Open Letter to Liberal Donors: Please Create Missing Liberal Institutions

Julie Hotard
17 min readAug 15, 2020

--

I’ve been reading lately about impressive and generous giving to charitable organizations by MacKenzie Scott, Laurene Powell Jobs and other liberal philanthropists.

MacKenzie Scott says “Life will never stop finding fresh ways to expose inequities in our systems; or waking us up to the fact that a civilization this imbalanced is not only unjust, but also unstable.”

Laurene Powell Jobs says “In the broadest sense, we want to use our knowledge and our network and our relationships to try to effect the greatest amount of good.”

I’ll respond to these aware statements by shedding some light on the core issues underlying the problems most philanthropy currently aims to solve — two big picture projects that, if funded, will have the highest positive impact on our society for generations to come.

The big problem is that liberal philanthropists tend to spend a great deal of money treating the symptoms that occur when Right Wingers control our government, and when Right Wing disinformation controls the beliefs of tens of millions of people. However, almost no money is spent on trying to wrest control of our government and our culture from Right Wingers, many of whom are authoritarians. So, even as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on the symptoms, the disease keeps getting worse. Although Trump lost the presidential election, the Senate is still controlled by Republicans, who can block any progressive legislation proposed.

Rather than addressing particular problem areas, addressing the core issues can re-balance and stabilize our whole system. It can remedy a number of injustices at once and make the system resistant to authoritarianism.

The big picture organizations I’ll be discussing are NOT driving change right now, because they don’t exist yet — or if they do exist, they are tiny and poorly funded, compared to the parallel Right Wing efforts. If such organizations did exist and had substantial funding, they would already be transforming our world. The unmet need for these big picture institutions is what makes our society unstable and causes the individual issue problems.

Those who have limited amounts of money can contribute to these efforts too. Every donation helps. Also, individuals and groups are needed who are willing to start building the kinds of liberal institutions we need, and then seeking funding for them. A little of this is already being done. I will discuss below the needs which such institution builders should consider.

Also, keep reading if you would like to reflect on what is missing from our society and how these unmet needs led to our current public health and economic crises. That’s what this essay covers.

The two big picture goals are election messaging and fairness in media. Focus on these could have immense impact because achieving them would help get liberal politicians elected and would make it likely they would receive mostly fair treatment from the press. Why are these endeavors needed? Because organized focused groups with long term financing — like the Right Wing media and political machines — win elections at all levels often. Disorganized scattered groups with periodic short term financing right before elections — like many current liberal organizations — do not.

“Why has no one thought of this before?” you might ask. As a psychologist who has studied and written about propaganda for years, I can tell you.

The reason is that the American public is in denial of reality about the facts of our current situation: 1) That propaganda works, 2) That it has worked on Americans very very well, 3) That it works through repetition and emotional manipulation, 4) That it works on smart people as well as stupid ones and 5) that the solutions offered — such as teaching critical thinking skills to those who are motivated to learn them — are entirely inadequate individual solutions for a systemic problem, and have no significant impact on the problem.

The human brain is not designed to function adequately in an environment consisting of more lies than truth — the environment in which increasing number of Americans are living. And so it doesn’t.

Again, the two big picture goals that need to be pursued by new liberal institutions are: 1) More competent liberal election messaging and 2) Fairness in reporting about politics and politicians. These areas of institutional focus would ensure that citizens can be informed of the truth about officials. Thus fewer citizens will believe the propaganda, lies and conspiracy theories about officials that are now so widely believed.

Here is the first of the two kinds of new institutions that are needed to help liberal politicians get elected and get more often truthfully reported on while in office: 1) New mainstream media organizations — including TV and radio stations — that are committed to truthful reporting in the long run, in ways that are conducive to justice and democracy.

Social media networks might be created also. The primary solution proposed to our massive disinformation problem on social media has is “Learn to do better critical thinking.” That solution has been around for many years now and has failed us. Individual solutions to disinformation don’t work that well. We need democratic networks and/or institutions to pull people into constructive activities in their communities. We need to spread constructive messages just as much as the conspiracy theories and militia recruitment messages are being spread on Facebook and other social media now. We need to find ways to pull people away from destructive messages and activities — and toward constructive ones. It would be expensive. And well worth the cost.

Apparently a group of fans of Korean pop music have been doing a small amount of this sort of function. It doesn’t seem to have an organization or funding, or to go beyond dealing with Twitter hashtags related to QAnon and Black Lives Matter. But we have to start somewhere, and this is what is being done so far.

