now on creating large organizations "to scale," yet another of the movement's greatest challenges is being neglected: We are undecided on the larger principles that underlie our work for social justice. Many people don't like to do this "big picture" thinking. They prefer results-oriented activism and practical solutions. And they are correct that larger principles must be tied to people's everyday concerns and identifiable, attainable goals."
MAPPING THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT, Jean Hardisty and Ana Perea, Jean Hardesty.com
"This report is intended to be of help to donors, especially women donors, who want to support the progressive movement, most often using a feminist lens and anti-racist principles. The role of "progressive donor" has a noble history and is its most challenging when the progressive movement is under attack. Certainly, this historical moment demands thoughtful and strategic funding, coupled with an understanding of the prospects for progressive social change."
Soros Group Raises Stakes in Battle with U.S. Neo-Cons, James Harding, The Financial Times, January 11, 2005
"A group of billionaire philanthropists are to donate tens of millions more dollars to develop progressive political ideas in the US in an effort to counter the conservative ascendancy."
The New Funding Heresies: What everyone knows (but no one will say) about funding the left, Christopher Hayes, In These Times, June 26, 2006
"In the wake of the 2004 presidential election, more and more progressive funders are coalescing around what might be called the Infrastructure First theory of progressive revival. Originally pioneered by former Clinton Treasury official and Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein, and now advocated by everyone from DNC chair Howard Dean to SEIU President Andy Stern, the theory goes something like this: The single most important factor in the right’s political dominance over the last several decades is its superior infrastructure—a network of well-funded, tightly coordinated advocacy organizations, grassroots groups, think tanks and media platforms that are capable of mobilizing the base, drawing in new converts, moving the national political debate and exerting astounding influence on elected politicians. In a somewhat legendary PowerPoint presentation, Stein documents the way this conservative infrastructure was built, who funded it and how it works. The Democracy Alliance’s mission is to help build a countervailing force on the left, what is cheekily referred to as the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy."
The Right-Wing Express, Don Hazen, AlterNet, February 7, 2005
"Consider that the conservative political movement, which now has a hammerlock on every aspect of federal government, has a media message machine fed by more than 80 large non-profit organizations – let's call them the Big 80 – funded by a gaggle of right-wing family foundations and wealthy individuals to the tune of $400 million a year.
And the Big 80 groups are just the "non-partisan" 501(c)(3) groups. These do not include groups like the NRA, the anti-gay and anti-abortion groups, nor do they include the political action committees (PACs) or the "527" groups (so named for the section of the tax code they fall under), like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which so effectively slammed John Kerry's campaign in 2004.
To get their message out, the conservatives have a powerful media empire, which churns out and amplifies the message of the day - or the week - through a wide network of outlets and individuals, including Fox News, talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, Ann Coulter, as well as religious broadcasters like Pat Robertson and his 700 Club. On the web, it starts with TownHall.com
Fueling the conservative message machine with a steady flow of cash is a large group of wealthy individuals, including many who serve on the boards of the Big 80."
The article goes on to discuss the development of Progressive infrastructure organizations.
Venture Philanthropy Goes Into Politics, Jessi Hempel, Business Week, April 13, 2007
"August Capital general partner Andy Rappaport and his wife, Deborah, have invested $1.5 million in a for-profit venture called the New Progressive Coalition."
NPC bases its business model on the idea that the progressive movement has historically supported candidates, not organizations—donations rise and fall with political races, while between elections, ideas and issues lag. The right, on the other hand, benefits from a robust network of think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute that keep ideas alive even when there's no election in the offing."
Whither The Democracy Alliance?, Hotline On Call blog, December 7, 2005
"The Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy liberal fundraisers and their intellectual gurus, billed itself as a fertile field for the type of deep root structure that Dems believe the conservative movement developed in the 1970s and 80s: rich foundations at the bottom, donating to candidate/activist training schools and to start-up media and to think tanks."
"For decades you haven’t been able to go anywhere without hearing – over and over – that conservatives are good and liberals and their ideas are bad and stupid and shameful and evil – and a hundred variations on that theme. Have any of you encountered that message?
Conservatives are marketing what President Bush would call “conservativityism,” and doing it very well. And the broad, general public hears hardly ANYTHING in response from our side to fight back against that basic underlying propaganda argument.
How did it get to be that way?"
