The billionaire takeover of civil society


The billionaire takeover of civil society

Wealthy 'progressives' are shaping political life through a dense web of interconnected NGOs.

Roslyn Fuller

Topics Long-reads Politics USA

As the founder and operator of a pro-democracy civil-society organisation, I’ve often been astounded at calls to give NGOs a greater say in rule-making, more visibility during negotiations and privileged access to decision-makers. Because I know what few people do – that small, member-driven, self-funded NGOs are relatively rare.

Instead, the kind of organisation that tends to drive the political agenda is generally billionaire (or at least multimillionaire) funded. The most well-known examples here are groups funded by conservatives like the Koch brothers and large companies like ExxonMobil. I had naively assumed that others criticised these organisations for the same reasons I did – because their actions undermined the principle of democratic equality by giving the impression that their ideas enjoyed far more backing than they did.

However, I stand corrected.

A few months ago, I suffered a rare relapse into naivety and decided that it was about time I got on to the NGO ‘funding’ gravy train. Apparently, floods of money were out there waiting for me in the democracy world. Meanwhile, for incomprehensible reasons, I was stubbornly insisting on behaving like some old-fashioned grandmother, cackling things like, ‘In my day, we used to go around with a tin can collecting for Amnesty International at Christmas! We met in the basement of a pub and everyone paid for their own beer!’

People were so baffled at this attitude that I began to doubt myself and look into how to get funding for projects in the democracy space. And because I thought it would be a good idea to be organised about it, I made a database.

That turned out to be a good idea, because it revealed the influence exerted by a wealthy few over civil society. To illustrate this, I am going to show how just a tiny fraction of a small slice of one funding network starts, but definitely does not end, with eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

I should stress that I have no particular axe to grind against Omidyar, who has supported things I whole-heartedly approve of, like the Intercept under Glenn Greenwald. I also don’t believe that Omidyar is the source of any kind of unique evil or that he is up to anything other wealthy people aren’t. I merely picked him as my starting point to illustrate the generalities of the modern NGO-industrial complex, which includes an end-to-end web of political financing, of which Omidyar is merely a part.

Omidyar provides funding for, among many other things, the American Economic Liberties Project. AELP views itself as a check on the influence of big business on politics. According to its website: ‘All across society, monopolistic corporations govern much of our economic lives and exert extraordinary influence over our democracy.’

According to a typically fawning article about the AELP, during one meeting:

‘the conversation turned to a report the group was producing: a series of graphics showing that different brands of a certain product – or coffee – were, in fact, owned by a small number of conglomerates. The graphics represented the group’s hope that people will understand how concentration affects their lives – and be moved to do something about it. [To which AELP’s executive director Sarah Miller said:] “Let’s just wonder at it for a minute.”’

And that is exactly what we’re going to do here: just wonder at the concentration of power behind a bazillion different brand names and hope people understand how it affects their lives.

The Omidyar Network

Omidyar, whose Omidyar Network funds AELP, also funds the Democracy Fund which is now part of Omidyar Group (1). The Democracy Fund, in turn, together with the Knight Foundation, Quadrivium, the McArthur Foundation and Luminate (also funded by Omidyar) fund Democracy Works (2). Omidyar also funds Democracy Fund Voice, which in turn contributes to Defending Democracy Together (3). Then there is Healthy Democracy which is funded by the Democracy Fund, Silicon Valley Community Foundation (which also receives money from Democracy Fund) (4) and the Ford Family Foundation. The Omidyar Network also co-funds New Public by Civic Signals, along with the Knight Foundation, One Project, the National Conference on Citizenship and the University of Texas at Austin, Centre for Media Engagement. Of course, the University of Texas at Austin, Centre for Media Engagement is also funded by the Omidyar Network, the Democracy Fund (funded by Omidyar), the Knight Foundation, Robert McCormick Foundation, and Google. To name just a few others, the Ada Lovelace Institute also receives funding from Luminate, the Wellcome Trust and Nuffield Foundation, while TicTec, a MySociety event about ‘civic tech’, is funded by Facebook, Luminate and Google, among others.

