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Centrist School II: Learning from the Far Left
A snark-free overview of how a dynamic group of political entrepreneurs had outsized impact over the past five years
A nonpartisan political entrepreneur put words to our pain point in 2019: nearly every talented political entrepreneur under 30 she’d come across was on the Far Left.
In the first installment of this ten-part Centrist School series, we covered the big-picture of the Far Left’s rise and fall: the arc of an ideological movement that captured the broad Resistance after 2016 and turned it into a failed Revolution. This week we look only at the rise, and do so without any critiques of ideology or disposition.
The Far Left had a ton of talent and punched way above its weight.
This is a snark-free overview of how a dynamic group of political entrepreneurs had outsized impact over the past five years. How they were structured, where the dense network of political entrepreneurs came from, and what lessons this entrepreneurial ecosystem may hold for centrist startups.
Welcome to Centrist School, Part II.
Entrepreneurs & Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
Let’s turn a critique of the Far Left on its head. Research consistently shows the Far Left – identified as the “Progressive Activist” typology in More In Common’s research, or 6% of “Progressive Left” according to Pew Research – represents 6 percent to 8 percent of Americans.
How has that narrow slice captured disproportionate power? Through an entrepreneurial ecosystem that has empowered a nimble, talented group of political entrepreneurs.
These political actors meet the Harvard Business Review definition of entrepreneur: “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” They “perceive a short window of opportunity” (read: just after Trump’s election).
It is “a distinctive approach to managing rather than a specific stage in an organization’s life cycle.” Far Left entrepreneurs built startups, but more importantly they commandeered larger organizations and steered the political discourse.1 They seized the short window after Trump’s election to gain resources far beyond what they controlled.
How did they overcome the risks associated with entrepreneurship? They lacked a master plan, but made up for it with a supportive community of doers. They had an “entrepreneurial ecosystem”:
The essence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is its people and the culture of trust and collaboration that allows them to interact successfully. An ecosystem that allows for the fast flow of talent, information, and resources helps entrepreneurs quickly find what they need at each stage of growth. As a result, the whole is greater than the sum of its separate parts.2
In the years following the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, a defined community emerged that displayed these traits with applications to politics:
Approach Organizing as a Muscle
Integrate Vertically & Horizontally
Deploy Insurgent Tactics
This entrepreneurial ecosystem allowed leaders to seize on a window of opportunity, capitalize on an efficient flow of resources, ideas and talent to launch startups and co-opt existing resources far beyond what was previously controlled.
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1. Approach Organizing as a Muscle
“Getting into these fights is not like draining a battery. It’s like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.” - Elizabeth Warren on student debt cancellation in 2017
Far Left entrepreneurs spotted upside in everything - and a throughline from different types of campaigns (for candidates or for issues) and over different time periods. There are no total losses when every fight yields assets to bring into the next round. Far Left leaders and organizations leveraged their fights to build power and connective tissue, jumping into issues with a fury and using media moments to drive progressive narratives.
In Massachusetts, one Far Left umbrella named the problem this approach solves for:
The 2000s saw a series of campaigns activate progressive activists around the state, only to see that infrastructure fade after each election.
Some tactical steps to this are outlined below, but the attitude is most important. It is natural to think of political capital as something to spend or to save. But the Far Left entrepreneurs - from Senator Warren down to state-level startups - viewed political capital as something to invest and see the gains compound. They designed entities that got stronger by working out, and brought that shared mentality to new coalitions.
2. Integrate Vertically & Horizontally
The density and breadth of the Far Left entrepreneurial ecosystem is derived from organizing a relatively small set of individuals and organizations across different issues and tactics (horizontal integration), and nesting activities within organizations at all levels of local, state, and national politics (vertical integration).
Horizontal integration: Organizations, Tactics, and Issues
Far Left entrepreneurs created conditions to align and coordinate seemingly unrelated issue groups. In Massachusetts, all legislative candidates get policy questionnaires from a coalition including mainstream environmental groups that also, confusingly, seems to come with a Boston Democratic Socialists endorsement. Another umbrella group has a questionnaire touching on dozens of issues that can run 45 pages long.
