THE BLOG

An Interview with Erica Payne, Author of The Practical Progressive

11/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leading political strategist Erica Payne is at the forefront of an effort to build a modern progressive movement. Payne is the founder of The Tesseract Group, which provides strategic counsel and communications expertise to major foundations, private philanthropists, and select organizations. And she co-founded the Democracy Alliance, a donor collaborative whose partners have invested over $100 million in progressive organizations.

Her book, The Practical Progressive: How to Build a Twenty-First Century Political Movement, is the essential guide to what's happening, who's who, and how to get involved in the new progressive "infrastructure," the growing network of progressive political organizations -- think tanks, legal advocacy organizations, watchdog groups, and media vehicles -- leading the effort to change the country's intellectual and political climate for the better. Based on input from many well-known progressive activists and writers, The Practical Progressive stands as testament to one of the most invigorating periods of renewal and growth in political history. (To find out more, go to: www.practicalprogress.org; and you can buy the book for $1 when you join Progressive Book Club.)

PBC: Why did you write this book, and why now?

Erica Payne: In the first place because the story about the infrastructure and the importance of this network of think tanks and legal advocacy groups has gone out to a bigger audience than it was out to five years, which was an audience of zero. So there were a lot of influencers, writers, funders, et cetera, who turned their attention towards funding this stuff, which is great, but I felt like the universe was not big enough. There's one organization on our side, The Democracy Alliance, which I co-founded with Rob Stein, and their sole purpose is to fund this infrastructure. And they have 120 partners who commit to a pretty significant amount of money. In contrast, there are 5,000 people who give $10,000 dollars or more to the Democratic National Party. So [considering] the relative weight given to pure politics versus what I think significantly more impactful over the long term, we still have a big universe of people to get after.

PBC: How did you go about mapping out the progressive infrastructure?

EP: I'm a big believer in asking the smart people. The question was: If you were a chief progressive strategist, what five or six groups would you say are absolutely essential? Of the 80 groups selected for the book, 40 of them were founded after 2002, which I didn't even realize until I counted them up. For the last five years there has been this absolutely fantastic entrepreneurial spirit. That 40 of the top progressive organizations in the country were founded in the last six years is amazing.

PBC: How do the newer groups differ from the older ones?

EP: Prior to 2002, you could talk about a progressive infrastructure, but you would largely be talking about single-issue groups. A lot of progressives complain about the single-interest groups, but I think they're incredibly important and represent our real value system. If you think progressives don't believe in anything, go look at our list of single-issue groups compared to conservative single-issue groups.

After 2004 groups became much more multi-issue. Also, crucially, there's more of a focus on integrating media and messaging and effective communications into the intellectual work. A lot of the organizations that were founded before had fantastic intellectual work, but they've layered media on top of it. Our new organizations, in addition to the fact that they're dedicating significantly more resources, have deeply integrated a communication strategy into the work.

PBC: What can we do now that we couldn't do five years ago thanks to this new activity?

EP: One example is an organization called Catalist, which is exactly what it sounds like --
a list. Before, believe it or not, we didn't have a list. Catalist has been around for four or five years and it has around 280 million detailed records of people we didn't have before.

Then there's an organization like America Votes, which was founded four years ago and is a coordinating table for all of the single issue groups. And there's a coordinating national table and a coordinating state based table in 14 different battleground states. So all the single-issue groups sit around a table with a list they get from Catalist and they divide up the names. And they say, this person, based on their profile is more likely to be interested in environmental issues. There are huge cost savings that go with that coordination -- where people used to get twelve pieces of mail, half of which didn't register with them, now they get very targeted, focused messages.

There's an organization, Media Matters, which pushes back on conservative misinformation. You know, people in the media are people, so if they get 10,000 emails telling them that people disagree with them, they actually do pay attention to it. And if they don't get any, then they don't -- which is something conservatives used to great effect. In 2004, Jerome Corsi wrote the John Kerry book, Unfit for Command. The Kerry campaign didn't respond. Then this year the Corsi book Obama Nation came out, filled with the same amount of complete nonsense. But this time Media Matters had an advance copy and had gone through it line by line by line and totally discredited it. So when the book came out and Corsi started doing the media rounds, the interviewers were asking, Why did you put all this nonsense in this book?

PBC: But that didn't stop it becoming a No. 1 bestseller.

EP: That's true, but if you compare the impact of that book to the impact of the John Kerry book, there's no comparison. And Media Matters is responsible for that.

PBC: How well coordinated is all of this activity?

EP: One of the reasons Rob and I started the Democracy Alliance was to drive a set of behaviors into our entrepreneurs and our organization leaders--to reward coordination, and cooperation and use the money lever to reward entrepreneurs who work together as part of a system and not reward those who go it alone constantly, because it's just not effective.

Now we have relationships with each other. Before it was elbows -- sharp elbows. People fighting over funders, feeling like in order to get the funding they needed to say to the funder, this is the only thing you should do; everything else is terrible. But what really happened is it depressed all of the funding, because if every single person who comes in your office says that every single other person who comes in your office is not good at what they do, then at some point you just started to shut down.

PBC: So what's next? What needs more work?

EP: I think that some of the work done in the last four years was basically triage. That work has been sufficient to move the political climate and the policy conversation to some extent. I think that we're still missing a really critical intellectual piece. You know, on the conservative side you have the "Chicago School" of law and economics, which has driven the right's philosophy. Now, the financial crisis is a great example of how supply-side economics is fundamentally flawed. But we don't have the total intellectual picture of the counter-argument.

Another piece is more operational. We really need a kind of H.R. department for the movement. We have a lot of talented people who we still lose at age, say, 28, to business school or law school or whatever. And we don't pay our people sufficiently to be able to raise a family on the salaries that we give them. If you have a family, you know you have to go work at a law firm or a bank.

We also tend to put people in silos. So if you come up and you're a writer, you're a writer forever. If you come up and you're a fundraiser, you're a fundraiser forever. But I think that if we could diversify the skill set of the people that we have in the movement, we would all be well served over the long run and people would be able to move career tracks or focuses, but underneath this big umbrella, this great progressive movement. That just is a much more rewarding, enriching professional career track to be on.

PBC: How about the recruitment of young people, bringing them along?

EP: We're doing better than we were, but still not very well. The Heritage Foundation has dorms and paid internships. If you want to work in the progressive movement you better find a friend's couch to sleep on and you're going to be asked to work for free. So I mean, then by definition you limit the kinds of people that you have coming in, because a portion of the population has parents who are wealthy enough that they can afford to go take an internship for a year or two and learn the ropes. So we're cutting off 90 percent of the potential workforce.

PBC: This is an election year, so there's a lot of energy and money going into the campaign. The progressive infrastructure has grown somewhat in parallel with, and almost out of a sense of disillusionment with, electoral politics. How do the two strands connect?

EP: The tagline of my book is "What if someone told you politicians are the least important part of politics?" There's a tendency, especially in relation to Obama, to think that this person can solve everything. It's been a really wonderful experience watching Obama come onto the national stage. But we've been down this road before. We really like to find our silver bullets, and they never end up working. And if you think the fight for the presidency is a big fight, wait until we actually start trying to pass universal health care and the millions and millions of dollars of well directed, well strategized dollars are going to come flowing in from the pharmaceutical industry, from the insurance industry. Wait until you try to pass really significant environmental legislation and see the gigantic foe that you're up against in the oil companies.