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The Democracy Alliance: How a secretive group of donors helps set the progressive agenda

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In mid-November, some of the wealthiest liberals and most important left-leaning interest groups in the country came to Washington, DC to talk strategy. They came to attend the meeting of the Democracy Alliance — the closest thing that exists to a "left-wing conspiracy" in the US.

The Alliance was founded a decade ago, after progressive donors became convinced they needed to more aggressively fund and build liberal institutions to match conservative ones. Since then, the Alliance has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to certain progressive groups. But it's faced some criticism for its secrecy and lack of transparency, and the agenda it's pushing has been criticized by some on both the left and right, for different reasons.

So here's what the Democracy Alliance is, and what it does — much of which we know thanks to internal documents obtained and published by the Washington Free Beacon.

1) What is the Democracy Alliance?

Democracy Alliance Partners

Internal Democracy Alliance document. (Via Washington Free Beacon)

The Democracy Alliance is a group coordinating grants from about 80 to 100 left-leaning donors who give large amounts to progressive groups. Closely tied to unions and many of the biggest-spending rich liberals in the country, the Alliance plays a key role in setting the strategy — and controlling the money — for much of America's progressive movement.

Essentially, the group serves as a middleman between big donors and the many left-leaning groups that want their money. On one end, the Alliance narrows the long list of liberal groups that exist to a lucky few that it views as particularly important to fund. Then the donors (called "partners") pay $30,000 in dues to the Alliance itself, and give a certain amount which has been set as high as $200,000 to those Alliance-recommended groups each year.

2) How much money are we talking about?

Democracy Alliance fundraising

Internal Democracy Alliance document. (Via Washington Free Beacon)

According to internal Democracy Alliance documents obtained by Lachlan Markay of the Free Beacon, between 2005 and 2013 the Alliance's partners have steered $381.7 million to its shortlist of 30 or so "DA-recommended organizations." These partners have also given another $160.1 million to many other left-leaning groups on a much longer list of over 160 other groups that the Alliance approves of but isn't choosing to prioritize fundraising for.

3) Why was the Democracy Alliance founded?

Bush Mission Accomplished

President George W. Bush, when his popularity was still high, on May 1, 2003. (Stephen Jaffe/AFP/ Getty)

Between 2002 and 2005 or so, the Republican Party and conservative movement seemed ascendant, and many liberals were grasping for an explanation as to why. Eventually, several key left-leaning donors came to be persuaded that liberal groups were "less strategic, coordinated and well financed than the conservative-right," as Democratic operative Rob Stein, who played a key role in putting the Alliance together, put it to the Washington Post.

Stein argued in presentations to liberal donors across the country that, since the 1970s, a network of wealthy conservatives had funneled billions of dollars to building conservative institutions — from think tanks (Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute), to groups pressuring the mainstream media (Media Research Center). In contrast, while liberal donors were happy to spend in the short term on campaigns, there weren't comparable investments meant to build up new progressive institutions over the long term, Stein argued.

So in April 2005, several of these donors came together to establish the Democracy Alliance to coordinate their giving with a focus on long-term strategy. (The Alliance's origins are extensively chronicled in Matt Bai's excellent 2007 book The Argument.)

4) Who is part of the Democracy Alliance?

George Soros

George Soros. (Mike Coppola/Getty)

The Alliance keeps its full list of participating donors secret, but some key members have been known for years, and the names of several members have gotten out through reports and leaks. They include:

  • Financiers: Hedge fund billionaire George Soros and his son Jonathan have been important members of the Alliance for years. Financier Steve Gluckstern was the group's first board chairman. The late Peter Lewis, who headed Progressive auto insurance company, was also a key donor in the group's early years.
  • Hollywood: Actor-director Rob Reiner was reportedly among the group's first members.
  • Tech money: Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes (who now owns The New Republic) is reportedly a member, and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer serves on the Alliance's board.
  • Unions: Early on, the SEIU was the only union in the Alliance. Now, the AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America, and American Federation of Teachers are involved, too. And John Stocks, the executive director of the country's largest teachers union group — the National Education Association — became the chairman of the group's board in 2014.
  • Wealthy heirs: Rob McKay, whose father made a fortune through Taco Bell, chaired the Democracy Alliance board from 2006 until 2014. Others with fortunes from rich parents, like Henry van Ameringen, Amy Goldman, and Philip Munger, were on a list of new 2014 partners obtained by the Free Beacon. (An Alliance partner estimated in 2006 that about 30 percent of the group's partners became wealthy through inheritances.)

5) What groups does the Democracy Alliance fund?