Progressives Need Communication Infrastructure, David C. Johnson, Uncommon Denominator, Vol. 2.2, June 2003
Politicians respond to the public - that's their job. So: to change the country's political climate, we need to change public attitudes, not just rely on politicians. This is how the Right has accomplished so much. They have pursued a decades-long strategy of using the media to inundate the public with ideological messages, year by year nudging the public further to the right - thus enabling their politicians to move in and harvest the results.
[. . .] Moderates and progressives need multi-issue, strategic communications organizations like the Commonweal Institute to expand the underlying base of support for our principles. We must reach the general public with messages and information designed to move them back from the right. This will grow the base of support for candidates and organizations that will protect the programs we care about.
Armchair Activism That Works, Martin Kearns and Jonathan Schwarz, TomPaine.com, February 02, 2007
"Imagine an America five years from now that’s a nation of networked volunteers—where a lawyer working late in Manhattan takes a 15-minute break in her 38th floor office to volunteer for the environmental movement working to save her favorite river. Her work is cross-checked by a nurse sitting in a San Diego library who got involved via her union. Meanwhile, a bright 12-year-old in Tennessee digs up information that’s checked by a marketing director in Iowa City who just joined the ACLU. This is all part of an Internet bucket brigade thousands of links long, doing work that before could only be accomplished by corporations or governments."
Why Republicans Win, David C. Johnson, Seeing the Forest, January 25, 2005
"On the Right, they developed their movement in response to the existing liberal consensus, which means that their movement developed based on the idea of changing people's minds away from those liberal ideas and values. So the result is that today the Right is structured around persuasion, while the Democrats are not. And their organizations have spent decades studying how best to persuade people.
[. . .] The way out of this is to understand that we need to EDUCATE AND PERSUADE THE GENERAL PUBLIC about the fact that core Progressive ideas and values are good for them."
Lessons From the Right: Saving The Soul of the Environmental Movement, (Note - PDF file, 1mb), Jeni Krencicki and Dahvi Wilson, and blog, Spring, 2005
"Now, the environmental movement is at its own crossroads; it has the unique potential to position itself as a progressive alternative to the Religious Right – a powerful moral and guiding voice within the progressive community. By merging with other members of the progressive family, on issues that supercede traditional interest group boundaries, the environmental movement can help strengthen its own campaigns, while furthering the overall progressive agenda. Important issues like public education, health care, and social security, coupled with emerging issues like climate change and environmental justice, are interconnected, and they demand that we work together – across traditional interest group lines. As Ted Nordhaus told us, “You need to create a kind of coherent, values-based politics that knows that you can’t take this thing called environmentalism, separate it out, and build a compelling movement.” (Nordhaus 2005)"
The Crisis of Democracy in America, Gara LaMarche, Open Society Institute, June 30, 2005
"Progressive institutions and alternative policies and messages need to be built and nurtured. That must and will be done, with our involvement. But we must also build and nurture institutions that are not progressive or conservative, but independent—capable of resisting extremism and counteracting the polarization that is deepening in American society."
Half-baked observations of a VLWC conference, Markos Moulitsas, DailyKos.com, April 15, 2005.
"In These Times magazine has diagrammed how both the VLWC and VRWC media machines work. Those diagrams don't show the entire VRWC -- Rob Stein still inexplicably refuses to release his diagrams to the public -- but they do a great job of illustrating the coordinated model the Right employs versus the uncoordinate free-for-all that exists on the Left.
[. . .] Seriously, seeing the Right Wing machine gear into action is a thing of beauty. Watching our fragmented side collapse in the face of that unified assault is a thing of despair."
Governing the Nation from the Statehouses: The Rightwing Agenda in the States and How Progressives Can Fight Back, Nathan Newman, The Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), February 21, 2006
"Progressives can keep reacting and playing defense against conservatives and their corporate sponsors, or we can learn these lessons and turn the tables on the rightwing. If progressive legislators are armed with the legislative tools and mobilized support of our grassroots organizations, we can reverse conservative dominance of public policy and begin a new era of progressive governance of our nation's statehouses.
[. . .] In the end, however, progressives need more than just good, popular policies. They need to adopt a strategic vision that uses public policy to deflect conservative attacks, entrench progressive power and divide the coalitions that sustain the rightwing."
New Dem think tank tackles conservative politics, media, Hans Nichols, The Hill, May 11, 2005.
"The New Politics Institute (NPI), unlike conventional think tanks that churn out white papers and policy briefs, will work to counter “[White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl] Rove and [RNC Chairman Ken] Mehlman on the other side,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network but now known just by its initials."
