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February 02, 2007

Professionalizing Progressivism

Let me second most of Glenn's comments here, and say further that if the vocal elements of the left really do have a problem with their champions making a living, talent won't remain in the movement very long. Even revolutionaries need to get paid.

To expand on the actual case of writers for a moment, I'm not sure it's terribly hard to make a living being a writer, per se. There really are a lot of outlets, from newspapers to magazines to trades to journals to corporate gigs. It's very hard, however, to make a living being a conscientious, opinionated, progressive writer. And the problem is basic: There are very few outlets. Think about it. You want to get a full-time job as a liberal pundit-type. Where do you apply? Well, The American Prospect, of course. The Nation too. In These Times really doesn't have any money, and The Washington Monthly has a skeletal staff. I guess you could try The New Republic, but that bridge is charred and smoking. Oh, and Salon, and I'm sure a couple more I'm forgetting.

Not one of those outlets turns a profit. Not one employs more than a dozen writers. Between them, you're looking at fewer than (I'd guess) 30 full-time liberal writing positions, and half of those are at TNR. The obvious response, of course, is don't do this full-time. Have a job, retain your independence, and sacrifice some leisure time to The Cause. But that is to misunderstand why paid progressive writers matter.

The least important part of my job is the writing. I am not a particularly good prose stylist. My rhetoric rarely soars, my imagery occasionally flickers , and my metaphors often mix. But then, that's only part of what I'm paid for. What I spend the bulk of my time doing is reading. Reading and reporting. Printing out long pdfs on inequality and health policy and calling experts and slogging through books and reading back through controversies and all the rest. I'm not informed because I eat my Wheaties, I'm informed because The American Prospect pays me a full-time salary so I can spend my days absorbing and translating information I deem relevant to contemporary politics and trends.

To some degree, Glenn Greenwald is the same way. His work is invaluable -- but not because he's a great writer (though he is). It's because he really will go back and read every Tom Friedman column since the start of the war. Or because he'll spend the time studying legislation, and old court rulings, and archived speeches. It's critical work. But it takes time. Lots of it. Time that, for a lawyer like Greenwald, would otherwise be billable. Time that's needed to pay his rent.

Progressivism really does need to be professionalized. Those devoted to it must be paid. Not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the smart thing to do. Because we want them devoting their talents to the movement full-time. I'm always impressed by how few fundraising drives you really see in the blogosphere. No one demands subscription rates, few even ask for pocket change. It's a testament to the characters and virtue of the writers that they do it for love, not money. But the world would be a better place, and progressivism a stronger movement, if we paid them in money, not compliments.

I've been lucky to find a home at The American Prospect. Glenn is blessed to be picked up by Salon. And hopefully, others will have the same luck. Blog readers should not only encourage such appropriations, but where possible, they should agitate for them. If Salon gets a flood of new subscribers because they picked up Greenwald, they'll do it again, grabbing Digby, or Hilzoy, or some other remarkable talent, who will now be freed to do an even better job than they do now. That's what we want. The right, through AEI and Heritage and the Hoover Institute and Fox News gigs and all the rest, subsidize hundreds of writers and "thinkers" and authors and agitators...and they're the stronger for it. That's a model we must replicate, not virtuously avoid.

February 2, 2007 | Permalink


I believe The Nation does turn a profit, albeit a modest one

Posted by: A | Feb 2, 2007 3:59:23 PM

You're totally right, Ezra. Infrastructure! I'd luv to see a comparison listing of GOP/Conservative homes for writer/thinkers (with headcount) vs the Liberal/Progressive/Dem. places. I'd bet the left is outnumbered 3 or 5 to 1. Who knows?

I'd go beyond writer/thinkers to include actual reporting (journamalism). When the right/mainstream centrists are well represented in national media,, the left has almost nothing.

Armies travel on their stomach. (Infrastructure/supply chains/logistics win wars). We have few front line troops and even less in support folks.