Now that may boggle your mind a bit. Indeed, feel free to draw yourself a diagram. You may need it, because this is just the beginning. Many of these funds fund other funds. That fund other funds. That fund other funds.

The billionaire takeover of civil society

And then – and this is the really interesting part – a lot of these funds fund some very interesting organisations indeed.

For example, Luminate, which is part of the Omidyar Group and chaired by Pierre Omidyar, funds:

Together with over 250 ‘angel investors’, Luminate also funds the New Media Ventures Innovation Fund (NMV). While NMV also covers information services (the Daily Kos forms part of its portfolio), it focuses much of its effort on:

  • Grassroots groups, such as: PeoplesHub; LuzCollective; Momentum; Project Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations; Climate Cabinet Action Fund; Sunrise Movement; Mobilise America; Stay Woke;
  • party-political campaigns and vote turn-out optimisation, such as:; SwingLeft; Contest Every Race; Flippable; SisterDistrict; ActBlue Civics; Three Point Strategies; BallotReady; Resistance Labs; Run for Something; Pantsuit Nation; Voter Circle;
  • and advanced market-research organisations like: Avalanche Insights; Swayable; and Open Field.

Meanwhile, the American Economic Liberties Project, funded by the Omidyar Network (which also funds Luminate, which together with other ‘Angel Investors’ funds all of this) is contemplating soulfully how the concentrated might of the coffee industry hides behind a series of flimsy brand names.

The irony of that is just sublime.

The billionaire takeover of civil society

One could write not just a book, but an entire encyclopaedia on this topic. However, for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on a few of the groups that receive funding in this convoluted manner, because as we shall see they form something like a political conveyor belt, covering all aspects of the political process.

Exhibit A: Sunrise Movement

The first piece of this funding machine is the grassroots groups. Take the environmentalist Sunrise Movement. You may remember it as the group of youth activists who staged a sit-in at House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, which was joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a high-profile media event that resulted (according to the Sunrise Movement) in 4,000 articles being published about it within 48 hours.

The Sunrise Movement was founded in 2017 and its goal, among other climate-related issues, is to push the Green New Deal through the US legislature. Now I personally rather like the Green New Deal, although I am sometimes concerned that a publicly funded green-energy transition could become a cash cow for large companies seeking to update their infrastructure on the taxpayer’s dime. After all, that kind of profiteering happens all the time. And I have become significantly more worried about that possibility since I came across the Sunrise Movement’s logo under the ‘investment portfolio’ of New Media Ventures Innovation Fund. What, after all, is an investment group doing with a ‘grassroots’ organisation of environmentally concerned teenagers on its hands?

According to Luminate, ‘New Media Ventures is a seed fund and national network of angel investors supporting media and tech startups that disrupt politics and catalyse progressive change’. According to NMV’s website, the fund ‘invest[s] in progressive start-ups’ to ‘spark civic engagement’, ‘change culture’ and ‘build movements’. This ‘applies leverage at three critical points, creating momentum’ in order to ‘shift power’, ‘driving long-term political impact’. In order to facilitate this process they have ‘designed a fund structure that allows us to invest flexibly across startups – for profit and nonprofit, mission-driven and political – for the greatest impact’.

Finally, Omidyar Network CEO Mike Kubzansky stated in an interview: ‘Philanthropic money is the most risk-tolerant capital out there, whether it’s deployed for-profit or not-for-profit or on advocacy. And we view part of our role, in terms of social impact, as being risk capital for very difficult issues that society needs to take on…’

If one accepts what ‘givers’, like Omidyar et al, say, it becomes apparent that rather than participating in traditional acts of charity, like founding a hospital for the needy, they are attempting to engage in ‘social engineering’ – that is, using their resources to artificially change the structure of society to what they think it should be. If successful, this would amount to an extreme circumvention of democracy, utilising money not just to win elections, but to substitute paid or subsidised content for actual support, and thereby flip an entire political culture on to a different track by amplifying some voices and drowning out others. Moreover, just to keep things interesting, this is viewed in quite explicit investment terms – and investors tend to expect a return on their investment.