How Progressives Can Win in the Long Run, Iara Peng, AlterNet, September 27, 2006.
"Right-wing groups spend ten times more on youth leadership development than progressives do. If we want to win, we need to start investing in the next generation of leaders."
What Does a Successful Social Movement Need?, PublicEye.org
"To build a movement for progressive social change, we need to reach across boundaries and build coalitions based on mutual respect and accountability. Ideally, we will engage in cross-sector work. Under the banner of a broad global human rights movement, these are the various sectors we need to support:"
Commonweal Institute And Building The Progressive Infrastructure Mary Ratcliff, Pacific Views, March 10, 2007
"So here we are today, in an society that is badly divided where one side has declared war on government and any who would stand in their way to total power. Yet, those of us to the left of center believe we must make our government work again for all of us because the problems we face are too big for any one person or even the different interest groups such as the environmental movement or the civil rights movement or the human rights community or unions to solve. We must have government helping and we all must be working together. We can no longer afford a single-issue focused approach to solving just "my" problem. Every one of these excellent organizations face a tremendous head-wind to even get their message out to the American public. It is almost de rigueur for the public to believe liberals and progressives don't have any ideas and the two political parties are both corrupt and out only for themselves. Candidates that want to talk about the plight of the poor are pilloried as being too "wussy" to even be listened to."
A three-part series on lessons to learn from conservative success, at the campaign for America's Future Blog:
Learning from The Cultural Conservatives, Part I: Messing With Their Minds Sara Robinson, Blog For Our Future, February 29, 2008
Learning from the Cultural Conservatives, Part II: Talking Up The Worldview Sara Robinson, Blog For Our Future, March 5, 2008
Learning From the Cultural Conservatives, Part III: Taking It To The Street Sara Robinson, Blog For Our Future, March 11, 2008
Also at Alternet:
What We Can Learn from Conservatives About Winning in Politics Part 1 Sara Robinson, AlterNet, March 13, 2008
Learning from How Conservatives Push Their Cultural Worldview Part 2 Sara Robinson, AlterNet, March 14, 2008
How Did Conservatives Convince the Public to Think Differently About Government? Part 3 Sara Robinson, AlterNet, March 15, 2008
"Over this and the next two posts, I'm going to revisit Weyrich and Heubeck's Free Congress manifesto, and lay out the specific lessons progressives can draw from the plans and strategies that drove 30 years of conservative movement-building. We'll get the map to the the battlefield they're really fighting on; and what it will take for progressives to engage them there and win. The same strategies that allowed them to take control of the country and change the shape of American history may, with some adaptations to our own liberal values, allow us to undo the damage as well.
The first post addresses the role ideas—which ones they specifically chose to promote, and why—played in the conservative renaissance, and should play in the coming progressive era as well. The second one will discuss the details of how these ideas are presented to the public. The last one discusses specific tactics that the conservatives used—and we might consider emulating—to embed their desired memes in the mass culture, ensuring their continued dominance of the discourse."
Creating Progressive Infrastructure Now: An Action Plan for Reclaiming America’s Heart and Soul (PDF – 75K), Leonard M. Salle and Katherine A. Forrest, Commonweal Institute, January, 2005
This report discusses the nature of political infrastructure, including the basic functions that a progressive infrastructure should fulfill, and suggests specific action steps and funding approaches.
Can Democrats get smart?, Michael Scherer, Salon, August 22, 2005.
"The Democrats for a long time have been fixed on the next election or the election after that," says Peter L. Buttenweiser, an heir to the Lehman Brothers securities fortune and one of the Democratic Party's most generous donors. "This is the first concerted effort to build the infrastructure of the progressive party in a way that replicates what the right has been doing for a long time."
The Death of Environmentalism, Global warming politics in a post-environmental world, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, Reprinted in Grist Magazine, January 13, 2005
"Conservative foundations and think tanks have spent 40 years getting clear about what they want (their vision) and what they stand for (their values). The values of smaller government, fewer taxes, a large military, traditional families, and more power for big business are only today, after 40 years of being stitched together by conservative intellectuals and strategists, coherent enough to be listed in a "contract with America." After they got clearer about their vision and values, conservatives started crafting proposals that would activate conservative values among their base and swing voters.
Once in power, conservatives govern on all of their issues -- no matter whether their solutions have majority support. Liberals tend to approach politics with an eye toward winning one issue campaign at a time -- a Sisyphean task that has contributed to today's neoconservative hegemony.