This creates an interlocking network not just of organizations, but the individuals who staff them (and enter a revolving door from advocacy to staffing candidates). The same person who works at a leftist policy think tank may also volunteer on the Sierra Club endorsement committee and also used to work for a teachers union. This creates a dense network iterating on strategic tactics. In this ecosystem, ideas and resources move fluidly through and among nominally discrete groups because people do, and the inverse.
The power of the ecosystem often trumps the mission of individual organizations. Culture overrides short-term, narrow impact. For instance, the leading pro-choice group NARAL still has a pro “Defund The Police” section on its website.
Meanwhile, this comprehensive infrastructure can be deployed on a wide number of issues rapidly. This means ample opportunity to redirect funding intended for Democrats to win general elections or for interest groups to advance their mission. By funneling centrist or issue-specific resources to Far Left causes,3 these entrepreneurs are meeting the definition of the word by leveraging their horizontally integrated network to corral power “beyond resources controlled”.
In addition to being integrated across issues and tactics, this entrepreneurial ecosystem is vertically integrated from local to state to national.
If the Chicago Teachers Union develops an effective tactic, that information can be transmitted to the state affiliate and then nationally through the American Federation of Teachers – then spread to Boston or myriad chapters around the country. If an activist in the Boston Democratic Socialists moves to Chicago,4 they can go right into the Chicago Democratic Socialists website New Member page and sign up for a monthly orientation.5
Combining this geographic reach with tactical integration - on policy questionnaires, lobbying, candidate endorsements, staff training, and fun social network activities - means the ecosystem can also bring outsized pressure on elected officials.
Policy, communications and electoral networks are integrated - and politicians notice. If a member of Congress isn’t on board with a policy demand of the left, that member’s staff can expect Justice Democrats to start sniffing around a primary challenger and MoveOn to procure negative coverage in local publications. This creates the capacity to encircle targeted politicians.6 And the state legislator or nonprofit activist within the ecosystem sees the same thing, viewing alignment as a high-ROI path up the political ladder.
A Far Left national campaign can access the email lists, grassroots contacts, and spiritually engaged talent in different parts of the country because the network enables it. Talent and information flow efficiently up, down, and across their entrepreneurial ecosystem.
3. Deploy Insurgent Tactics
Asymmetrical conflict by irregular forces using all available tactics. Requires support of the local population to prevail.
The “Squad” has five members but often garners equal media attention to coalitions with membership 20x larger. How?
By deploying insurgent tactics7 and using every available tool to weaken a formal power structure. A sprawling network of ‘progressive’ nonprofits and PACs is an irregular force – it does not conduct open, organized conflict with the formal Democratic Party or centrist institutions within the party. It identifies weaknesses and uses its less formal nature to its advantage through primary challenges, media conflict, and symbiotic relationships with purported adversaries on the right.
A single primary success draws more media attention than a dozen wins in swing districts across the country. The reason is simple: it attracts outsized media attention and has a disproportionate impact on incumbent behavior.
Primary victories are a man-bites-dog story that occur once or twice an election cycle. Compounding this high ROI is the fact that the vast majority of Democratic elected officials represent safe districts, so the threat of a primary is their only real ongoing concern.8
This approach also leverages the benefits of horizontal integration: fail any purity test and incur the wrath of the entire ecosystem. And of vertical integration: a Justice Democrats victory over incumbent member of Congress Mike Capuano at the federal level literally overlapped with a state legislative primary challenge led by local Far Left groups.9
Productive conflict through earned media
Far Left entrepreneurs effectively leverage the media’s thirst for conflict. Ideological entrepreneurs place stories that boost their elected allies’ profiles and gain traction through amplification by the rest of the ecosystem. In Massachusetts, a Democratic governor is immediately welcomed by a slew of articles building up conflict between the left and center of the party in the same way that national groups follow Biden’s State of the Union with cross-issue critiques, like the allegedly climate-focused Sunrise Movement prioritizing attacks on Biden for pro-police comments.
Build symbiotic relationships with the alleged adversaries
The Far Left and Far Right play off each other to generate fodder for their respective audiences. By invoking the specter of “the other,” each side is able to fire up its base, raise gobs of small-dollar donations - and keep the media conflict going.