Democracy Alliance groups

Part of a chart circulated by Senate Republicans showing Democracy Alliance "core" groups and "partner and aligned" groups. Click here for the full version, via the Daily Signal.

The Alliance keeps its donations secret, but many of its recommended groups have been reported on or leaked out. In particular, it has steered million of dollars to the Center for American Progress — a liberal think tank closely tied to the Democratic Party that was founded in 2003 and now has around a $40 million a year budget. The Alliance has also heavily funded Media Matters for America, founded in 2004 to criticize the mainstream, media from the left, and Catalist, a voter database company intended to benefit Democratic candidates.

In a leaked 2014 presentation, new Alliance president Gara LaMarche praised "what we have built in the progressive world during the last nine years, and what impact it has had." He continued: "Key elements of our infrastructure, from CAP to Media Matters to Catalist, have been built, virtually from scratch, with considerable assistance from DA partners."

Another document leak to the Free Beacon in 2014 revealed a full list of that year's Alliance-approved organizations. In additions to those mentioned above, the Brennan Center for Justice (progressive litigation and legal strategy), America Votes (progressive voter education and mobilization), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (a liberal-leaning think tank), and the American Constitution Society (a group of liberal lawyers) were also listed. Here's the full list of approved groups.

The Democracy Alliance originally made only a short list of 20 to 30 "core" groups that its partners could give to to meet their yearly donation commitment. But in 2012, the Alliance decided to expand the circle, allowing partners to meet their goals by giving to a much broader list of over 160 more groups on what it called the "progressive infrastructure map" — groups the Alliance approves of, but isn't choosing to make a top fundraising priority.

Yet another document leak, to Politico's Ken Vogelrevealed the Alliance's internal evaluations on how well each of its core groups met certain goals in 2013, as well as just how much of each group's budget the Alliance was responsible for (usually between a tenth to half).

6) What does the Democracy Alliance stand for?

Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche, now president of the Democracy Alliance, at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. (Clayton Chase / Getty)

It's clear that the Alliance both wants to elect Democrats, and supports pushing progressive priorities of some kind. Beyond that, their interests can be murky. In The Argument, Matt Bai wrote that the Alliance's original partners "didn't share any single, identifiable philosophy. They were united by their revulsion toward the Republican majority, and they shared a common nostalgia for what the Democratic Party had once achieved, but they had arrived at no consensus about the kind of government they envisioned next."

In the ensuing years, the Alliance has tried — and sometimes struggled — to strike a balance between funding groups that tend to support President Obama and the Democratic Party, versus more "outsider" groups who want to push the party more to the left via criticism of the administration and incumbent politicians. These tensions came to the fore in 2012, when the Alliance seemed to be taking an increasingly partisan path rather than an outsider one, as the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim and Politico's Ken Vogel have reported.

In early 2014, the group's new president Gara LaMarche wrote (in an internal presentation later obtained by the Free Beacon) that there was a sense the Alliance had "become a bit stalled" and may have lost some "strategic focus." So LaMarche proposed refocusing the group's strategy on four major areas:

  1. Democracy: protecting voting rights, reducing the influence of money in politics, a focus on the 2020 redistricting, and protecting the courts.
  2. Economic inequality: increasing wages for low-income workers, restoring the social safety net, and new thinking about a fair economy. (On that final item, LaMarche's presentation says, "Our policy agenda on this most critical of issues is a little thin.")
  3. States: state institutions, long-term work in the South and West, winning progressive victories in blue states, and "countering ALEC with a network of progressive lawmakers."
  4. Rising American electorate: new "engagement funds" focusing on Latinos, African-Americans, young people, and women. (LaMarche wants to expand these to include Asian-Americans and working class whites.)

This agenda seems to heavily focus on electoral victories and building a Democratic (and progressive) electoral majority, rather than on outside advocacy about liberal issues. (You can read LaMarche's full presentation here.)

7) What are the criticisms of the Democracy Alliance?

Many people of all ideological stripes feel some unease at the idea of a homogenized, coordinated progressive agenda dominated by secretive millionaires and billionaires. "All kinds of Democrats and liberals were complaining that corporations and individuals were carrying on these stealth campaigns to fund right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups," Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics said in 2006. "Just as it was then, it is a problem today."

Conservative critics
argue that the group promotes an "extreme policy agenda." Meanwhile, from the left, there has been internal controversy over how independent the Alliance is from the White House and the Democratic Party.

Additionally, nonpartisan groups have criticized the Alliance
for a lack of transparency and accountability. In a recent interview with Matea Gold of the Washington Post, LaMarche said the group is heading toward more disclosure, promising "significant steps to greater transparency."

Correction: Due to an addition error, the original version of this piece misstated the total number of funds the alliance has steered.

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