[. . .] If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics. Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum -- a sustaining movement -- to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues."
No More of the Same, Interview with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, by Adam Werbach, In These Times, June 22, 2005
Shellenberger: All the liberal single-issue movements need to challenge their basic assumptions about what the problem is that they’re trying to address, and develop a relevant vision for America and the world.
We need to ask some hard questions of our politics. What is the alternative to complaint-based politics? How do we decide what gets counted as an “environmental” or a “women’s” or a “foreign policy” issue? What gets left out of those categories—and what political opportunities might exist in what’s been left out?
... As soon as you start thinking outside of the “abortion” or “environment” or “peace” boxes a whole world of political opportunity opens up.
[. . .] The big question we need to ask ourselves is, what vision and values and program should animate a new progressive infrastructure? To answer these questions we have to stop conflating values with programs. Social Security, universal health care, reducing global warming emissions, ending poverty—these are programs, not values.
Building - Not Just Talking About - Permanent Progressive Infrastructure, David Sirota, Huffington Post, February 19, 2007
"Lots of people talk about building permanent progressive "infrastructure" to the point where the term "infrastructure" has become a political buzzword unto itself. But there's a difference between talking about things, and actually doing them successfully. And when the latter happens, as it has over the last year with the Progressive States Network, it is a big achievement - one that could not have been done without the continued and critical support of the grassroots."
The Resurgence of Movement Politics, David Sirota, The Nation, August 12, 2005
"Conservatives long ago realized what our side is only starting to comprehend: that successful politics starts with successful ideological movements, and that those movements are a prerequisite to any serious partisan gain.
[. . .] The only solution, then, is for progressives to stop solely focusing on partisan politics, and start focusing on movement politics. On every single issue, we must have a clear position that articulates not just a policy stance, but an overarching progressive ideology. Because without a movement, we have no ability to hold politicians' feet to the fire, no ability to develop credibility with voters and no ability to win elections.
[. . .] Now it is time to fight back. PLAN [Progressive Legislative Action Network] will give state lawmakers the tools they need to more effectively fight for a progressive agenda.
[. . .] As the conservatives realized in the 1970s, movements take longer to build than one or two election cycles, and they require an ideological commitment that can sometimes find itself at odds with partisan concerns. Moreover, it will require bringing together all the disparate pieces on the progressive side, much like the United Steelworkers and environmental community is doing with the Apollo Alliance."
Building the Countermovement, Laurie Spivak, AlterNet, May 25, 2004
""The ability to defeat the enemy," writes Sun Tzu in The Art of War, "means taking the offensive." For far too long, progressives have been on the defensive against the surging conservative movement. In order to stem the conservative tide and to win the hearts and minds of Americans, progressives need to go on the offensive and develop a commonsense countermovement with a quick ramp-up, long-term resolve, and sufficient resources reaching far beyond the 2004 election.
To accomplish this goal, progressives should look to the architecture of the conservative movement, which according to the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Weyrich, was built on "the four M's: mission, money, management and marketing." While each of these factors has played a critical role in the ascendancy of the conservative movement, perhaps the most important is marketing."
Training the Left to Win, Leif Utne, Utne magazine, July / August 2006
Campus Progress and groups such as People for the American Way, MoveOn.org, and Green Corps, as well as upstarts like Wellstone Action, Democracy for America, the Center for Progressive Leadership, and the League of Young Voters, are using a similar approach to create solidarity among young people on the congenitally fractious left-to show them, as Halperin says, "that there is value in coming together."
A New Alliance Of Democrats Spreads Funding, Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza, The Washington Post, July 17, 2006
"An alliance of nearly a hundred of the nation's wealthiest donors is roiling Democratic political circles, directing more than $50 million in the past nine months to liberal think tanks and advocacy groups in what organizers say is the first installment of a long-term campaign to compete more aggressively against conservatives."
Building to Win, Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation, July 9, 2001
"How, then, might progressives proceed? Let us begin by taking a leaf from the conservative playbook. The right has built an imposing array of institutions to develop ideas and educate conservatives on how to argue their case. In contrast, progressives, who have no shortage of good ideas, have done too little to enlist and educate current and future leaders on an agenda and a message that will consolidate a progressive majority. Progressives remain stronger on the ground than they are in the public debate."
Note - We consider these articles thought-provoking and worth reading. Our recommendation does not imply that we necessarily agree with all the perspectives presented, nor does it imply that we have checked the articles for factual accuracy.