Skip to main content

The progressive agenda can't move forward without coalition politics. Coalition politics is filled with headaches, but ultimately it is necessary and can be very successful. Progressives have an uphill battle on a number of fronts, and divisiveness within the coalition holds progressives back.

I have discussed how the netroots aren't THE base but part of the base, and did an introduction on some of the organizations that make up progressive infrastructure. Those two diaries are a decent backgrounder to this one, because it's important to understand the different parts of the base and how different organizations are better suited to appeal to the needs of different parts of the base. It's also important to understand that there are many organizations that are quietly effective and do work without any coverage from the netroots or national media.

I had a tough time trying to figure out how I wanted to structure this. Should I structure this by function? Group by issue? What makes it hard is that most groups have multiple functions, and not all groups that focus on one issue are fully functional (in that some are more of a messaging vehicle, while others do messaging, policy, legal, and electoral campaigns). I decided on structuring this largely by function, even if many organizations have multiple functions. I did this because I think people already tend to think of these organizations most often by issue, and I want folks to also think about them by function. I also tried to talk about everything in a way that might make it easier for everyone to understand, even if it's not exactly how a full campaign would talk about it. I'm trying to bring out some of the nuances (not all campaigns are the same).

As I noted before, many organizations have multiple functions, and that the whole point of the progressive infrastructure is to have many organizations building coalitions and alliances to push forward. Americans get their information from many different places now, and the ability to hit them with info from multiple sources in different venues is key. At the same time, you don't want to have every group targeting the same band group of voters.

Different parts of the Democratic base prioritize issues differently. Different parts of the Democratic base talk about the same issue differently (working class Dems will talk about gas and energy, while college students and wealthier white progressives will talk about climate change). Having different organizations working together means reaching a broader range of people with the right messaging from the right messengers.

Coalitions can divide up turf, so that those who will turn out to vote based on messaging related to the environment are hit hard by environmental groups, while those who will turn out to vote because of messaging from their union are contacted primarily by their union. This allows progressive organizations to cover more ground and with targeted messages, instead of having the same groups all covering a narrower band of voters. In addition, voters trust information that comes from a trusted messenger (e.g. pro-choice women trusting what they're hearing from Planned Parenthood over a candidate).

If a voter's top three issues are the environment, abortion rights, and LGBT rights, this voter will hopefully get mail, phones, email, and maybe even a canvasser at the door from organizations that advocate on those issues. Maybe a canvasser from Planned Parenthood will show up at their door step, and the voter will receive a GOTV call from an LGBT rights group and direct mail from League of Conservation Voters (LCV) with information on the environmental records of the candidates on the ballot. This voter will not get mail from Sierra Club, as LCV and Sierra Club have already divided up the turf so that the voter is getting environmental messaging from LCV here. Sierra Club delivers an environmental message to environmental voters in other states. All of this activity is in addition to the independent expenditure ads, and of course, whatever they're getting from the candidates and party committees.

It is also important to note that many organizations communicate to their members, but also communicate to non-members. The kind of messaging and frequency which someone gets contacted can very depending on whether someone is a member or not.

So, hopefully that wasn't too confusing. The basic point is that working together allows progressives to cover more ground. Various organizations have different functions, so it's also important to understand what is out there. Here is an overview of the functions of various organizations:

Think Tanks
I think it's fairly obvious what the role of think tanks are. They put out progressive policy papers and other documents that are used by elected officials and activists in their policy fights. In addition, they are cited in earned media all year round and in ads come election time. They have policy experts that can give background to issues for reporters.

I'm going to spend less time on this aspect, because it's pretty easily understood. Keep in mind that you are probably most familiar with the national think tanks (e.g. The Center for American Progress). There are some think tanks that are geared more towards a state audience.

This would encompass any group that lobbies a legislative body or executive branch position that implements policy. This is about any organization that is talking to staffers or key electeds about legislation, executive orders, etc. This obviously often goes hand in hand with field and communications, but the team dedicated primarily to outreach w/ electeds and their staff is often different from the field people and the communications people. So, I've separated it.

