"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

The Fully Functioning Left?

Kos has a story up, mostly sourced from a piece in the LA times, about how the America Votes coalition is helping to create an intigrated, fully-functioning left.

This might catch me some flack, but I have to call bullshit.

America Votes is a well-intentioned organization, but I do not think it has performed well or is a model that should be extended without significant overhaul. I'm not saying this out of any sort of spite or malace; in real terms I have had very little interaction with people in charge of AV. I'm saying this because I know that there are limited resources for left-wing politics in 2005, and I don't want these resources to be mis-applied.

This election it cost $50,000 for an organization to get a "seat at the table" with America Votes. This means being in on weekly conference calls and monthly meetings in DC, which serve some purpose in terms of allowing groups with parallel interests to keep in touch with one another. However, the idea that this was worth 50 grand to any of the fine organizations involved is ludicrous.

My experience is on the young end of the spectrum, so perhaps it's skiewed, but my organization, Music for America, got almost zero value from these meetings. Our meaningful -- and in many cases quite productive! -- coordination with other groups happened for the most part at the field level, and those contacts that manifested nationally happened the way any other contact in our generation emerges: someone picked up the phone and called someone else, or sent an email. You don't need a $50k seat at a table to do that.

The one thing of real value AV provided was a semi-working voterfile. Now, we aren't using this, and many of the other groups have their own systems at the field level -- and in reality this probably says more about the failure of the DNC to coordinate hard data than anything else -- but for groups that do direct voter-contact and turnout this probably provided some value. I know at least two groups whose state-level campaigns are using the AV voterfile tool, to which MfA was able to conribute some 20,000 contacts. That was nice, but again, we didn't need to spend $50k to give other people our data.

On issues of real organizational/operational coordination, message, press, and shared access to power, I didn't see a lot going on. What I saw was a lot of stuff that reminded me in a negative way of corporate America. The particular anecdote that kept coming to mind was from one time in late 2000 when I was trying to do a bit of consulting work for Gerber (the baby-food giant). In an unguarded moment just after a meeting, the senior VP of marketing and apparent heir to the CEO spot said, "you know, all the people in this building [the entire executive staff] could disappear into thin air and the company would go on fine for years."

That's the sense I got from AV: well-meaning, but ultimately innefectual (and expensive) executive management.

Again, its perfectly plausable that some of the other groups like the Sierra Club or Emily's List got enormous value that I am ignorant of from the meetings. However, from where I sit, there wasn't much going on. If it wasn't all so well-meaning, I would say it was bullshit. I think the resources and talent, the time and energy, could have been much better applied. Moreover, I feel that (again for us) the AV organization even got in the way.

Specific example: there was a group called the "Young Voter Alliance" which was a cluster of some other youth orgs. This group of groups included our pals at The League of Pissed Off Voters, who we work with quite a lot. On occasion, the YVA rep say things to AV that were directly contrary to the statements made by people who were actually working for indyvoter kids, and as these things tend to work out, the kids actually doing the work were right. For us, the America Votes environment was not really one of trust.

Also, I know that other orgs experienced internal fissures, power struggles, confusion, etc, and to the best of my knowledge AV did nothing to address or mitigate this. In fact, my guess is that the environment created by exclusive meetings between "the people who matter" in Washington DC probably exacerbated this kind of problem more than anything else. If you're an org with an internal power struggle, who do you send? Who gets to be on the call? What do you say?

Power games seemed to happen a lot in that kind of world. It becomes less about getting anything done and more about being right and justifying your existence/paycheck/position of authority. If we're seriously in the business of getting shit done, we've got to drop the pretense and keep our focus on reality, on what matters. I know my Executive Director was going to write a fairly critical evaluation of AV as part of their feedback process. I helped her find some nice things to say after another more seasoned pol asked her, "what are you hoping to accomplish with this?"

The clear implication was that this was an organization which was run by some people who we want to have on our side, and pissing them off by telling them they weren't doing anything that was helping our work wasn't in our own best interest. So, like I said, we found a few nice things to say.

In retrospect, that was the wrong thing to do. It wasn't honest. In theory, groups like AV should be important workhorses providing leadership, expertise and actively pushing for coordination between its member organizations and the wider left-wing network. In practice, something significantly less than that happened; and unless we confront this reality, we're going to hit a lower point of potential than otherwise might be possible.

Knowing what I know now, it's hard not to see the LA Times push as a PR offensive by the AV people designed to stake some claim to the smaller pile of resources (money) that will be available in the next calendar year. I think that for us, giving money to America Votes again would be a mistake. What should be funded instead are organizations which actively work to correct the now glaring flaws in our electoral process, and to construct powerful/flexibe data-sharing platform(s) that are truly of "enterprise level."

Operational coordination works much more effectively at the field level, and message coordination requires leadership in addition to focus groups. Most importantly, national coordinating groups need to provide some minimum of political focus in order to become catalysts for action. Perhaps more so than any other group, America Votes seemed to purely be an anti-bush coalition; as such, in a week it's reason to exist will have passed, and without significant overhaul, so should the organization.

I think we're on our way, but it's still a long road to a fully functioning left. Meaninful coordination at the field level, positive agenda-setting, joint press operations, a forum for best practices and a source for political experience and leadership: these are all going to be pressing needs in 2005, and I'm sorry to say that from my experience America Votes gets at best a C+ on these counts.

I know this is just politics, but C+ isn't going to cut it. This ain't no time for grade inflation, people. We got to keep it real.