If one accepts this model or ‘theory of change’, as they frequently call it, then ‘investing in’ the Sunrise Movement – a group of teenage and twentysomething activists who complain that ‘fossil-fuel billionaires’ (but not, apparently other billionaires) have influenced government policy and who campaign for ‘investment in technology that would reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere…’ – makes sense.

Sunrise Movement activists rally in support of Green New Deal legislation outside of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer's New York City office, 30 April 2019.
Sunrise Movement activists rally in support of Green New Deal legislation outside of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer's New York City office, 30 April 2019.

The ‘engineered’ aspect of many of these social-change organisations comes through in myriad ways. For example, members frequently refer to ‘how-to’ manuals and books for creating social change (of any kind) according to a fairly technical blueprint. In addition, some organisations are supported by other organisations with the same funders. For example, Sunrise members specifically credit Momentum (which is also part of the NMV investment portfolio) with training them.

In an hour-long webinar posted on Momentum’s webpage, Sunrise members Sara Blazevic and Will Lawrence, together with Momentum members Cicia Lee and Lissy Romanov, explain the ins and outs of this training. The talk included references to the need (also frequently referenced by Extinction Rebellion) to activate 3.5 per cent of the population for environmental change, and featured such statements as ‘Momentum taught us that movements don’t happen by accident’, and that they needed to ‘prepare in advance a movement to go viral’. Speakers stressed the need to become ‘the dominant political alignment’ which ‘defines the common sense of society’ and ‘directs social and economic policy’. Having realised that this would require ‘tak[ing] over the entire United States and all the institutions in it’, they began ‘finding and developing our first leaders’. This involved moving activists into ‘dorm-style Sunrise Movement Houses for three to six months’ in order to create leaders who had a deep level of commitment ‘for everything that would come afterwards’.

A reporter attending a ‘bootcamp’ describes members being encouraged to ‘tell their personal stories as acts of “public narrative”’ and being taught to ‘refer to the fossil-fuel industry as fossil-fuel “elites”, so as not to alienate the industry’s workers’ as well as ‘how to stand during a protest for maximum visual impact’.

It is not bad advice, but the entire impression is of a very steered, technocratic process that attempts to achieve theoretical concepts (‘3.5 per cent mobilisation’, ‘dominant political alignment’) through a kind of brute-force factory production. It is an impression that is heightened when you realise that Sunrise isn’t just powered by a spontaneous coming together of the minds, but gets its core funding and support from ‘angel investors’. In the video, Will Lawrence explained that in addition to small individual donors ‘we also have some support from some philanthropic institutions, foundations’, and that ‘this year our support will probably be like 50-50 between individuals and larger institutions’ (according to another article, ‘Sunrise’s operating budget was $850,000’ in 2018, and $4.5million in 2020 with ‘a 60-40 split between grants and individual donations’).

On one level, it is great that young people are taking part in politics. But on another level it is incredibly fake. The youthful participants aren’t so much being empowered as instrumentalised. After all, they are part of the portfolio of an investment fund that is using them to ‘shift power’, with part of the strategy being to shame politicians for not being nice enough to hysterical children.

So, is power being shifted?

The Sunrise Movement credits itself with pressuring representatives into agreeing to a Select Committee on the Green New Deal, as well as contributing to getting a Green New Deal passed for the state of Maine. Its website also claims that the group contacted ‘over 6.5million voters in the primaries and Presidential Election’, which helped to elect Joe Biden.

While the results are certainly mixed, I think it is fair to say that Republican efforts to eliminate limits on political spending may have backfired and that ‘progressives’ may have overtaken them in the ‘tactical funding’ department.

However, funding ‘grassroots’ groups is only one aspect of the new ‘progressive’ NGO-Industrial complex. Progressives now tend to pride themselves on ‘facts’, ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based decision-making’, so obviously they are in need of some services to provide them with the facts and evidence in question. Which brings us to the Data and Society Research Institute, and More in Common (both funded by Luminate).