Social media approaches to disinformation are focused on cybersecurity and removing the dangerous posts, which is useful. However, such an approach is incomplete. We can’t simply remove the bad influences — the “Just say No” approach. We need to give people needed activities and mentorship to say Yes to.

The second kind of institution needed will be: 2) Liberal think tanks that research effective liberal messaging strategies.

Most Americans probably think we already have such institutions. We don’t. Bear with me now, while I explain how it is that we don’t have them, what we have instead and what changes are needed.

With regard to the first area — media — it’s quicker to show you than to tell you.

Here’s an article by CNN reporter and political commentator Oliver Darcy, about the Jonathan Swan’s recent interview of President Trump. The article has a link to the interview. Darcy says “It was enraging to watch Axios reporter Jonathan Swan’s interview with President Trump…because for years well-compensated professional television news anchors have failed to execute interviews half as effective as Swan’s.”

How is it that so few TV interviewers show a commitment to truth — much less to justice and democracy? The reason is that most media are in fact neutral toward truth, justice and democracy.

Most mainstream media are instead committed to an “objectivity” that reports through a “view from nowhere.” It’s actually a white male Right of Center view. Most media also often “cover both sides”, as if both sides are equally credible.

When one party gets taken over by constant liars, this supposedly “objective” method stops working. In fact it favors the liars and con artists — who are presented as if they’re credible when they’re not.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, Eric Boehlert, Margaret Sullivan and I, plus many others, have written at length about this problem. Here is a recent article by journalist Dan Froomkin that describes it well.

The essay includes tweets by black journalist Wesley Lowery, explaining the current “both sides” approach favored by most mainstream media today, and its unfairness to minorities. Here’s an essay by Lowery on the subject.

These problems show why our society needs more radio, TV and other media that are committed to truth, justice and democracy. Not committed to false equivalence — which means covering both sides as if equally credible. Not committed to access journalism — in which journalists ask softball questions of powerful officials, in order to maintain access to them. Not committed to “horse race” coverage — that treats politics as an entertaining sport, affecting no one’s life.

Media also need to stop the habit of “stenography journalism” — that is, simply recording answers to questions that public officials give, without challenge, even if the statements are obvious lies.

Stenography is what the vast majority of White House Correspondence Association reporters at Trump’s White House press conferences do. Consequently, low information voters see the president speaking on TV — unchallenged by the reporters who surround him — and assume his statements are true.

TV viewers are receiving dangerous amounts of disinformation about public health and other matters. Democrats’ lack of skill at messaging makes the problem worse. Democratic politicians and pundits don’t see the need to use repeated talking points. So lies from Trump and other Right Wingers are repeated constantly until low info voters find them familiar and believe them. Truths are not repeated much, so low info voters are not familiar with those.

Traditional media habits make it easy for political propagandists to manipulate media.

It will be an immense project to create and fund new media and will require substantial long term investments over time. Just as Fox lost millions for years, new liberal media will need some time and money to research and develop effective strategies to inform the public in constructive ways.

For an example of how long term a project impactful media can be, here is an article documenting how Fox network kept losing money at first. Murdoch subsidized it until it built an audience.

The book The Loudest Voice in the Room also documents how Fox was intentionally built as a Right Wing propaganda network. It was not built simply to make money in whatever way it could, as many mistakenly assume.

The Right Wing takeover of much of media was planned. Nothing about it was accidental. Contrary to popular belief, viewers don’t choose to watch Fox because it’s what they want to hear. It’s turned on at most military bases, health clubs and cruise ships. It’s also on at almost every fast-food outlet and other gathering place in the South, and also in much of OH, SD, PA, WI and MI. People view it accidentally because facility managers have turned it on in the places where they go. Accidental viewers assume it’s objective news. They get sucked into continuing to watch it and believing it.

Fox keeps growing in popularity and spreading Right Wing bias. One America Network and Sinclair spread the same bias.

Right Wing media owners take a big picture long term approach and it works. Yet there is very little counterbalancing effort by liberal groups of people taking a big picture and long term approach to financing large media organizations with healthy values. So Right Wing media are growing, and belief in truth and democracy are dwindling, in our population.

Conservative think tanks also subsidize Right Wing talk radio hosts. There are more than a thousand conservative talk radio shows on the air now. Shows get subsidized. They don’t just accidentally happen because they are naturally popular.

Here’s some information about the popularity of Right Wing talk radio.

Even though long term investments in healthy media will be expensive and take time, the long term return— in terms of social good achieved — will be great. It will be exponentially greater than the good achieved by contributions made directly to disadvantaged groups.