One reason I want to separate it is that there are some organizations that have a issue lobbying operation as well as a electoral campaign operation. Some are just the former. It's important to recognize that some organizations that have a strong electoral campaign operation may have a weaker operation that deals with legislatures, and that when making decisions on donating to an organization or assessing effectiveness, it's important that an organization will be weaker in some areas and stronger in others.

There are coalitions that coordinate various issue organizations at the national level and at the state level.

Common Purpose Project and Unity09 fit in somewhere between here and the field and communications sections of this. These coalitions are geared to win legislative fights.

State Voices: 501(c)(3)
This is the national umbrella organization for 501(c)(3) organizations. State Voices is further organized by state, so that the 501(c)(3) operations in each state are coordinated.

501c3s are great for doing nonpartisan activities like voter registration and voter education (what someone's rights are at the polls). Progressive organizations can use their 501c3 to go into neighborhoods with high concentrations of Dem-leaning voters (e.g. liberal college campuses, African American neighborhoods in cities, etc.) and register voters. We have an advantage over Republicans in this respect because there are significantly more precincts/wards that are over 65% Democratic than there are precincts/wards that are over 65% Republican.

Think tanks are 501c3s, but State Voices does not seek to coordinate think tanks... just the 501c3s that do voter registration, voter education, etc. These are considered nonpartisan activities.

America Votes: 527s, 501(c)(4)s, PACs
This is the national umbrella organization for 501(c)(4)s, MCFLs and other organizations that can do advocacy and political work. It is designed to coordinate independent expenditures nationally and in the states. This coalition is geared to winning elections, with a focus on direct voter contact.

501c4s can engage in political activity. There are organizations that will have a c3 arm and a c4 arm. How do you differentiate between the two beyond definitions? Here's one way to think about it: the c3 arm of an organization can conduct a nonpartisan voter registration program. The organization's c4 arm can conduct a persuasion program (for example, direct mail comparisons between two candidates).

For more on the various types of legal entities out there, please read this.

Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
BISC is invaluable to the progressive movement. They've helped pass progressive ballot measures and defeated conservative ones. They also serve as a watchdog on right-wingnuts who fund conservative ballot measures. They advise progressive organizations on the tactics that are used by conservatives, and keep abreast of messaging that works to defeat/pass ballot measures. They keep tabs on what's happening in the states at a national level.

Individual organizations and issue groups are often coordinated by coalitions that I've mentioned. Of course they also function individually. There are too many to list here and to discuss; that's for a different diary on a different day.

Press / Earned Media
Blogs are here, as what blogs are best at is in pushing against right-wing media narratives.

Progressive magazines like The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The Nation, etc. are here.

Progressive radio & TV hosts and pundits, as well as progressive columnists are also a part of the 'progressive media outlets' constellation.

Media watchers like Media Matters for America are a part of the communications infrastructure.

Earned media can be coordinated in a variety of ways -- often by issue. Communications can also be coordinated by state...

Individual states have communication hubs that help coordinate communications both in the state and nationally. ProgressNow is the umbrella organization for these hubs. They message on all sorts of issues. Each state based hub organizes earned media events, raises money for independent expenditures, respond to right-wing organizations in the press, outreach to state blogs, etc. Its state affiliates have c3 and c4 arms, and in some cases, state PACs. Many of these state hubs have been working with state and national organizations on health care reform and other issues. Here are a few of the state hubs:

   * ProgressNow Colorado has been the model for similar organizations around the country. Colorado has a growing progressive infrastructure, and its a state where elections are influenced by heavy independent expenditure activity.
   * Alliance for a Better Minnesota ran TV ads in support of Al Franken last year.
   * One Wisconsin Now is the organization responsible for this footage of Sarah Palin at a Wisconsin fundraiser that you may have seen on the Rachel Maddow Show. They do good work in support of progressives up and down the ballot, and in countering conservative organizations which are alive and well in WI.

And of course, various issue groups are doing press outreach and new media outreach individually, too.

Paid Media/Mail/Phone/Digital Strategy Power
I put this as a subset of communications. Note that mail and phones are usually grouped with canvassing because all three are part of a direct voter contact program. I don't group them together for the purposes of this diary. You have to do layered communications these days anyway, which is dealing with the media (old & new), TV & radio ads, mail, phones, and canvassing. Communications and direct voter contact pretty much meld in this respect, but I pulled out mail/phones from field/canvasses. Why? Because canvassing is labor & resource intensive, and it's also something that you need to plan months in advance for, if you want to maximize turnout. You can do paid media/mail/phones/digital with a skeleton crew out of someone's house.

There are a number of organizations that are designed primarily to influence via paid media (TV/radio), mail and phone programs. In other words, these tend to be low overhead operations that can drop in fairly late in the game and make a difference should the need arise. Funding comes from individual donors or other progressive organizations. New media / digital strategy isn't used as much by some progressive organizations beyond an email list, a website, a twitter feed, and maybe a little blogging and blog outreach, but you can put together something decent in the way of online advertising and the like fairly late in the game.

Training/Best Practices
A number of organizations offer training for campaign workers and career development for politicos. EMILY's List, Wellstone Action, Women's Information Network, etc. There are also groups that are dedicated to best practices and sharing of information and research (e.g. The Analyst Institute).

Got to have a legal team in place, no?

Campaign finance lawyers help different organizations navigate byzantine campaign finance laws so that they can use the money they have in the most efficient way possible. They vet ads, memos released to the public, etc.

Election protection. There are independent organizations that have done election protection. In 2008 though, the Obama campaign took the lead on it, and put together the most extensive election protection organization that the party's seen. They had lawyers in every state very early to work out problems, get the lay of the land on the ground, and develop relationships that would pay dividends down the road. In addition, with the Obama campaign taking the lead, some of those independent orgs dropped their own legal challenges and lawsuits so there wouldn't be a bottleneck at the courts.

Lawyers who challenge conservative laws and protect progressive ones. See the marriage equality legal fights.

Gotta have money to make things happen, right? Big donor collaboratives like the Democracy Alliance help fund the progressive infrastructure. There are also donor collaboratives that focus mostly on state politics (Colorado has one).

Of course, there are also small donors and grassroots fundraising. This includes online fundraising, direct mail fundraising and door-to-door fundraising. Online fundraising is obviously cheapest. Direct mail fundraising is still used as there are some people who will not give money over the internet (and some who quite frankly couldn't tell you how to turn on a computer). In addition, the messaging in the direct mail will reinforce messaging that the recipient is getting in other avenues. Door-to-door fundraising is labor intensive and seemingly a waste of money. Believe it or not, there are organizations that raise quite a bit of money through this. Even if the fundraising isn't that hot door-to-door, it's not a complete waste, because an organization can use this opportunity to refine voter lists and do IDs (candidate support and/or issue) in the process. You can also test messaging while going door-to-door raising money.

ActBlue is awesome, but remember that the money that has been raised through the ActBlue website isn't all "netroots" (defined as active progressive bloggers). Candidates link directly to ActBlue, and people who donate to candidates thru the candidate's website don't necessarily overlap with the netroots.

Putting It Together
Some coalitions are designed to be permanent. Others end whenever legislation is finally passed. The coalitions that I've singled out like State Voices, America Votes, and ProgressNow are permanent. Issue coalitions (like the various environmental groups that often work together) are often informal but are more or less permanent given that it's organizing around an issue (and not a specific piece of legislation).

State Success Story
National coalitions make sure that resources are distributed to state organizations based on need, quality of the organization, competitiveness of a state or district, etc. National coalitions also try to enforce some message discipline across various states.

But a lot of the real work is done in the states, and I think it's the states where success has been more easily attainable than in national politics. Again, coalitions can divide up turf, so that those who will turn out to vote based on messaging related to the environment are hit hard by environmental groups, while those who will turn out to vote because of messaging from their union are contacted primarily by their union. This allows progressive organizations to cover more ground and with targeted messages, instead of having the same groups all covering a narrower band of voters.