Exhibit B: the Data and Society Research Institute, and More in Common

It is worth noting that the Data and Society Research Institute and More in Common (both funded by Luminate) are only two organisations in the extensive network of wealth-funded ‘research’ institutes.

The Data and Society Research Institute describes itself as ‘an independent nonprofit research organisation’ which believes ‘that empirical evidence should directly inform the development and governance of new technology’. They produce ‘original research to ground informed, evidence-based public debate about emerging technology’, work with ‘academic rigour’ and ‘are committed to ensuring… that our research is made free and available to the public’.

Data and Society’s purpose then is not just to find things out. It is also to ground ‘public debate’, which is why it is imperative for its research to be freely available.

Data and Society also receives money from Microsoft and Arabella Advisors, an alleged component of the ‘dark money’ nexus of the left (said to work with various networks, including the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which in turn worked with Demand Justice, ‘the courts-focused group helmed by former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon’, that spearheaded efforts against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh).

I counted 46 people on Data and Society’s ‘about’ page: 22 in ‘research’, 13 in operations (eg, accounting, HR, etc) and 11 in events (PR, etc). Job titles include: ‘director of creative strategy’, ‘network engagement manager’, and ‘newsroom outreach lead’ – not necessarily the kind of jobs one tends to associate with ‘original research’, ‘academic rigour’ and people who are nobly struggling to fulfil their commitment to make their research free and available to the public.

The age profile of Data and Society isn’t quite as young as that of the Sunrise Movement, but it isn’t far off. This is something that struck me again and again while looking through these organisations – the youth and inexperience of almost everyone involved despite the fact that the jobs are well-paid. One fellowship, which seems to consist of little more than ‘curating’ other people’s work, comes with a salary of $80,000-100,000 attached.

The inexperience of staff is reflected in the quality of the work, which often consists of little more than coming up with solutions to problems they themselves invented. For example, ‘10 tips for reporting on disinformation’ by one ‘senior research analyst’, offers pearls of wisdom such as: people who put out outrageous information are often looking for attention (no!). And it asks journalists ‘to weigh the costs and benefits of amplifying a particular voice, perspective, or incident against the broader public good’. By reporting on misinformation one can ‘risk mainstreaming dangerous, misleading ideas, while also driving curious readers to search for and, ultimately, stumble upon problematic content’. Lastly, it’s a good idea to make sure that any debunking includes ‘metadata and other SEO signals that will ensure search engines surface your content over the content of manipulators’. I think we can all agree there is absolutely nothing manipulative about making sure that your content shows above someone else’s in a search result.

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), 23 September 2010, in New York City.
eBay founder Pierre Omidyar speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), 23 September 2010, in New York City.

But this is exactly the kind of double-standard these organisations work so hard to establish. Their information is the correct information – the article cited above, for example, simply asserts that the 2016 US Presidential election was ‘a carefully laid plot to deceive huge swaths of the population and undermine our democracy’. It is other information that must be tightly patrolled. It’s not too dissimilar to the approach taken by drug-dealers. You can do as much hallucinating as you like, just be sure to get your stuff from them.

And they work with other organisations that just so happen to have the same funders to achieve this control. The article cited above specifically advises journalists to use the procedures outlined by First Draft News to verify information. First Draft News’ US director just so happens to be Claire Wardle, an advisory board member of the Omidyar-funded Civic Signals project, information that is not included in the ‘10 tips…’ article. The impression created by the article is that First Draft News just happens to be the recommended verification organisation of Data and Society. Only thanks to the fact that some weirdo sitting in Ireland (me) decided to analyse the industry before becoming part of it (FYI: mission aborted), do we know that they are more related than one might think.

First Draft News may not receive funding from ‘governments and political parties’ as it proudly states on its website, but it does get funding from (among many others): Democracy Fund (funded by Omidyar who also funds Luminate which funds Data and Society); Google News Initiative; Open Society Foundations; and Facebook Journalism Project – all organisations funded by people who themselves often fund partisan political causes.

