A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

01/18/2017 08:27 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2017

On January 30, 2009—just 10 days after President Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and swore to defend the Constitution—Charles and David Koch huddled with GOP lawmakers, right-wing operatives, and fellow mega-donors. Deep in the sunny California desert, they made dark plans to thwart the Obama presidency at every turn.

This fall’s devastating election was no aberration. It was, in many ways, the culmination of methodical plotting by conservative ideologues, led by the relentless Koch brothers, whose January 2009 retreat paved the way for their self-interested successes.

Later this week, as Donald Trump—the most corrupt and dangerous man ever to assume the presidency—takes the oath of office, 150 of the top progressive donors in the country, Democratic elected officials, and leading political strategists will gather in Florida to regroup, gear up, and plan our own path to victory.

Let me be clear. We do seek to copy the Koch brothers’ playbook. The Kochs are despicable people, willing to destroy the fabric of liberal democracy for personal gain. But while their goals are perverse, some of their tactics are not. They understood early on the value of investing in statehouses and down-ballot races. They played the long game, budgeting for 10, 20 and 30 years out. And they refused to give up, even in the face of electoral defeat in 2012.

That strategy eventually bore fruit. Though Trump may not bow at the altar of Ayn Rand like the Kochs, he benefited from the conservative infrastructure they built—from the web of think tanks, litigation groups, media outlets, lobbies, and faux-grassroots organizations that all subsist on the Koch dole. And in the eight years since the Koch brothers’ January 2009 retreat, Republicans have gained 70 seats in Congress, and picked up more than 900 state legislators.

Faced with such hallowed out legislative ranks, now is the time for progressives to band together to defend our values with even more vigor than the Koch brothers defend their bottom line. This commitment to progressive values is what motivates our retreat.

Our efforts will differ from the Kochs’ in critical ways. First, we don’t seek to impose a rigid ideology on the Democratic Party, in the same way the Kochs have tried to reshape the GOP in their image. The conference occurring this weekend in Florida reflects the bedrock Democratic value of inclusivity—our speakers run the gamut from Jon Cowan to Cecile Richards to Keith Ellison. Ours is a big tent, with room for everyone who wants to join the fight for a more progressive future. Second, unlike the deceptive Kochs, we will be forthright about our goals and objectives, because progressive donors are not in it for themselves. They’re in it for working families.

This conference signifies a revamping of our core mission as we face the harrowing threat of unified Republican power. In this new push, we stand beside the giants of the progressive movement, like the Democracy Alliance. I am proud to say that I have been to every DA conference since the beginning, and that won’t change anytime soon. I embrace and fervently believe in their mission to “invest in every aspect of progressive power-building—from policymaking to organizing grassroots communities to winning state and national issue and electoral campaigns.” The DA was essential in helping me scale Media Matters in the mid-2000s; without its support, the organization would never have become the effective media watchdog it is today. And the DA continues to be vital to Media Matters’ success.

JFK famously observed that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and that’s true of the redoubled efforts of our organizations. I’m pleased that the leader of the DA, Gara LaMarche, is one of our features speakers at the retreat. I couldn’t be more excited to see the progressive change we bring about alongside our friends and colleagues at the Democracy Alliance.

It’s important that we move forward in tandem, because this new effort is about all of us; it’s about the larger movement. That said, my personal political journey has, perhaps predictably, been the focus of recent media chatter. Some detractors have invoked a 2011 statement — that “I’m still more pitched at fighting the right than I am about building a progressive platform for the future” – to foment skepticism about the sincerity of my commitment to progressive values.

That quote has been misinterpreted. The organizations to which I was referring – Media Matters and American Bridge – are, fundamentally, aimed at holding conservatives to account. Their role is not to stake out a position on the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum, but to hold the right’s feet to the fire. I’m proud that two of the earliest supporters of Media Matters were MoveOn.org, a stalwart of the left, and the center-left New Democratic Network. We’ve never been one to engage in ideological factionism.

But make no mistake: ours are progressive groups advancing progressive values. I would not have spent the past 12 years working 12-hour days to build something that doesn’t reflect the values I feel in my core. If I didn’t believe in these values, I’d be in a different line of work. (Little known fact: I’ve always had a knack for interior design…)

I am just as outraged as any progressive about Trump’s efforts to snatch healthcare away from 20 million hardworking Americans, roll back LGBTQ progress, voucherize Medicare, privatize and Christianize public education, and attack America’s most vulnerable communities.

When I was quoted in 2011, the Democratic Party—indeed, the country—was in a completely different position. We were the party in power, fighting back against a new conservative insurgency. Today, we know more about the way the right operates than we ever have—and our groups are ready to occupy a wider lane in the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. For instance, we plan to actively engage in the process of developing a winning progressive message.

Our battle is no longer about Hillary. The stakes even go beyond preserving the Obama legacy. They go beyond stopping Donald Trump. This conference is an attempt to protect America’s core, founding principles—of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, checks and balances, and equal opportunity for all.

These next four years call for the type of resistance we haven’t seen in generations—and we are up against an enemy who threatens the very definition of what it means to be American. We have assembled a diverse a coalition to fight back, to protect liberal norms and our democratic process. We will begin our mission in Miami this week. And we are counting on you to join us in the years to come.

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