Dems seem to recorgnize the GOP/Conservative advantage in talking heads and scribbling writers, but nothing seems to get done changing the equation.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 2, 2007 4:04:54 PM

They did a couple quarters ago, but it was, as far as I know, a one-time thing. And it's definitely not the norm ;-)

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 2, 2007 4:07:23 PM

The lack of paying progressive outlets a problem, all right. And you're right — it's not that hard to make a living writing (although journalism doesn't pay all that much and too much business writing kills). What's hard is to get paid for writing about what's important. Which is why most of us got into writing in the first place.

There are more progressive outlets than Ezra listed, however. For instance, there's the National Catholic Reporter, all the environmental magazines, Ms., Ode, Yes, Resurgence, and good works publications like the one Heifer puts out. And there's Harpers and a host of more mainstream publications that sprinkle in policy.

But for purely political stuff? Not many.

Some people just start their own blogs and dream of one day selling advertising or being taken on by a think tank. Maybe you go into academia. Powerball tickets are also a mainstay.

I just took a position with an organization advocating for single-payer healthcare in Colorado. It's my second job since graduating from college more than 20 years ago that isn't with a publication. I thought it would fit in nicely with writing, but now that I've been on the job for a day I can see that writing is going to take a back seat. Actually, that writing is going to be left back at the train station.

Which is fine — since I want to affect policy. I want to educate people, show them connections and truths they hadn't seen before. Writing is just one part of it. Don't you think?

Posted by: Kristen Hannum | Feb 2, 2007 4:18:16 PM

glenn is just effectively covering his ass. it's no big deal he's going to salon.com, but he neglects the valid concern of co-option. kos pimping chevron comes to mind...

i get tired of hearing blogers whine that they need to get paid so nobody dares question their purity while they rail at the other hypocrites.

Posted by: christian | Feb 2, 2007 4:19:18 PM

Ez, could you please forward this post to the head of EVERY foundation that even halfway considers funding independent media? Thanks.

Posted by: Brian Cook | Feb 2, 2007 4:20:10 PM

Don't all the conservative rags lose money, too? But that's okay for the Scaifes of the world--these magazines and think tanks are loss-leaders. On our side, though, all we stand to gain is a better world, not an end to the estate tax.

Posted by: dj moonbat | Feb 2, 2007 4:30:25 PM

Gilliard has made this point repeatedly, Ezra. And he's also made the similar point that the status quo tends to result in liberal institutions being staffed by trust-fund types who can afford not to get paid: the viewpoints of lower-class writers is therefore lost. (Not that there IS a single "lower-class" viewpoint. But it enriches progressivism when we have voices who have real experience of economic hardship in their background and can draw upon it in their writing.)

Posted by: ChristianPinko | Feb 2, 2007 4:45:23 PM

dj moonbat really hits the nail on the head. The fundamental weakness in the progressive movement is the lack of financial support. We'll always be up against it, but the decline of "liberal university thinking" has left us really short of wonkish firepower. Modern legislation is written in the thinktanks and just voted on by politicians. Bush makes the decision to stay in Iraq, but the details are supplied by Kagan and the AEI.

Likewise, if there is ever going to be progressive healthcare proposals, what will happen is President Edwards/Obama/Clinton will decide that it's going to happen and if we're lucky most of the details will be provided by Ezra. If we're unlucky, they'll be provided by Kagan and the AEI (or someone at Cato.) And that's why wonkish firepower matters.

Forecasts are that the Presidential candidates this time around are going to raise and spend 500 million dollars. If there's that much money floating around a Dem candidate, surely we can find some money to fund some wonking?

Posted by: Meh | Feb 2, 2007 4:45:54 PM

IMO, money is too often to progressives like sex is to wingers-- something that's dirty unless obtained in an absolutely sanctioned way, necessary but still evidence of weakness when sought, and something that should only be enjoyed by those who are at or near the top of the heap (and corrupting even then, so those at the bottom can feel morally superior).

Yeah, it's an overgeneralization, but it's worth examining our side's incoherence on these matters.

Posted by: latts | Feb 2, 2007 4:49:28 PM

Agreed Ezra. So many talented writers are stuck lingering on Google Adsense.

It makes me a little resentful to think that as a rather prominent DailyKos diarist, if I were a conservative I'd probably have been picked up by a think tank by now.