No rational Democrat would choose to invest precious campaign donation dollars in an incumbent representing a district Biden won with 80% of the vote. But anyone whose email address has been sold to Far Left candidates sees plenty of subject lines invoking partisan warfare like “The GOP presidential candidate attacking Ayanna”.10
This email asks for a $3 contribution split between two incumbent Democrats representing districts where Biden received 80 percent and 83 percent of the 2020 vote.11 By channeling backlash at Republicans like Vivek Ramaswamy, Far Left entrepreneurs without any financial battle with the GOP again commandeer “resources beyond their control.”
Both the Far Left and Far Right win when they pick high-profile fights with each other (see: MTG and AOC battling it out on Twitter12), but Far Left groups also take it a step further: They also attack moderate Democrats — especially in earned media and digital fundraising.
That intra-party battle is asymmetrical. Far Left entrepreneurs have leveraged this asymmetry to define its dual enemies (Trump Republicans and mainstream Democrats), maximizing upside in both fights and collecting more assets all the while.
The 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign was the PayPal Mafia of progressive politics. It became the ultimate catalyst for the Far Left ecosystem, peaking just in time for the window of opportunity represented by the post-Trump Resistance. It launched entrepreneurs like Saikat Chakrabarti, who joined that campaign after cashing out of a PayPal competitor.13 Along with other Sanders alums who founded Justice Democrats, Chakrabarti brought a "startup mentality" that explicitly appealed to the venture capital portfolio model in which the PAC would be "OK losing 90 percent of our races" as long as the wins reaped huge returns.
Entrepreneurs like Chakrabarti did reap huge returns. Perhaps not coincidentally, some who identified market opportunities also detected the elements of a thriving political ecosystem14:
Entrepreneurs & Talent
Institutions and individuals with Knowledge & Resources
Institutions and individuals serving as Champions & Conveners
Onramps (access points) to the ecosystem so anyone can participate
Intersections that facilitate the interaction of people, ideas and resources
Stories that people tell about themselves and their ecosystem
Culture rich in social capital
Through champions and conveners like Sanders, the entrepreneurial ideas emerging from the campaign were efficiently connected to the talent, information and resources required to launch new ventures or re-direct existing organizations. They built onramps for millions of Americans to participate, to feel part of a common story shaping their identity, and enhance a virtuous cycle fueling the faction with ever more talent and resources.
For centrist political entrepreneurs, there is a lot to learn.
From the Welcome Team
Organizing Beats Debating Apr 2022
What the Center Can Learn From AOC Mar 2022
“Popularism” but for Organizing Dec 2021
From the Academy
Steve Teles - Niskanen Center - The Future is Faction
Elaine Kamarck - Brookings - Anticipating trouble: Congressional primaries and incumbent behavior
Lara Putnam, Paula Martinos-Mantay, Aram Fischer, and Micah Sifry - Organizing in the Digital Age: Lessons from the Indivisible Movement
From the Center Left
Misha Chellam - Movement vs. Abundance Progressives
Jeremiah Johnson - How Progressives Abandoned Progress For Process
Subscribe to Centrist School for more lessons from the rise and fall of the Far Left
Groups like Indivisible, which went from a focus on broad anti-Trump organizing to critiquing Biden from the left. Or NARAL and Planned Parenthood moving from abortion rights to a focus on police abolition. Members like AOC are able to influence the course of legislation by virtue of their media influence.
Chicago DSA is one of the more electorally successful DSA groups, making up 10% of the city council.
“Meet Comrades. Get Involved.”
There is a famous story about a NYT journalist who went to Cuba before the revolution. Castro had him sit in a cave and look outward. Castro then marched the same 50 soldiers past the cave for hours on end, while his generals reported troop movements to him. The New York Times reported that Castro had amassed an army thousands strong. This is basically what the Far Left has done, just on Twitter.
NYT on WelcomePAC: “Centrist Insurgency” that “applies insurgent tactics to support center-left candidates in swing districts.”
Elaine Kamarck’s Brookings research on primary challenges “Anticipating trouble: Congressional primaries and incumbent behavior” shows the overreaction to a potential primary
From August 30 - find hundreds more at this great archive of political emails
22 Million views on Twitter, about 50x the total followers of every Democratic House member who won a Trump district