Why? Because disadvantaged groups keep getting significantly more disadvantaged when there is continued Right Wing control of government. The pain caused to these groups by Right Wing control of government is rapidly growing beyond the capacity of any amount of philanthropy to remedy that pain.

So that’s what we need in new media institutions.

The other type of institution we lack is: Liberal think tanks that work on liberal messaging. This weakness has made it inevitable that we would end up where we are now. There are liberal think tanks, but their focus is not on effective messaging to elect liberal politicians.

Nor is the liberal focus on helping liberal politicians to select qualified liberal judges. The Federalist Society does this for the Right Wing. No one performs this function for Democrats.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society#:~:text=The%20organization%20tends%20to%20favor,the%20Supreme%20Court%20since%201992

One of my Twitter followers informed me that a group that looks to have started in 2018, Demand Justice, is attempting to be one idea of a liberal answer to the Federalist Society. Although I expect it runs on a shoestring budget, in comparison to the Federalist Society, you have to start somewhere. It doesn’t have a wikipedia page of its own yet but has a three sentence paragraph on the page for the larger group with which it is affiliated, Arabella Advisors. Additional donors could help them to expand their operations.

Also, conservative think tanks develop effective messaging as their main function. Unlike liberal think tanks, Right Wing ones nurture and financially support up and coming conservative writers. Both Right Wing think tanks and Right Wing media also promote the work of conservative writers and speakers. Once Right Wing institutions have made a Right Winger famous, the famous Right Winger is then in high demand from mainstream media to appear on TV and to write columns. That’s why mainstream media has so many Right Wingers and so few Left Wingers. Up and coming liberal thinkers often have no one to promote their work. Many struggle financially. Some of them end up quitting to go to decent paying jobs in fields unrelated to politics.

The renowned cognitive linguist George Lakoff, has described the history of conservative think tanks, and how they did this, in his book The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

The history of such Right Wing institutions, and the corresponding lack of parallel and adequate liberal institutions, is also covered in Kurt Anderson’s new book. It’s called Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History. Here’s a good review of the book.

Turning to the problem of a lack of competent messaging, here is how that problem affected Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Bannon and the Mercers used Cambridge Analytica to play mainstream media, Right Wing media and social media like fiddles. They immersed all these media in propaganda bashing Hillary Clinton. In addition to targeting likely Trump voters, they aimed a lot of propaganda at likely Democratic voters — persuading them not to vote for Clinton. Due to lack of familiarity with the intricacies of social media, and due to the typical Democratic lack of expertise in messaging, Clinton’s team was unaware of this happening.

Superior Use of Science and Technology Won the 2016 Election

After Donald Trump’s election, organizations stepped up to fill the void in effective liberal messaging. The Lincoln Project, Republican Voters against Trump, Vote Vets, and Meidas Touch are just a few. Liberal political consultants — who failed to get Hillary Clinton or a Dem House or a Dem Senate elected in 2016 — don’t have much good to say about these talented competitors of theirs. However, Trump’s approval numbers started dropping once some of the new organizations began stepping up to the plate.

However, most of these organizations were focused on the November election only. There are some currently working on liberal messaging — StrikePac.com, RealityTeam.org, and Tara McGowan’s Acronym.

It remains to be seen what those organizations will be doing in the future — e.g. whether they will target the same audience being targeted with lies or whether they’ll preach to the choir, whethere they’ll focus on the long term, what kinds of strategies they’ll use. The first two are small and could use more funding. The third seems to have a fair amount of funding. But I couldn’t get to their web site — which is listed as anotheracronym.org--when I tried.

We could use more liberal think tanks — & more well funded ones — that focus on the long term. Right Wing think tanks have done in-depth research on conservative messaging for many decades and their media apparatus does Right Wing messaging 24/7/365.

Democrats usually focus on messaging only during campaigns. Liberal think tanks mostly focus instead on policy research and on philanthropy to disadvantaged groups.

Here is an excellent nuanced article on what Dems need to do to win big in the 2022 mid-terms. It’s not the standard Shor & Carville failed ideas of “popularism” and continually going further Rightwards to try to get the elusive Swing voters — who will likely never vote Democrat until they stop consuming Right Wing propaganda media anyway. This is a nuanced thorough description of the problems and solutions. This thinking has been around for a while, but Democrats have not paid attention or tried to take the steps advised.

I would love to see liberal philanthropists and organizations take on these projects, and also buy up radio and TV stations and newspapers, to spread truth before our increasing immersion in Right Wing disinformation becomes fatal to democracy.