Posted by: hekebolos | Feb 2, 2007 4:49:57 PM

What I spend the bulk of my time doing is reading.

This is so true. One of my readers once suggested I must be a "late sleeper," because my first post of the day is often not until 10:00am EST. That it follows 2-3 solid hours of morning reading, and whatever time it took to knock out the actual writing, never occurred--which I found equal parts amusing and sad.

I do blog in my pajamas, though.

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Feb 2, 2007 4:55:23 PM

Which others...



Posted by: [email protected] | Feb 2, 2007 5:08:13 PM

I like alot of Libs resent having to lose our talent to the the system but in the end you are absolutely correct, progressivism must be professionalized. In the long run it will benefit the progressive movement to have all these wonderfully talented bloggers (Glenn, Shakes, Peter Daou) gain experience on the national stage. Then finally maybe these people will be the faces we see on Sunday morning instead of David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Joe Klein and Tim Russert.

Our loss is the nations gain. Bravo guys. Best of luck to all of you.

Posted by: lib4 | Feb 2, 2007 5:30:06 PM

through AEI and Heritage and the Hoover Institute and Fox News gigs and all the rest, subsidize hundreds of writers and "thinkers" and authors and agitators...and they're the stronger for it. That's a model we must replicate, not virtuously avoid.

Maybe this is a basic question, but why don't progressives have the institutes to nuture thinkers? Is money the limitation?

Posted by: Megan | Feb 2, 2007 5:35:14 PM

I think saying we need to replicate the model is not quite right. Their model is based on donations from the Scaifes and Exxon Mobils's of the world, something that we will simply never have, with rare exceptions. If we do come to rely on George Soros and others from the business community, I think the corruption of the movement becomes a very legitimate concern.

If the goal is to professionalize progressivism, we need to be building alternative institutions, not replicating theirs. Obviously blogs, internet activism, fundraising from small personal donations, and outlets like Salon, TAP, (Isn't Mother Jones another?), etc. are all important. I hope that they continue to evolve, and I think the development of permanent positions for writers like Glenn and campaign positions for people like Shakes (Congrats!) and Amanda is a really good sign.

Posted by: Sam L. | Feb 2, 2007 6:13:05 PM

Unless you were just saying we should replicate their ability to manufacture demand for smart articulate talented ideological writers and thinkers. 'Cause that's spot on.

Posted by: Sam L. | Feb 2, 2007 6:17:00 PM

To suggest that a progressive writer would be co-opted by The System because of attachment to a more financially lucrative enterprise demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for that writer. Has Sy Hersch sold out, even when facing career interruptions for not conforming to MSM orthodoxy, or did Molly Ivins become a shill when her column was picked up by Creators Syndicate? This is not to say some writers haven't changed their tune to that of the corporate fiddler. However, a writer who liberals profess to regard highly does not automatically become corrupted by money, and it is insulting to suggest he or she will until the contrary becomes apparent.

Posted by: MoCrash | Feb 2, 2007 9:17:27 PM

"I'd luv to see a comparison listing of GOP/Conservative homes for writer/thinkers (with headcount) vs the Liberal/Progressive/Dem. places. I'd bet the left is outnumbered 3 or 5 to 1. Who knows?"

It's not 5 to 1. It's more like at least 25 to 1 (and possibly even higher). In college, I'm ashamed to say I was a conservative (yes, I didn't get laid much) at one of the most notably "conservative" colleges. Not only are there literally hundreds of conservative think-tanks, some of them actually invited me to apply without me even asking them for a job. Meanwhile, the graduates of an extremely prominent liberal-tending college next door almost never got jobs with liberal thinktanks, no matter how bad they wanted such jobs. There simply weren't any positions available.

"Maybe this is a basic question, but why don't progressives have the institutes to nuture thinkers? Is money the limitation? "

It's money, but not only money. First, real progressives comparatively have effectively no money. Progressives in Europe who are not in academia have several potential sources of employment that simply don't exist in the USA:

1. many more newspapers (some owned by Left political parties or unions, others with a history of left-esque slants)that also aim to be great papers.
2. unions that are political (remember, American unions were forced to be apolitical during the McCarthy era).
3. international organizations (rather bizarrely, most of the international organizations HQ'd in the US generally prefer to not hire Americans in research roles).

