As the next election cycle moves forward, there will be a crescendo of complaints that we are in the midst of some unprecedented and un-American meddling in public affairs by donors. “Rivers of fat-cat money are pouring into our political system; the peaks of hidden finance soar ever higher,” complained the Washington Post editorial board in 2014.
National Review national correspondent John Miller and I have just published a book pointing out that, actually, the nudging of public opinion and government policy by private donors has been going on in this country for centuries, with many constructive effects. Gerrit Smith, who was the largest landowner in New York during much of the 19th century, spent the modern equivalent of $1 billion to help overturn slavery.
More recently, philanthropists laid the groundwork for welfare reform, fair bail standards, public-interest law, and school accountability. They created think tanks, helped bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain, initiated the declines in smoking and drunk driving, and created new forms of journalism and filmmaking. Tort reform, education choice, the recent decline in urban crime rates — these and many other public improvements were initiated by private givers.
Given that the fraction of U.S. GDP consumed by government has leapt from 12 percent to 36 percent within the lifetime of some of today’s donors, it is unrealistic to think that the philanthropic sector will stop trying to have a say in public policies. And there are at least as many donors working from the left side of the political spectrum as from the right. Next time you hear it said that “the shadow of ‘dark money’ haunts our politics and policy making,” you might want to point out that liberals and conservatives are dealing and being dealt in very similar proportions. Indeed, the most successful instance in the past ten years of changing politics and policy by donating money was a case orchestrated from the left.
In 2004, Colorado was a solidly Republican state. The governor, both U.S. senators, and five of its seven members of the House belonged to the GOP. That same year, Colorado gave its electoral votes in the presidential election to George W. Bush.
By the time of the 2008 elections, however, the politics of the state had been turned upside-down. After all the ballots had been counted, the governor, both U.S. senators, and five of seven House members were Democrats, plus Obama carried the state. It was a full-fledged flip. National political trends explained some of this movement, as the whole country had shifted in a liberal direction. The largest part of this dramatic transformation, however, could be ascribed to a group of liberal philanthropists wielding a mix of public-policy giving and campaign donations. The so-called Gang of Four consisted of Rutt Bridges, a venture capitalist; Tim Gill, founder of the software firm Quark; Jared Polis, an Internet businessman who would win election to Congress as a Democrat in 2008; and Pat Stryker, the heiress of a medical-equipment company.
All were motivated to some degree by gay rights. “Nothing can compare to the psychological trauma of realizing that more than half the people in your state believe that you don’t deserve equal rights,” Gill told the Chronicle of Philanthropy after Colorado voters amended the state constitution to prohibit the government from granting special protected status on the basis of sexual orientation. By the late 1990s, Gill and his allies were determined to elect Democrats to office at all levels of government.
In 1999, Bridges founded the Bighorn Center for Public Policy with $1 million of his own money. The short-lived think tank pushed successfully for new rules on campaign finance, setting the stage for the Gang of Four and its new model of policy philanthropy. Before long, they were funding an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations that issued reports, investigated conservative politicians, and generated controversy. They gave Colorado Media Matters, a left-wing media-pressure group, enough money to keep a dozen people on staff. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal group that publicizes politicians’ questionable behavior, opened a Colorado field office. A website called ColoradoPols.com set out to influence statewide reporting. “I can’t tell you how often reporters would call 36 hours after something appeared there,” said Bill Owens, who was Colorado’s Republican governor from 1999 to 2007.
Through their combination of public-policy philanthropy and traditional campaign contributions, the Gang of Four built a well-oiled machine whose central purpose was to persuade voters not to vote for conservative candidates. In an investigative story for the Denver Post, reporter Karen Crummy explained how the various pieces fit together: “A liberal group with a nonpartisan name like Colorado First puts out a list of polluters and demands official action. A Republican running for Colorado office is on the list. Paid liberal bloggers chatter. An online liberal publication with a newspaper-like name writes an article about the candidate and his company polluting Colorado’s streams. A liberal advocacy group puts out a news release, citing the group and the pollution, which sound reputable to an ordinary voter. They mass e-mail the release and attach a catchy phrase to it like ‘Dirty Doug.’ At some point, the mainstream media checks out the allegations.”
The overall spending by the Gang of Four and their liberal allies dwarfed that of their conservative rivals. In 2012 the Denver Post estimated that in super-PAC spending alone, liberals spent 150 times what conservatives did. It was an impressive effort, made even more impressive by the result — a wholesale transfer of Colorado’s political allegiance from one party to the other. Nothing is permanent in politics, and in the deep-red 2014 election, Republicans finally reclaimed one of the two U.S. Senate seats in Colorado. But the other Senate seat and three of the seven House seats remained with Democrats, and the incumbent Democrat governor won reelection. Colorado is now a purple state. And the Gill/Bridges/Polis/Stryker donor structure remains in place.
These liberal donors sensed an opportunity to change the terms of a political debate. Through wise investments in skillful policy entrepreneurs, they took ideas that seemed out of favor and filled them with life and promise. In relatively short periods of time, they achieved a remarkable swing in governance.
Anyone looking to change the status quo today — whether from the right or from the left — can learn from the example.