It was interesting to read that during the last Irish General Election, First Draft News was nice enough to take the time to send a ‘Daily monitoring briefing email [to] journalists covering the election’. In other words, rather than let journalists make up their own minds on how to cover stories – because, hey, it’s a free country – First Draft News decided to be on top of them. Every. Single. Day.

Meanwhile, Data and Society is berating people to use First Draft News (funded by some of the same ‘ultimate’ funders as Data and Society), while simultaneously warning people to be wary of manipulators.

Machiavelli would beg to be taught by these people.

OK, you might be thinking, that is pretty bad and weirdly controlling. Can it get worse? So glad you asked! Let us look at More in Common, also funded by Luminate.

More in Common is active in the UK, France, Germany and the US, and while the organisation doesn’t do a whole lot, it gets an enormous amount of coverage for what it does do, which is to promote the idea that we all have ‘more in common’. Just like Data and Society hypes the idea of ‘dangerous information’, the solution to which is First Draft News and the continuous monitoring of journalists, More in Common claims: ‘Societies are fracturing as the forces of division grow stronger, driving people apart. We are losing trust in each other and in the future.’ Fortunately, they have ‘ground-breaking research’ that helps to solve that problem.

In reality – a dimension these people rarely seem to inhabit – the idea that voters actually do have quite a lot in common is an entirely mainstream political analysis that one can buy entirely mainstream academic books about. However, that kind of ‘traditional scholarship’ does these organisations no good, because they need the problem to be there to justify the need for their own solutions.

The highlight of More in Common for me was its highly polished website Democracy for President. Its content mainly revolves around the American 2020 presidential election, which at the time the website was created was still a future event. It features such topics as ‘Is Mail-in Voting Secure?’ and ‘What Motivates Americans to Vote?’.

I was curious, so I downloaded their package under ‘Will the [American Presidential] Election Be Fair and Accurate?’. And here I have to say More in Common exceeded my expectations, because what I ended up with was a block of ‘sample op-eds’, a bunch of infographics already formatted for Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and some ‘discussion guides’ for talking to people who disagree with you (a common hallmark of several organisations).

The first sample op-ed was entitled ‘It’s our duty to talk to people we disagree with’. Now, I personally would be prepared to release any busybody out there from that self-inflicted duty and encourage them to take a day off from talking to people they already know disagree with them. But let’s face it, social change doesn’t happen unless you have your army of foot-soldiers continuously out there on patrol. Their arguments may rarely actually convince other people, but it does tend to intimidate them into silence.

And those foot-soldiers need instructions. Very precise instructions as it turns out. According to the packet:

‘Many audiences can be reached through op-eds – local and national decision-makers most importantly. Use this template to write a sample op-ed on the urgent need to communicate across political differences, with tips on how to have difficult discussions as we head into the most important election of our lifetime.’

According to the ‘Tips for writing a great op-ed’ you need ‘a hook’, for example, ‘a personal anecdote’; a point; a call to action and evidence, which More in Common helpfully provides for you, along with the actual text of the op-ed:

‘No matter who wins the election, we should come together as a country. In fact, most Americans would prefer to: 68 per cent are exhausted by the division in our country, and six out of 10 believe pitting Americans against each other is a threat to democracy.’

Another sample op-ed entitled ‘This election can’t be rigged or stolen’ offers the text:

‘There are many legitimate concerns about potential threats to the election, from foreign interference to misinformation about how to vote, but this election cannot be rigged or stolen so long as we stay engaged with the process.’

This is followed by ‘key points to include’ – for example ‘81 per cent of Americans feel a sense of pride in being American when they vote’ – and an exhortation to the ‘writer’ to: ‘Share your own personal voting experience. Did you vote by mail for the first time? What were the poll workers like? How is/was voting this year the same or different from other years?’

Now, an op-ed is supposed to be an opinion that the author (often an expert in the area concerned) has genuinely thought about and is prepared to stand behind, although, unfortunately, the practice of writing one first and then finding someone willing to put their name on it is not unknown in political circles. Still, the factory-level production exhibited by More in Common takes things to a whole new level.