Remember also that Western European universities (at least, after WWII) were not repeatedly purged like American universities were (both by McCarthyism after WWII and by very extreme anti-Semitism AND repeated Red scares prior to WWII).

Moderate liberal US thinktanks (the comparative few that exist) usually prefer to cover their asses by having research fellows who are primarily academics at very top universities. Thus, they're very "technocratic" - focused: professors who write very abstruse papers that are largely unreadable. These research fellows use such thinktanks to, basically, boost their own careers - i.e. produce research that raises their academic profiles. Which is a fine goal, but has little to do with convincing or even informing anybody outside of academia.

Plus, anyone who's not a PhD from a top institution is effectively entirely shut out of paying positions. Which adds a whole other layer of problems on top of the situation.

Posted by: burritoboy | Feb 2, 2007 9:30:02 PM

amen - i think people don't realize that writing is the visible tip of the iceberg. the real mass is the reading, reporting, etc. below the surface. and you're right that the benefit of a full-time writing gig is that you get to spend your days getting on top of news and policy, rather than trying to squeeze it in insomniac-like at night.

hope some rich people are reading your blog

Posted by: publius | Feb 2, 2007 10:48:31 PM

Think about this - kids just out of college with little experience and no expertise were sent to Iraq because they had posted their resumes at Heritage. Can you imagine if institutions on the left had that type of reach and power.

Secondly, progressives need to relearn the only two things one should be concerned about when dealing with other people's money - how did they earn it and how do they spend it. Wealth and poverty are neither virtue nor vice.

PS - I will write a scathing critique of the UN Climate Report for a video IPod, an XBox 360 and a pair of black Air Force 25 Premiums

Posted by: time to get paid | Feb 3, 2007 5:19:13 AM

Glen is signing on with the internet version of the Arizona Cardnals. Bad management,lack of a consistant plan,cheap,noninventive and worst of all boring. He could have done better. If he took out a home equity loan and waited for a good offer the future would have been brighter for him.

Posted by: Jerry | Feb 3, 2007 10:21:50 AM

"If he took out a home equity loan and waited for a good offer the future would have been brighter for him."

Easy for you to say, dude. You wouldn't be making the payments.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem. Too many "progressives" expect progressive activists, writers, campaign workers etc. to live in poverty and make sacrifices of self, financial and otherwise, until and unless a perfectly virtuous source of income magically appears. Which it won't.

Posted by: jkd | Feb 3, 2007 1:29:20 PM

I seem to remember a couple of guys named Armstrong and Moulitsas making this very point in a book called Crashing the Gate, in a section called "Laying the Groundwork". Here's a short quote:

"Rob Stein estimates that of the top eighty organizations he has studied in the VRWC, there are about 2000 conservative leaders earning between $75,000 and $200,000 . . . . No one ever failed to pay their rent or gave up eating out because they worked at a conservative organization."

Posted by: Newport 9 | Feb 3, 2007 2:57:21 PM

Well, I disagree with most of what Ezra said and most of the comments. The problem with American progressivism isn't funding, but that American progressives don't know how to argue. Arguing can in fact be extremely cheap, such as writing a letter to the editor at New York Times. Costs nothing, has great impact, even if it's not published (because it will be read, and if you make a good point you have injected it into the newspaper).

Glenn Greenwald almost seems to argue that it's the sweat put in that matters, but what matters is the result, and Greenwald is simply bad at political argument.

American progressives are good at policy, but bad at politics. Take for example how hard it is to for an American progressive to sum up their viewpoint in a few words. They can't do it. If they can't do it, they won't be heard by most people -- they will be heard only by policy wonks.

Much of the political stuff (such as "framing") that the American right wing does, is really very simple and leaves American liberals entirely befuddled.

Revise your argumentative culture, American liberals, it's not (mostly) a matter of funding.

(the writer is a Swedish Social Democrat)

Posted by: Bengt Larsson | Feb 3, 2007 9:59:57 PM

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