Social Movements Need an Infrastructure to Succeed

by Chip Berlet

Adapted from an article that first appeared in Z Magazine (September 2005) and then Nonprofit Online News Journal (May 2006)
Gentle revisions in 2008 and 2015


Since I worked for over thirty years at a progressive think tank, Political Research Associates, the claim that progressive funders should help build a movement infrastructure is obviously self-serving, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate. Studies by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy have reached similar conclusions. I talked with folks at several other research groups that study the Political Right (those that haven’t gone under in recent years) and it seems we all have research tasks we would like to pursue, and research, monitoring, or training projects for which we have unsuccessfully sought funds.

Here is just one example. The Center for New Community has a Building Democracy initiative designed to counter “racism and other forms of bigotry through strategic research, community organizing, education and training. Its work to develop an anti-racist youth culture; its collaboration with human, civil, and immigrant rights organizations in response to anti-immigrant activity; and its release of nationally recognized research reports mark its recent advances to address these realities.” The Center would like to expand this work. It lacks the funds. In a similar way, more staff and resources could be put to good use at other groups such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Political Research Associates.

Want another concrete example? Among the earliest progressive researchers who wrote books and articles about the rise of the Political Right were Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. For a time Diamond wrote an excellent column about the Political Right for Z Magazine. In the long run, however, none of these three fine researchers and journalists could make a living doing what they did best. Compare them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing ideologues plucked fresh from college and generously financed with stipends, grants, and fellowships from conservative foundations.

Investigative reporter Bill Berkowitz has managed to continue to write about the Political Right, as have I, and there is a new crop of writers including Michelle Goldberg,  Esther Kaplan, Jeff Sharlet,  Sarah Posner, David Neiwert, Alex DiBranco, and others. But there still is no long-term consistent funding for progressive research on the many sectors of the U.S. Political Right.

Most liberal and left foundations will tell you up front that they don’t fund research, conferences, or media. That’s exactly what the Political Right funded to help build the infrastructure of their successful social movement. The staff of many progressive foundations privately will admit that they are well aware of this scenario, but they are not able to get foundation priorities and guidelines shifted to respond to the strategic and tactical challenges funded by the conservative infrastructure.

For 25 years the progressive movement for social change has been fed head first into a gigantic, well-funded, right-wing, ideological sausage-making machine, while foundations that consider themselves progressive are dispensing band-aids. If we figured out how to stop the machine, we wouldn’t need the band-aids.

Since we believe in progressive social change, then we must believe in the democratic process. Democracy is a process that involves several components, all of which are necessary, but none of which is sufficient. This is how it works.

Democracy is a process that assumes the majority of people, over time, given enough accurate information, the ability to participate in a free and open public debate, and can vote without intimidation, reach constructive decisions that benefit the whole of society, and preserve liberty, protect our freedoms, extend equality, and defend democracy itself.

Just days after the election of Barak Obama as President, we can see attempts to constrain his progressive agenda. A strong, diverse, democratically-run, vibrant progressive social movement is the best way to build support for turning the vision outlined in Obama’s uplifting rhetoric into a reality for all us.

Chip Berlet: Social Movements Need an Infrastructure to Succeed

 Jean Hardisty: My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

How the Right Took Power and the Failure of Liberal Infrastructures

Progressive Movement Building

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Roosevelt’s The Four Freedoms

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”

“The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.”

“The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.”

“The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”

“That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

                                                   –President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
January 6, 1941

Chip’s essay on Defending the Four Freedoms written after the right-wing terror attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building

See also this excellent essay on the Four Freedoms:
“What We Can Learn From FDR”
by Harvey J. Kaye
April 10, 2014