Run for Something co-founder Amanda Litman speaks at the 'Global Citizen - Movement Makers' at The Times Center, New York City, 25 September 2018.
Run for Something co-founder Amanda Litman speaks at the 'Global Citizen - Movement Makers' at The Times Center, New York City, 25 September 2018.

Its goal is to propagate a kind of intellectual dishonesty aimed at making it appear that one centralised opinion is coming from many different sources who are, in this scenario, little more than the sock-puppets these very organisations complain about so much. This highly manipulative behaviour is, however, in their minds, justified by the exaggerated dangers they have identified in a vicious cycle of escalating political interference.

While the aforementioned tactics attempt to influence public opinion with their ‘groundbreaking’ research that just so happens to be part of an entire web of wealth-funded pop-up organisations, there is, in fairness, a lot of what one could call actual research going on in a separate set of institutions. These organisations, like Cambridge Analytica before them, really try to get inside your head, so that they can persuade you of what they ‘know’ is right. There are several of these, such as Swayable (‘predicting how content changes people’s minds’). But personally, I would bet on Avalanche Insights if I were going to invest in one of them, which let me remind you, 256 investors who also invest in a range of grassroots movements and campaign incubators already have.

Exhibit C: Avalanche Insights

Avalanche Insights is in the NMV portfolio and has also received an undisclosed amount of money from Luminate. Avalanche Insights works kind of like a psychiatrist. It aims to get people to talk, because, ‘language reveals values, emotions, and motivators’. Its ‘proprietary, natural language processing system’ then ‘analyses thousands of lines of text, revealing how people’s values, emotions, and priorities map to an issue’.

The end goal is to ‘help you craft messages that will resonate deeply with your target audience, persuade and mobilise them towards action, meet your strategic objectives, and win’, as well as to ‘shift perceptions’ and ‘change the conversation’.

Of course, political organisations have long used focus groups and gurus to craft emotionally resonant messages. One of the most famous, and effective, examples is Republican consultant Frank Luntz’s coinage of the term ‘death tax’ to replace ‘estate tax’. However, it is quite amazing that Avalanche Insights is funded by some of the same umbrella organisations that also fund organisations like Data and Society, with its concern about ‘manipulation’, and the American Economic Liberties Project, which is concerned about monopolies hiding behind other organisations.

Avalanche Insights is not just a company on the market for hire by anyone. It doesn’t have to be indiscriminate with its clients because it gets funding from Luminate et al. Thus, it can limit itself to working with ‘some of the biggest players in progressive politics as well as values-aligned companies and causes’. As such, it fulfils an important niche in the NGO eco-system, coming up with the core plan on how to ‘shift perceptions’ and ‘change the conversation’ that can then be utilised in other funded organisations. Such as Run for Something.

Exhibit D: Run for Something

As the final piece in the puzzle, which has so far covered ‘grassroots groups’, ‘research and think tanks’ and ‘privately-run but NGO-subsidised focus groups’, the final act is, of course, the actual running of campaigns and turning out the vote.

Even this one small slice of the NGO complex includes tonnes of tools like TurboVote and BallotReady that are intended to help get out the vote, as well as organisations dedicated to getting Democrats elected, such as Flippable and SisterDistrict. These all help to move targets (voters) through the political action funnel, sometimes exhorting a level of ‘engagement’ with the prospective voter which would in other countries border on harassment.

But there are also organisations – again for some reason listed as investments – that complete the political-involvement cycle by recruiting candidates and helping them win election. One of these organisations is Run for Something, which according to the Avalanche Insights webpage also works with it. Run for Something also partners with Flippable, Indivisible, PantSuitNation, Sister District and Swing Left (all also in the NMV stable).

