Opinion: Where has all the left-wing money gone?

As we stumble toward another existential election, panic is setting in among some progressive groups because the donors who buoyed them throughout the Trump years are disengaging. "Donations to progressive organizations are way down in 2023 across the board," said a recent memo from Billy Wimsatt, executive director of the Movement Voter Project, an organization founded in 2016 that channels funds to community organizers, mostly in swing states, who engage and galvanize voters. He added, "Groups need money to make sure we have a good outcome next November. But. People. Are. Not. Donating."

As both big and small donors pull back, there have been layoffs across the progressive ecosystem, from behemoths such as the Sierra Club to insurgent outfits such as Justice Democrats, a group that first recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to challenge Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018. According to a July analysis by Middle Seat, a Democratic strategy and consulting firm, in the first half of this year, grassroots donations to Democratic House and Senate campaigns were down almost 50% compared to the same point in 2021. Wimsatt, who had to lay off 15 people from a 55-person staff in June, told me, "I haven't experienced a situation like this before when there's been such a sense of scarcity."

It was probably inevitable that left-leaning fundraising would fall once the immediate crisis of Donald Trump's presidency ended. Activism, like electoral politics, is often thermostatic: There's more energy on the right when Democrats are in power, and more on the left during Republican administrations. After a pandemic, an insurrection, and innumerable climate disasters and mass shootings, people are burned out and maybe even, as Ana Marie Cox argues in The New Republic, traumatized, a state that can lead to hypervigilance but also avoidance.

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 grassroots funding in the Trump era, because people were so scared," said Max Berger, 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 involves the way Democrats use email.

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.

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 reelection is largely about staving off disaster rather than the promise of new accomplishments.

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, president of Way to Win, a network of progressive donors channeling money to pro-democracy grassroots 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.