A Conspiracy So Immense

Column: What will it take for the mainstream media to cover the progressive movement?

Michael Brune, Phil Radford, Larry Cohen, Ben Jealous, Barack Obama
January 11, 2013

Let’s pretend that in the spring of 2012 Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, John Engler of the Business Roundtable, Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, and Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association began to organize an assembly of right-leaning groups.

Let’s pretend that in the months since there had been not one but two meetings where these luminaries joined with representatives of Christians United For Israel, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party Express, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the American Petroleum Institute to discuss strategy and promote a series of "structural reforms" that would make it easier for them to advance conservative goals in Congress.

Let’s pretend that by the time of the second meeting, which was held within sight of the White House, the coalition had grown to encompass some 36 different interest groups pledging millions of dollars.

How much press coverage would be devoted to this fictive cabal?

It is impossible to say. But is it not unreasonable to assume that our pretend meeting of the vast right-wing conspiracy would attract far more scrutiny than was devoted to the actual, real-life, believe-it-or-not inaugural meetings of the progressive "Democracy Initiative"? After all, no one seemed to know anything about those meetings, held in June and December 2012, until a writer for Mother Jones named Andy Kroll broke the story on Wednesday. As of this writing exactly two other people, a blogger for the Washington Monthly and a blogger for The Ed Show, have picked up Kroll’s story.

The rest of what is too generously called the "mainstream media" has not said a word. Instead the campaign finance reporter of the New York Times, who used to work at the Washington Monthly, had a long investigative piece on the various conflicts-of-interest associated with advocates of pro-growth tax and entitlement reform. (Spoiler: They’re in it for themselves.) Slate meanwhile asked the pressing question, "Why Do the Rich and Famous Always Sunbathe Topless?" Other outlets were distracted by the glitzy baubles of nomination fights and gun control. About this major story of coordination and concerted spending among powerful lobbies, however, the press had little to say.

And it is a major story. The brainchild of Michael Brune, Phil Radford, Larry Cohen, and Ben Jealous, the Democracy Initiative, according to Mother Jones’s Kroll, is "the first time so many groups teamed up to work on multiple issues not tied to an election."

These guys have pull. Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club and former executive director of the more radical Rainforest Action Network. Radford runs Greenpeace. Cohen is the president of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America, "the largest telecommunications union in the world." Jealous is the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. Their "conversations in recent years" about the malign influence of conservative donors in politics developed into the "invite-only and off-the-record" meetings in June and December, where representatives of "30 to 35 groups" pledged "a total of millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form a united front" on the issues of "getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block legislation." The most recent meeting was held at the headquarters of the 3-million-strong National Education Association, which is less than half a dozen blocks north of where President Barack Obama works.

That "total of millions of dollars" figure reported by Kroll is rather unspecific. In truth it will be difficult to determine how much money the Democracy Initiative is putting to work as long as mainstream reporters ignore the story in favor of following every microscopic action performed by Charles and David Koch and Sheldon Adelson. However, the most cursory glance at the list of groups in the Mother Jones story leads one to believe there should be at least two high numerals inserted before that "millions of dollars."

Who showed up to the progressive retreat? Again, it is hard to say because Kroll does not divulge all of the participants. Can’t alert the enemy to your every move, I suppose. But here in alphabetical order are the groups he does mention: the AFL-CIO, the Center for American Progress, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Color of Change, Common Cause, Demos, the Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, Mother Jones (in a "non-editorial" capacity!), National People’s Action, the National Wildlife Federation, People for the American Way, the Piper Fund, Public Campaign, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, and Voto Latino. Brune of the Sierra Club predicts there will be 50 participating organizations by spring.

Insiders might note that some of these groups were among those dropped from the Democracy Alliance—the secret consortium of progressive donors organized by George Soros and Rob McKay—when it opted for intervening directly in Democratic Party politics rather than seeding less partisan and more ideological institutions. So on some level the Democracy Initiative should be considered the Democracy Alliance’s younger and slightly less attractive sister. But it is also more than that.

The crack researchers at the Center for American Freedom tell me that totaling the reported revenue of only a portion of the groups participating in the Democracy Initiative gives you a figure of around $1.69 billion. Somewhat ironic, isn’t it, that an association of organizations with combined revenue of more than a billion dollars is launching a campaign to get "big money out of politics." Like all such campaigns, of course, the Democracy Initiative is less about getting money out of politics than it is about getting the wrong sort of money out of politics—in this case, the sort of money dispensed by industries and ideologues opposed to the progressive agenda.

The Democracy Initiative will "target" Chevron, "which gave $2.5 million to a Super PAC backing House Republican candidates in 2012." The Democracy Initiative will target Google "for its continued membership with the generally pro-Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce." The Democracy Initiative will target the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of businesses and state-legislators that promotes conservative laws and has been under ferocious assault from liberals seeking to stigmatize its donors and thereby cause its collapse. "We’re going to put the pressure on ALEC even more," Phil Radford of Greenpeace told Mother Jones. ALEC should consider itself warned.

And not only ALEC: The Democracy Initiative seems to be a fairly straightforward attempt to change the rules of the game so that greens and unions can push their agenda through the Senate. The logic here is that the Democrats have at least a chance of retaking the House in 2014, in which case Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) would be the only obstacle to in-your-face progressivism. Why else the emphasis on filibuster reform? It was the threat of a filibuster in 2009 and 2010 that prevented the Senate from considering the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade energy tax bill as well as the card-check legislation that would make it easier for unions to bolster their ranks and political power. Without a Republican House and the ability of minority parties to block legislation in the Senate, the chances of passing bills to amnesty illegal immigrants and raise taxes further would improve. Fighting efforts to restrict "voting rights" is a useful means of mobilizing the Democratic vote. One team is playing the long game, friends, and it is definitely not the conservative one.

What little we know of the Democracy Initiative provides a useful lesson in the ability of fantasy to inspire political action. Progressivism sets the political and cultural and social agenda; it is embedded in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, in the academy, in journalism, and in much of corporate America; many of the richest counties in the nation support liberal Democrats; President Obama outraised and out-spent his Republican challenger; the combined budgets of progressive interest groups and foundations and think tanks and nonprofits and community organizations is practically incalculable; the most liberal president since Lyndon Baines Johnson is barreling ahead with a confrontational and ideological approach to cabinet appointments and budget fights; Republicans and conservatives are in their greatest state of shock and disarray since 1992 and perhaps since 1964; and yet progressive elites such as the well-compensated Radford of Greenpeace still are swinging at the windmill of the "40-plus-year strategy by the Scaifes, Exxons, Coors, and Kochs of the world" to "take over the country."

Someone needs to give the members of the Democracy Initiative a tap on the shoulder, a kick in the pants, a wonk-like nudge—anything to wake them from their fantasy of being weak and isolated and besieged, anything to alert them to the fact that it is they, not "the Scaifes, Exxons, Coors, and Kochs of the world" who actually run the country and therefore ought to be covered in a diligent, scrupulous, and adversarial fashion. One thing is for sure: It won’t be the mainstream media that holds the progressive movement to account.