Under ‘What kind of candidate are we looking for?’, Run for Something states that it ‘works exclusively with progressive Millennials and Gen-Zers running for local office for the first or second time’. In order to become a Run for Something candidate, one must be ‘pro-choice, pro-universal healthcare, pro-LGBTQ equality, pro-criminal justice reform, pro-working families and organised labour, pro-voting rights, pro-campaign finance reform’, and ‘focus on inequality, raising incomes, and creating jobs… acknowledge that climate change is real, man-made, and our responsibility to fight; and… fight to reduce gun violence in their community.’

As one can see, it is a pretty tight operation – they are not just helping young people in general run for office or even allowing any cherry-picking on the policy.

The site continues: ‘How well they communicate online and in person, how comfortable they are in their skin, and how “authentic” they can be are all important factors. We’re willing to invest in good talent wherever it is.’

I’m not sure what is weirder here – the fact that it is still ‘investing’, this time literally in candidates, or that ‘authentic’ is in quotation marks.

Run for Something claims to have ‘helped elect 309 people’ who will be ‘the present and future leaders of the Democratic Party’.

Some of the services Run for Something provides include: advising candidates on campaign management; helping with fundraising; creating ‘a really beautifully produced, powerful campaign video’; writing speeches, procuring media attention and putting candidates in touch ‘with vendors and really talented campaign staff, an exceptional graphic and web-design team and… mentors and confidantes to be sounding boards and bounce ideas off of’.

I had occasionally wondered how so many young candidates had managed to knock 40- and 50-year-olds out of the way in the political arena. Run for Something goes a long way to explaining that phenomenon.

I do feel for the plight of the young – after all, I am a very short 40-year-old who is still routinely listening to all of the things people think I look too young to do. Getting to live this reverse ageism on a regular basis has probably made me more empathetic than most.

But my brain hasn’t stopped aging and it has noticed how easy young people are to manipulate, simply because they haven’t had the dubious privilege of seeing it all before. Politics, like all the worst fashion, comes around in a slightly different form again and again. Neon colours, for example, are only exciting the first time around. And so are potential apocalypses (climate change in its more hysterical aspects, Y2K, nuclear holocaust, Communism, etc) and threats to human decency (for example, ‘white supremacy’, which seems to involve rather fewer skinheads with steel-toed boots than it did in the 1990s).

Empowering younger people would involve just letting them do their own thing without trying to shut them down. When you make them sign up to your programme to get help, you’re – once again – instrumentalising them, having enticed them in with the services the cash donations provide.

So to sum up: We have a conveyor belt of political organisations that includes activist groups like Sunrise, research operations like Data and Society and More in Common, focus-group operators like Avalanche Insights, and vote turn-out and candidate-support services like Run for Something, all operating under a dense web of funding, partnering and referrals. It truly is its own end-to-end ecosystem.

These organisations constantly cite each other’s work, recycle the same personnel and fund, ‘support’ and ‘partner with’ each other’s projects on multiple different levels. Moreover, perhaps the most startling thing for me in conducting this impromptu investigation was how many people I knew who were on the boards, steering committees or staff of these organisations. And I don’t mean know of. I mean, personally, know. Because that’s how far-reaching and yet incestuous this sector is. It’s virtually impossible to be politically active without running into them, yet they stick together like a highly-funded clan.

James and Kathryn Murdoch at the Lincoln Center, 20 September 2018, in New York City.
James and Kathryn Murdoch at the Lincoln Center, 20 September 2018, in New York City.

The example of Quadrivium perhaps best illustrates this. Together with Democracy Fund (sponsored by Omidyar), Quadrivium funds Democracy Works and pursues much the same type of goal, for example, achieving 80 per cent voter turnout (via Democracy Works), and ‘developing the pipeline of leaders’, including recruiting, training and apparently helping them legislate (via the Millennial Action Project).

