Yet if liberal lassitude is understandable, it’s also alarming, because we’re going to have to fend off Trump once again. And even if some of the pullback is cyclical, some seems to be rooted in a more enduring malaise. “There was a huge amount of additional grass- roots funding in the Trump era, because people were so scared,” said Max Berger, the co-founder of progressive groups such as If Not Now and the Momentum Training Institute. “And I feel like we’re at the end of the wave of what people are willing to do out of sheer terror. So now, if we’re going to keep that level of momentum, we need something more positive.”
One small, characteristic piece of this problem — and perhaps the easiest part to solve — involves the way Democrats use email. If you’re on any progressive mailing lists, you surely know what I’m talking about: the endless appeals, sometimes in bold all caps, warning of imminent Democratic implosion. (Recent subject lines in my inbox include, “We can kiss our Senate majority goodbye” and “This is not looking good.”)
In the short term, these emails are effective, which is why campaigns use them. Over time, they encourage a mix of cynicism and helplessness — precisely the feelings leading too many people to withdraw from political involvement. “We and others in the field have argued that, long term, it’s disastrous, because you don’t build a trusting base,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party when I asked him about these hair-on-fire missives.
But this is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that, right now, progressive politics are necessarily organized around preventing imminent catastrophe rather than offering up a vision of a transformed world. Joe Biden has an impressive legislative record, but because of the counter-majoritarian roadblocks in our system, the case for his re-election is largely about staving off disaster rather than the promise of new accomplishments. “It’s really hard to get people to give money when you do not have a coherent theory of change,” said Berger.
Where there is a prospect of real change, progressives are still getting mobilized. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, “there was a resurgence of both activist energy and donor energy,” said Tory Gavito, the president of Way to Win, a network of progressive donors channeling money to pro-democracy grass-roots groups. “And those things are often correlated.” As she pointed out, Janet Protasiewicz raised “more money than God” in her race for a pivotal Wisconsin Supreme Court seat. In Ohio, organizers fought off a sneaky statewide ballot measure meant to kneecap a campaign to protect reproductive rights. (Planned Parenthood has recently laid people off, but the organization insists this was because of restructuring rather than a fund-raising shortfall.)