[I'm interested to know what people think of this. I felt a little strange writing it. It's originally posted here.]
“Twenty years from now, the next Barack Obama will have come through our program,” says Noah Doyle, a board member of the New Leaders Council, an organization that is building a foundation of progressive leaders throughout the country.
The NLC is strikingly different from the typical DC think tank or policy shop focused on electioneering or fighting in the cable news trenches. For the last six years, its main operation is to run a kind of mini-graduate school in cities across the country for up-and-coming progressive political entrepreneurs, or “Fellows,” as they call them. In five weekends over five months, a class of around twenty fellows take classes in things like business, media and communications, campaign management, or political strategy. These fellows then serve as a network of communication and support as they move into their careers throughout the country.
And the NLC’s goal is not just to build a stable of potential congressional candidates—it has its eyes on every potential position of influence nationwide: city councils and school boards, boards and chairmanships of corporations, and of course state and national elected offices. The idea is to “infiltrate and take over all the levers of power—public and private, national and local,” says the NLC’s Executive Director Mark Riddle.
Mark Walsh, the NLC’s chairman and an early backer, came on board for precisely this long-term aspect. “The NLC is not about quick fixes, or winning the news cycle,” he says. “It’s a 30-year program.”
In interviews across the NLC structure, from Riddle to graduated fellows, a common theme emerged: in the years after liberalism’s high mark in the 1960s, the left has been losing the muscle and sinew of a political movement, especially with the precipitous decline of private-sector unions. Where conservatives have nurtured their grassroots groups, pundits, policy shops, and losing politicians—to keep their bench deep, and prepare for the next grab at power—the left failed to keep up.
This is a common argument on the left, and the NLC is not the only organization to make it. A bumper crop of left-leaning organizations are also bearing fruit, particularly on the media side. (The Drudge-Fox-Limbaugh machine has real trouble working CNN like they used to.) But the NLC is planting seeds where few other, higher-profile organizations bother to tread.
“Before joining the NLC I was the type of person who thought I was ‘not into politics,’” says fellow Roxanna Elden, a teacher and author. “But these days, being a teacher is political, whether we want it to be or not.” She describes the training as “exhausting, but so, so worth it. I learned the things I most hoped to learn…[and] things I didn’t even know I needed to know, like how a city budget works, how political campaigns work, and how to apply the principles of design when addressing society’s problems.”
To maintain their dispersed character, the NLC deliberately tries to avoid spending too much time and effort inside the DC power structure. (It does maintain ties with friendly think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute, but avoids Beltway mudfights.) Though it started in the usual spots—New York City and San Francisco—it has since opened chapters in the likes of Des Moines and Missoula. It has no tiny cabal of hugely wealthy backers—every chapter is self-sustaining through its own fundraising. Its budget is lean—even Riddle works pro bono. The result, so far, is chapters in twenty cities and 400 graduates for next spring.
The NLC isn’t only working with teachers and school board members, of course. It has also attracted the likes of Michael Thakur, Harvard alum both from undergrad and law school, and former editor of the Harvard Law Review. He now works as a government attorney in Miami.
In addition to their fellowship program, the NLC holds a variety of events. One of the biggest is coming up soon at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. This happens at every convention, and it’s mostly an excuse for alumni to get together and catch up. Doyle describes it as “a big NLC-wide reunion in a dive bar.” Also, later this year the organization will release an annual list of “40-under-40,” young up-and-coming progressive leaders. Previous recipients have included the MSNBC weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry, the military gay rights activist Dan Choi, and Eboo Patel, a writer and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a religious tolerance organization.
After their first few years planting seeds, the NLC is growing fast—fourteen additional chapters are in the pipeline for next year alone. What’s more, the word is out: last year saw 4000 applications for 400 spots, “which was an eye-opener for jaded, cynical campaign types,” says Riddle.
“In the near future,” he adds, “we’d like to have chapters in every state, and 1000+ graduates per year.”
And after that? Well, you know who also used to be editor of the Harvard Law Review…