Quadrivium was founded in 2014 by James and Kathryn Murdoch. Yes, those Murdochs. James is Rupert’s son and worked for NewsCorp for 17 years. His wife, Kathryn, used to work for the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Quadrivium funds: a voter registration tool; an organisation that helps politicians legislate; Unite America; Voting Rights Lab; Protect Democracy; Brennan Centre; Republicans for the Rule of Law; New Politics; Represent Us; Centre for a New American Security; ADL;; Upstream; ADL/Moonshot CVE; Audacious Fast Grants; Climate Central; AAAS/SciLine; The 19th: PEN America; Election SOS; Environmental Defense Fund; Climate Leadership Council; National Academy of Sciences; Niskanen; Potential Energy; and NRDC Rewrite the Future.

And in addition to that, reports CNBC, Murdochs 2.0 also donate to political candidates and political action committees. By September 2020 they had contributed $12million dollars to the 2020 election cycle.

We’ve been over all that kind of thing, though. As I said in the beginning, Omidyar is hardly one of a kind. However, Quadrivium illustrates another turn of the screw. For in that CNBC article above about the Murdochs’ spending, it gives as its source the Center for Responsive Politics. Guess who funds the Center for Responsive Politics? Among others, the Democracy Fund and Quadrivium.

So – in a development that is just indescribably poetic – the source the article cites about Quadrivium’s political funding is funded by… Quadrivium.

You couldn’t make this up.

Let us, like the American Economic Liberties Project – funded by Omidyar, which funds Democracy Works, which funds TurboVote together with Quadrivium and Democracy Fund, and with whom Quadrivium funds the Center for Responsive Politics which keeps track of the political spending of Quadrivium and Omidyar – just contemplate how concentrated wealth can hide its power behind a series of pop-up brand names, shall we?

And, while we’re at it, let’s abandon the pretence that these funders are keen on deconstructing their own power. No, they have created an end-to-end web of political institutions, and a dependent hand-out culture, where nothing happens without money and a tsunami of gushing praise for those brave enough to ‘speak truth’ to the power that pays their salary… and continues to do so.

After all the screaming about the Koch brothers’ insidious influence on politics, it turns out that, for some, the near naked exercise of oligarchic power wasn’t the issue at all. It was that the wrong people were doing it. As much as they shouted about a commitment to democracy, they were only really ever committed to getting their own way. And they have – proudly – out-oligarched their enemies.

With a twist.

The old villains, like the Kochs and Murdoch, First of His Name, were seemingly concerned with self-enrichment. Essentially self-absorbed, they pursued politics to get what they wanted (more money), hurting other people in the process. By contrast, ‘philanthropists’ like Omidyar and Murdoch II are set on changing your life for ‘the greater good’. They have convinced themselves that, since they are on a holy mission, everything they do and all the money they expend in pursuit of those goals is somehow justified. The ruthless businessmen of yesteryear are being replaced by priests of higher morals who just happen to be phenomenally rich. The oldies pursued their interests selfishly – the newbies are convinced that their interests are your interests. And they are spending a great deal of money trying to convince the rest of the world of that, too.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the director of the Solonian Democracy Institute and author of In Defence of Democracy; and Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose.

All photos by: Getty Images.

Diagrams by: Roslyn Fuller.

(1) Financials’ Democracy Fund homepage (accessed 5 December 2020); 990 Democracy Fund Inc. 2019 (filed for 2018) lists the Pierre M Omidyar Trust as the contributor of over $75million on page 36.

(2) See: 990 for Democracy Fund Inc. 2019 (filed for 2018) which lists a $350k donation from Democracy Fund. The Knight Foundation 990 lists a donation of over $1 million. Luminate lists donations of over $800k between 2018 and 2020 on its website. Quadrivium also lists its donations on its website. The 990 for the McArthur Foundation filed for 2015 lists a $200,000 donation. Note: these are not complete lists of all funders for every organisation as that would necessitate, at the very least, a War and Peace-sized book. However, this should serve to give a rough idea of the dimensions of the issue.

(3) The Democracy Fund Voice 990 for 2018 (filed in 2019) states donations of $1.6 million to Defending Democracy Together.

(4) According to the 990 for Democracy Fund, the organisation gave two donations in 2018 totalling over $250,000 for ReflectUs and Women Influencers Network.

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Topics Long-reads Politics USA


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