The war of ideas is getting a progressive boost. And boy, does it ever need it.
Bernie Sanders came within a whiff of winning the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. His campaign roused voters and unlocked enthusiasm for progressive policies few thought were viable on a national political level. His small donation-based campaign proved more successful than any of the Democratic Party’s establishment expected.
But as much support as he got, Sanders needed more help to win. The media treated him like a radical fringe candidate. And liberal political institutions and think thanks universally backed his Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“The think tank community was all lined up behind Clinton on the Democratic side,” says Matt Bruenig. “As someone who tends to agree more with Bernie than the more centrist wing of the Democratic Party, I didn’t think that was fair or good.”
Bruenig saw the need for a scholarly institution to aid the far left. In May, he started his own think tank, People’s Policy Project, to give progressive policies and the politicians that champion them a foundation of support.
“The hope was that I could create something to serve that part of the political spectrum, and that would kind of help the burgeoning further left constituency in U.S. politics,” he says.
It’s not Bruenig’s first foray in the think tank realm or the first time he’s challenged centrist ideals. He covered politics for the liberal think tank Demos before leaving after clashing with Clinton policy advisor Neera Tanden on social media. But based on his experience in the industry, he knows widespread support for progressive policies exists among think tank scholars.
“Given the political realities, those [Democratic] think tanks weren’t able to work with [Bernie Sanders] or assist him in fleshing out some of his stuff,” Bruenig says. “It’s not because his ideas were ridiculous or even because they had no support among people who work in those think tanks.”
Like Sanders’ campaign, People’s Policy Project is funded entirely by small donors. Supporters subscribe through Patreon, following the model of successful left organizations and podcasts like Chapo Trap House. Donors are alerted of new content via email when it’s published. For decades, major think tanks have relied on fat cat donors and foundations that expect direct impact on the organization’s work.
The support of small donations helps keep the People’s Policy Project truly independent—a return to the roots of research organizations. In the early 20th century, think tanks were generally nonpartisan and staffed by scholars of varying viewpoints who hoped to promote public thought and discussion. But when people saw how much the groups could influence politicians, the goal changed. Big money conservative donors began pouring money into think tanks founded to advance political ideas that would bolster their bottom lines.
Jane Mayer chronicled the rise of partisan think tanks in her national bestseller Dark Money. Per Mayer, it was Libertarian economist Freidrich Hayek who “spawned the idea of a think tank as a political weapon.” The best way to convince politicians of billionaire pocket-lining free market policies, he thought, “was to start ‘a scholarly institute’ that would wage ‘a battle of ideas.’” It’s how large firms like the Heritage Foundation were started, and how established political institutions and think tanks like the Brookings Institute shifted to the right.
Political leanings and business model aside, People’s Policy Project is an extension of that idealistic transparency. Bruenig’s politics are clearly stated and PPP is an unabashedly progressive organization. Now that the days of nonpartisan politics (and political discussion) are long gone, think tanks serve a vital role influencing the public and propping up the legislators that represent it.
“In my mind, the purpose of a think tank is to provide policy ideas that are ready to go in the event that you have the power to put them in place,” Bruenig says.
Before 2016, there weren’t many politicians openly campaigning on progressive ideology. But after Sanders pushed the Democratic platform left—or at the very least revealed the size of its progressive constituency—things have changed. Candidates like Wisconsin’s Randy Bryce (aka Iron Stache) and Atlanta’s Vincent Fort are defying Democrat elites and appealing to voters with popular policies like marijuana decriminalization and single payer healthcare.
Even as the progressive base grows and left candidates emerge, big money to back these ideas is scarce. Conservative think tanks create policy specifically beneficial to their major donors. Progressive doctrine, on the other hand, is built upon correcting flaws in an unequal society. That means fixing systemic injustice, redistributing wealth and pointing out issues with things like capital income. Most rich people don’t want to discuss that, let alone fund it.
That’s a bug in the blueprint of a progressive think tank, but Bruenig thinks it’s been a net positive in starting PPP. The ceiling for a Patreon-funded organization is low, but with a few podcast hits and Twitter outreach (he has more than 280,000 followers), he can get the word out to as many people as possible.
“If you’re relying on the big donor model, you end up in this very unfortunate Catch-22 situation where it’s hard to convince someone to write you a $100,000 or $200,000 check,” he says. “How do they know I’m going to put together something good? There’s a lot of risk and uncertainty in that, so they’re hesitant.”
Bruenig says people are less hesitant to donate five dollars per month and see what might come of it. He writes day-to-day posts and works on longer papers and detailed proposals on topics like expanded social wealth fund and a national child allowance.
Bruenig’s job now is to continue producing high quality content and make himself and his organization available to the media. As it publishes more, PPP’s (and Bruenig’s) legislative legitimacy will only increase.
“There’s still a little skepticism, but hopefully I’ll prove the skeptics wrong and show that this is a real thing and that I’m actually doing it.”