Is the Alphabet Left in Trouble?
Progressive groups dependent on donations are hitting a rough patch
The great Daniel Marans at HuffPost has a new scoop—Justice Democrats laid off even more staff. The organization, which is one of the most influential progressive groups in America, already shed nine of its 20 staff and is now cutting an additional three. A full-time staff of eight will remain.
Even 20, by the standards of American political organizing, is not a terribly large number, but Justice Democrats always punched above their weight. Founded in the wake of Donald Trump’s shock victory, the group rose to prominence when it helped recruit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run against Joe Crowley, one of the highest-ranked House Democrats. Justice Democrats’ philosophy is rather simple: wage primary campaigns against sitting Democrats from the left and slowly, over time, drag the whole party in that direction. Tea Party Republicans had found great success doing the same from the other direction and Justice Democrats, in the Trump era, seized on the grassroots energy pulsing through Democratic politics. Today, 11 Justice Democrats-endorsed lawmakers belong to Congress, including Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush.
But the Justice Democrats’ model, like that of many professional and alphabet left organizations’, was always vulnerable to the fickle nature of fundraising. Justice Democrats mattered because they actively recruited candidates and helped train them. They assisted with fundraising and attracting media attention. In the late 2010s, when insurgent energy was at its peak, this was far less challenging. Trump’s presidency added urgency to every political action and kept left-leaning voters inordinately engaged. The so-called resistance was multifaceted, managing to unify anti-Trump liberals and Bernie Sanders-style leftists in the cause of building a bolder and more activist Democratic Party. A 26-year-old Sanders superfan and a 47-year-old who knocked doors for Hillary Clinton could come together around wanting to abolish ICE or stop Brett Kavanaugh. In 2020, many of these voters sorted into the Elizabeth Warren and Sanders camps, but even Joe Biden’s triumph in the Democratic primary held out a certain degree of hope: Trump was so alienating and unpopular that it seemed plausible Biden could not only win but dominate enough to generate large Obama or FDR-style majorities down the ballot. Barack Obama may have squandered his chance with 59 members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, but Biden, governing in a very different moment, wouldn’t. The activist wing of the party held plenty of cards.
Instead, in the highest turnout election in modern history, Biden only won by four points. Trump lost because he couldn’t secure razor-thin victories in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. His madness in the months leading up to Jan. 6 overshadowed what was otherwise a pretty good night for Republicans: they made gains up and down the ballot, narrowing the Democrats’ House majority and almost retaining the Senate outright. It would take Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia to hand Democrats a 50-50 Senate majority. This was not the stuff Green New Deal majorities were made of. A new era had been inaugurated. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be a boon for Justice Democrats—or any unapologetically left-wing group that depended on a fervid donor base for survival.