Rich Democrats go from challenging the status quo to embracing it

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Chicago public school teachers and their supporters picket in front of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters on Sept. 11, 2012, in Chicago.

So you're a liberal member of the 1 percent, and you've decided to wrest control of the Democratic agenda from change-averse insiders. You want to free the capital from the grip of powerful interest groups. You want to inspire a new set of policies to help America meet the challenges of a fast-transforming economy. Where do you turn for leadership and innovation?

To the teachers union, of course!

At least that's how it seems to have played out at the Democracy Alliance, the group of superrich Democrats who have funneled more than half a billion dollars into liberal groups over the past decade. Earlier this month, the alliance announced that John Stocks, executive director of the National Education Association, would become the chairman of its board.

The move went largely unnoticed by the Washington media and even most Democrats, who could think of nothing at that moment other than the Memoir That Ate Everything in Its Path. But it tells you something — more than Hillary Clinton's book does, certainly — about the direction of Democratic politics right now.

To understand why this decision is such a stunner, you have to understand the vision that guided the formation of the Democracy Alliance a decade ago. I was present at the creation, at least figuratively; I wrote the first magazine piece about the origins of the group and later devoted much of a book to following it.

The alliance grew out of a PowerPoint slideshow assembled by Rob Stein, a longtime Democratic operative, who diagramed what Clinton had famously called the "vast right-wing conspiracy." He argued that a handful of rich, conservative families had funded a network of vibrant think tanks and a "message machine" to spread their ideas.

The thinking behind the Democracy Alliance was to create a venture capital fund for new progressive groups. (The Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America were two of the charter recipients.) A central tenet of the alliance in those days was that it wanted nothing to do with the Democratic Party or elections, per se. The alliance was about creating a bolder alternative to the status quo.

It didn't take long, though, for the alliance to deviate from that course. The Silicon Valley and Wall Street contributors who were most focused on modernization started to drift away, exhausted by the endless conference calls and the knee-jerk resistance to any rethinking of the liberal agenda. The remaining "partners," as the alliance calls them, were overwhelmingly aging boomers who clung to 1960s orthodoxies.

Eventually, the alliance became, essentially, a convener and funder of the party establishment. It welcomed several big unions to the table and took up side collections for candidates. And now it's formalized that role by electing Stocks as its chairman, replacing Rob McKay, heir to the Taco Bell fortune.

To be clear, the problem here has nothing to do with Stocks personally, whom I've never met, and who has been described to me as a thoughtful and open-minded guy. It also has nothing to do with teachers generally, many of whom are nothing short of heroic, and who are struggling to adapt to the turmoil in their industry, same as the rest of us.

But if you were going to sit down and make a list of political powerhouses that have been intransigent and blindly doctrinaire in the face of change, you'd have a hard time finding a better example than the country's largest teachers union. (I guess you could point to the National Rifle Association, if that's really the kind of company you want to keep.) Just last week, a California judge, in ruling against the union, condemned its age-old protections of incompetent teachers, saying the union's position not only was unconstitutional but also "shocks the conscience."

Don't just listen to the judge on this, though. Heed the words of Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based venture capitalist and school reform advocate, who wrote in a 2012 email that subsequently became public: "It is impossible to escape the painful reality that we Democrats are now on the wrong side of every education reform issue. … There can be no doubt in any reasonable person's mind that the leadership of our party and most of its elected members are stooges for the teachers union, the ring leaders in all this nonsense."

As it happens, Hanauer is now a board member of the Democracy Alliance. When I called him last week, Hanauer told me Stocks is a good friend of his, even if they disagree on some issues, and that he's just fine with Stocks as chairman. "In the end, the only thing that matters for the Democracy Alliance is how the partners feel about its direction and its leadership," Hanauer said. "It doesn't matter what you think, with all due respect."

But of course that's where Hanauer is wrong; the Democracy Alliance does not exist in a vacuum. It's viewed by groups in Washington as the main bank for big money on the left, and the signal it sends has a profound effect now on what those groups are willing to say and do.

What kind of signal is the alliance sending by handing leadership to the teachers union? There is no area of policy more important to our economic success than public education, period. And in no area has the Obama administration shown more courage or more willingness to lead. Its Race to the Top program sped momentum toward charter schools and rewarding strong teachers.

What liberal group in Washington that relies on alliance funding is going to champion those kinds of reforms now? What Democratic candidate in the 2016 primaries — just humor me for the moment and assume that there will be primaries and multiple candidates running in them — will vow to carry on Obama's legacy if the party's organized millionaires are standing squarely behind the union that opposes it?

What does Stocks' elevation say to the left, more broadly, about any reform movement in Democratic politics? If you're a group or a national candidate who supports free trade agreements, or who wants to restructure entitlement programs as the boomers retire, are you really going to say any of that and then try to raise money from the Democracy Alliance?

The message is: There is no distance between the party's biggest funders and its 20th-century labor movement. If you don't get that, don't come through the door.

Maybe that's how it always was and was always going to be. But that's not how the Democracy Alliance started, and it doesn't bode well for a party whose last generation still refuses to step aside.

"I do think the D.A. is obviously evolving in a way that is not in the spirit of what we intended," says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the think tank NDN (formerly the New Democrat Network), who helped start the alliance. Like the centrist think tank Third Way, NDN was later cut off from funding. "I envisioned an organization that was interested not just in the big actors in the party or in playing it safe," he says, "but in taking some risks."

The only thing the Democracy Alliance risks, as it stands now, is becoming just another bulwark of the status quo.

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