Greening the Left

Tycoons will pay to generate leftist ideas in voters' minds, but now they want to see results

This isn't an organic process, like weather or erosion. It's a phenomenon willed into place as the result of millions of tiny political fights. Many cities could grow and spawn more Democrats. But they don't because well-organized neighbors in many cities tend to protest new apartment complexes in a way that small-town denizens don't object when suburban housing developments come to town.

So developers in cities have to hire political consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, and community organizers to build apartment buildings. Builders of suburban tract homes mostly avoid this expense. Vastly more capital flows into easy-to-complete suburban tract homes. And as a result, the geographical size of America's populated areas is expanding at about twice the rate of these areas' populations.

Vast Left Wing Conspiracy progressives don't seem to have contemplated stepping into the downtown-growth side of these battles. And liberal-conspiracy-choking urban sprawl carries on.

In other words, these liberals are ignoring the elephant in the bedroom community.

There's another portion of the liberal-conspiracy-battling-a-$300-million-conservative-message-machine yarn that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. For all the talk of think tanks and institution-building and 20-year-mass-opinion-swaying plans, the groups I encountered seemed to be formulated around the exigencies of getting liberal voters to the polls come Election Day. To its credit, America Coming Together ran a massive and successful get-out-the-vote drive, while professing to also be gunning for a change in the institutional and philosophical face of liberal activism. But when the professional ACT operatives got their last checks and went back to their home states, local left-wing-infrastructure organizations didn't even get to keep the group's ubiquitous Palm Pilot devices that made the get-out-the-vote drive so efficient. Likewise, groups such as Music for America don't seem all that focused on building a new liberal intellectual infrastructure so much as registering concertgoers to vote.

"What I see are some smart kids, but basically they're political organizers. They're operatives. I don't necessarily see this as the liberal answer to the Heritage Foundation," notes Democratic political consultant Jim Ross.

So it's not a well-fleshed-out story. But do the activists have fun? They certainly seem to.

During my brief time inside Vast Left Wing Conspiracy 2.0, I spent most of my time with groups devoted to politically proselytizing young people. This wasn't hard to do, as these organizations seem to be cropping up everywhere. I understand why -- the problem of how to turn out droves of liberal voters from the "millennials" generation of teens and twentysomethings born after 1981 is fascinating. It's also fun. This kind of organizing often involves things such as concerts, parties, and clever T-shirts. And there's the cool factor.

"It's always interesting to me that the people who get hired on these things tend to be very appealing people," notes Ross, the Democratic political consultant. "It's fun to have smart, fun, attractive, charismatic people hanging around."

But like whittling or playing the harmonica, organizing young voters is easy to fall into and difficult to master.

Youngsters move around a lot, from high school to college, to one job then another. They don't donate money, though they have discretionary income. Efforts to get young people to support one cause or another usually involves saying you're trying to "empower" them. This in turn creates a need to hire young people as organization leaders. As anybody who's worked with political interns knows, this group is famously unreliable and hard to manage. So proselytizing youngsters requires a large investment of older-adult money and time.

Worst of all, trying to persuade young people to adopt a new political ideology is usually a waste of time. Two different polls conducted last year showed more than 70 percent of young people said their political ideology was the same as their parents'. This means only one out of four targets is really subject to evangelizing, liberal or otherwise.

Just the same, in the Bay Area the ground floor of the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy seems very fresh-faced.

A few days after mingling with the youngish crowd at the San Mateo political entrepreneur mixer, I visited Music for America's repurposed tech loft building on York Street, in the heart of what, for a brief time during the late 1990s, was San Francisco's digital animation gulch. The neighborhood again seemed to have a young, creative glow. Music for America shares its old-brick-and-new-aluminum building with the Rappaport-funded outfit Civic Space, which makes networking software for liberal political groups. Across the hall is the Ironweed Film Club, a left-wing DVD delivery service launched by former Sierra Club director Adam Werbach, who in 1997 became an icon for the politicization of youth when he became president of the Sierra Club.

Outside the building a fellow who had been hanging out on the sidewalk rushed up and grabbed my arm. He told me he worked for a group called the League of Young Voters, set up to mobilize communities based on the teachings of the writer of a book called Bomb the Suburbs.

"It's a unique organization. It's dynamic. It's fun. We have a person whose job it is to throw parties," said Sam Dorman, who in 2004 was involved in creating videos touting John Kerry.

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