WISCONSIN has a good overview of the work done in this state in 2008:

WEAC's aggressiveness appears to rise. The state's largest teachers' union poured more than $2 million into legislative races through mid-October and gets the Dem majority it wanted in the Legislature. Of the five seats WEAC targeted, Dems won three. WEAC is credited with saving Whitewater-area Dem Rep. Kim Hixson and other vulnerables. Insiders believe WEAC, which bankrolled many negative ads, outspent WMC [Wisconsin Manufacture and Commerce, a right-wing org], which went all positive this fall.


After years of complaining they'd been out-organized by Republicans, liberals seem to have their own three-headed monster these days to boost Dem candidates. One Wisconsin Now works the message angle, Advancing Wisconsin focuses on GOTV, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee does the ads. Their finger prints can be seen all over the Assembly seats that Dems picked up, insiders say. GWC ran TV ads going after GOP Rep. J.A. "Doc Hines, who ended up getting just 42 percent of the vote in the Dells area's 42nd District, while OWN was all over Republican Jo Egelhoff in Appleton's open 57th, which Dem Penny Bernard Schaber won. Advancing Wisconsin's independent expenditure reports show it was active in just about every legislative race that ended up being competitive. The group was out canvassing in just about all the races that ended up being in play, and some credit it for making South Milwaukee GOP Rep. Mark Honadel a near-casualty Tuesday after few put the Republican's re-election campaign on the watch list.

What Democrats with control of both the Assembly and the Senate and the governor's office? WI Democrats (via Gov. Doyle's budget this year) extended some domestic partnership benefits to LGBT couples. (Rep. Tammy Baldwin has one of these partnerships.) These benefits are limited, but they are viewed by some as a model for extending LGBT rights in states with constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage.

National Example of Coalition Work
OFA, labor unions, HCAN, Planned Parenthood for America and other progressive organizations worked to turn out health care reform supporters to town halls in August and office visits in the fall. In addition, phone calls were made, and letters written. This was important in giving moderate-conservative Democrats breathing room and proved that progressive organizations can get people to show up. It gave these organizations some leverage. Does that mean they get everything they want? No. But HCR would've been dead without them. They've got a seat at the table and an ongoing relationship with members of Congress and the WH that will continue to pay dividends. These groups are large and can turn out voters, which means they're not just there to make a little noise. There's actually something behind it.

Why is that important? When Democrats lose, they go in a more conservative direction. When Democrats win, they go in a more progressive direction. (The NY-23 win eased the fears of moderate-conservative Dems on HCR. Had we lost there you can bet your house that HCR would be even more watered down.) Progressives who stay home only signal that they can't be counted on, so then, Democrats think they need to play to those who show up every election, which is as a whole more conservative. That's basically what's happened for decades. Organizations devoted to the long-term success of progressive infrastructure have figured out that coalitions work. They'll be fighting together for electoral wins and legislative wins. Keeping membership engaged in legislative battles and communications wars with the right-wing helps organizations turn people out to vote come election time. If you click on the websites for State Voices, America Votes, and ProgressNow, you'll find that they're mostly in purple states with Democratic Senators that are more progressive than those Democratic Senators in purple states that don't have needed progressive infrastructure.

One aspect that is rarely explored or factored in, on the progressive side is the rise of conservative organizations, especially religion-based ones which have proven their ability to get out the vote and to generate action in legislative fights. These organizations have successfully been able to blunt the effectiveness of progressive organizations over the years. Progressive organizations have to either tweak their own messaging and tactics (to address the success of the other side, without alienating their existing supporters), or new progressive organizations are needed to address specific conservative messaging. We'll see what develops in the next few years.

This is turning into a bit of a series:

  1. The Democratic Base
  1. 527s, PACs, c3s, c4s, and How They Function Overview of various legal entities and how they are used by progressives to advance the cause. I make some suggestions as to which ones are particularly good and worth donating to. c3 donations are tax deductible.
  1. The Importance of a Coalition (this one)
  1. Profile of Progressive Organization by Issue. Issue TBD.

P.S. To any right-wingers who happen to be reading and thinking ZOMG! SOROS! VLWC!... your side has their own organizations and infrastructures PLUS Fox News and right-wing radio. Go away now.

Originally posted to Newsie8200 on Tue Jan 26, 2010 at 05:36 PM PST.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site