Can the real lessons of Virginia rescue the Democrats in 2022? It’s definitely worth trying

As usual, Democrats are at risk of pointless panic — instead of standing up for what most Americans believe

By Paul Rosenberg

November 21, 2021

What is the result? Well, if power ever drops into the laps of liberals by accident, liberal think tanks are there ready with policies. Otherwise, the policies won’t ever get used. After November, liberals will once again be at a severe disadvantage in elections due to poor messaging — unless some of the groups mentioned above, continue doing it for liberals in the long term. That is unlikely. Some of these people are Never Trump Republicans. It can’t be assumed that their help for liberals will extend past November’s election.

Funding and policy that help disadvantaged groups are important. However, in the long run, focus on liberal messaging would have far more impact — even on disadvantaged groups.

Ideally the new organizations would go to people in their communities, help solve problems and also spread the truth to people about Democrats. It would need to be an ongoing effort — not just an effort right before an election. Right Wing media now speak for Republicans 24/7/365 — not just before elections. Democrats coming in right before an election with messaging can’t compete with a Right Wing media machine that is in people’s lives every single day.

Perhaps communities could also be persuaded to give up their easily hackable voting machines, so that hacking and fraudulent programming would no longer be a risk in elections, as it is now.

Why? If liberal messaging isn’t competent enough to get liberals elected, then Right Wingers win most elections and liberal policies don’t get enacted — even if think tank research shows such policies would be highly effective. Also, if liberal messaging is not competent enough to get liberals elected, Right Wingers seize the opportunity to slash the social safety net to shreds. In that case philanthropy can’t even come close to making up for the huge shortfall in essential social programs.

The two big picture endeavors I’ve described will have such immense impact because they will create the messages that will help get liberal politicians elected, and would help them to get fair press. If instead, lies about liberal politicians dominate the news — as with Hillary Clinton — liberal politicians won’t get elected.

If more liberal politicians get elected, and their actions reported fairly, we’ll be able to restore voting rights to people whose votes have been suppressed. We’ll be able to repair the police system, the criminal justice system and the social safety net. We’ll deal with climate change and health care more effectively.

Right Wing rules causes a lot of destruction that at some point can become irreversible. A current example of this is seen in Right Wing efforts over recent decades to bankrupt the U. S. Postal Service. The USPS now has a Trump donor as Postmaster General, who is delaying mail delivery, removing mail boxes and removing mail sorting machines from Post Offices. He may sabotage the mail-in voting system, and thus the November election.

If all of these government structures keep being actively destroyed, rather than getting repaired, there will be no amount of philanthropy that can repair that. Trying to do so will be like trying to bail out a boat that is losing water from dozens of holes because it is structurally unsound. If we don’t make major structural repairs to the boat, no amount of money spent on bailing buckets will solve the problem.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is the relevant rule here. The earlier in the chain of events that we address the basic foundational problems, the fewer problems we end up having from then on, and the better off our society is.

It’s pretty obvious that a President Hillary Clinton would be handling the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. far better than Trump. Public health would be in better shape. As a result, the economy would be in better shape. Environmental issues would be handled more competently. And a President Hillary Clinton would also be responding to Black Lives Matter protests and social justice concerns far more competently and compassionately. If these big picture long term organizations had been in place in 2016, we would likely have had that outcome.

It’s too late to have that now. But if we create these institutions now, we can repair the damage and usher in a new era of progress in our society.

In summary, those of you who have the means to do philanthropy on a large scale, please consider 1) Creating liberal think tanks that conduct in-depth research to find the most effective liberal messaging strategies and 2) Creating new mainstream media organizations — including TV and radio stations — that will be committed in the long term to truthfully informing the public in ways that value and facilitate justice and democracy.

Oh, here is one more aspect of the situation of which liberals should be aware. I advise that philanthropists, and people starting new liberal institutions for which they will seek funding, should not ask current Democratic institutional leaders for their approval.

The successful liberal institutions outside of the Democratic party haven’t asked for approval. Also, on the Republican side, Ailes and Murdoch probably didn’t ask the Republican party whether they wanted anyone to start Fox news.

One of the reasons new liberal institutions need to be developed is because so many of the old ones are not functioning effectively to stop the spread of fascism. Here is a Twitter thread from a person who means well and wants to do well for the DNC. Even so, the situations he describes illustrate well how institutions such as the DNC are wasting tremendous amounts of time, money and liberals’ energy, while not getting much of the work done that needs to be done to save democracy.

You can read this tweet thread on threadreader here:

--

--

Julie Hotard