Michelle Goldberg: Where has all the left-wing money gone? | GUEST COMMENTARY

As we stumble toward another existential election, panic is setting in among some progressive groups because the donors who buoyed them throughout the Trump years are disengaging. “Donations to progressive organizations are way down in 2023 across the board,” said a recent memo from Billy Wimsatt, executive director of the Movement Voter Project, an organization founded in 2016 that channels funds to community organizers, mostly in swing states, who engage and galvanize voters.

As both big and small donors pull back, there have been layoffs across the progressive ecosystem, from behemoths such as the Sierra Club to insurgent outfits such as Justice Democrats, a group that first recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to challenge Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018. According to a July analysis by Middle Seat, a Democratic strategy and consulting firm, in the first half of this year, grassroots donations to Democratic House and Senate campaigns were down almost 50% compared to the same point in 2021. Wimsatt, who had to lay off 15 people from a 55-person staff in June, told me, “I haven’t experienced a situation like this before when there’s been such a sense of scarcity.”


This isn’t just about political operatives losing their jobs: It means that organizations that should be building up their turnout operations for next year are instead having to downsize. And it speaks to a mood of liberal apathy and disenchantment that Democrats can’t afford before another grueling election.

It was probably inevitable that left-leaning fundraising would fall once the immediate crisis of Donald Trump’s presidency ended. Activism, like electoral politics, is often thermostatic: There’s more energy on the right when Democrats are in power, and more on the left during Republican administrations. After a pandemic, an insurrection, and innumerable climate disasters and mass shootings, people are burned out.


Yet, if liberal lassitude is understandable, it’s also alarming, because we’re going to have to fend off Trump once again.“I feel like we’re at the end of the wave of what people are willing to do out of sheer terror,” said Max Berger, co-founder of progressive groups such as If Not Now and the Momentum Training Institute. “So now, if we’re going to keep that level of momentum, we need something more positive.”

One small, characteristic piece of this problem — and perhaps the easiest part to solve — involves the way Democrats use email. If you’re on any progressive mailing lists, you surely know what I’m talking about: the endless appeals, sometimes in bold all caps, warning of imminent Democratic implosion.

In the short term, these emails are effective, which is why campaigns use them. Over time, they encourage a mix of cynicism and helplessness — precisely the feelings leading too many people to withdraw from political involvement.

But this is just a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that, right now, progressive politics are necessarily organized around preventing imminent catastrophe rather than offering up a vision of a transformed world. Joe Biden has an impressive legislative record, but because of the counter-majoritarian roadblocks in our system, the case for his reelection is largely about staving off disaster rather than the promise of new accomplishments.

Where there is a prospect of real change, progressives are still getting mobilized. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, “there was a resurgence of both activist energy and donor energy,” said Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a network of progressive donors channeling money to pro-democracy grassroots groups.As the prospect of Trump redux moves from looming horror to daily emergency, Gavito expects people to throw themselves into politics once again. I hope she’s right, and Democratic forces can rouse themselves one more time. It’s a depressing paradox: We need politics that are about more than just the miserable business of stopping Trump, but unless Trump is stopped, we’re not going to get them.

Michelle Goldberg (X: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared.