Investing in US

2017–2018 in Review

America’s greatness flows from our Constitutional guarantees of liberty and democracy under the rule of law. Through two centuries of tumult, America has inspired dreamers from all over the world. They invented new technologies and businesses, and built movements for suffrage, tolerance, and civil rights. For decades, no nation has rivaled our scientific institutions; our media and cultural exports; our economy; our military power; or our influence. With America as the world’s leading power, worldwide gains in literacy, lifespan, and the human condition reached stunning new heights year after year.

Image courtesy of Tony Crider, Creative Commons.

All of that was put at risk in 2016, when Donald Trump took over the Republican Party and assumed complete control over the federal government. As Ronald Reagan said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Trump and his movement, borrowing heavily from other authoritarian criminals such as Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, promised to hollow out America’s principles in favor of his own personal enrichment. This President and his allies are actively undermining the legitimacy of our free press, our courts, our elections, and our scientific institutions.

The idea behind Investing in US was to bring entrepreneurs and investors to join the resistance in fighting for the American dream. After all, we are children of that dream. We know from experience how individual liberty and the rule of law can build a prosperous future. Every day, we see what Americans from different backgrounds can achieve when we work together. Investing in US deploys capital in support of platforms that empower individual Americans and thereby inoculate our politics and our economy against corruption, white nationalism, and mass deceit.

The good news about the portfolio so far

Since our founding shortly after the November 2016 elections, we have raised and deployed tens of millions of dollars to dozens of diverse groups.

Top row: DeJuana Thompson, WokeVote; Luis Miranda, Hispanic Federation; Debra Cleaver, Vote.org; Betsy Hoover, Higher Ground Labs; Gisel Kordestani, Crowdpac; Middle row: Emily Cherniack, New Politics; Swati Mylavarapu, The Arena; Amanda Litman, Run for Something; Krystal Ball, The People’s House Project; Robbie Kaplan, Integrity First for America; Bottom row: Tara McGowan, ACRONYM; Darrell Scott, PushBlack; Christie George, New Media Ventures; Leah Greenberg, Indivisible; Vicky Hausman, Forward Majority

To name just a few, our grantees have included nonpartisan civic engagement groups such as Woke Vote, Hispanic Federation, and Vote.org; for-profit technology companies such as Higher Ground Labs and its portfolio, as well as Crowdpac; candidate recruiting and support groups such as The Arena, Run for Something, New Politics, and the People’s House Project; litigation efforts such as the anti-Nazi group Integrity First for America; media companies such as ACRONYM and PushBlack; resistance organizations such as New Media Ventures and groups in their portfolio such as Indivisible; and partisan groups such as Forward Majority. These grantees, and our many others, have diverse visions and strategies, but they all have strong, dynamic leaders with ambitious plans for how to bolster American democracy, civic participation, the rule of law, and shared prosperity.

Investing in a diverse civic portfolio is not an orderly endeavor. As risk and growth investors, we seek to empower our portfolio, not control it. Once we finish our diligence and make investments, we expect funded groups to act on their own. We sometimes face criticisms when our portfolio organizations work unpredictably or at cross purposes with each other, but we embrace this disorder because we believe the benefit is distinctive impact. Each of our recipient organizations brings distinctive talent and energy, and our capital has been a part of their journeys.

In my view, the results throughout 2017 and 2018 have demonstrated the value of this approach. A wave of new leaders emerged in response to 2016, and those leaders needed capital. From parties at polling stations, to online tools to improve turnout, to tough-minded litigation, to more accurate polling, our portfolio was part of a movement that helped American civil society thrive during two years of unified control by the party of Trump.

Crucially, the 2018 midterm elections restored our congressional system of checks and balances by handing the House Speaker’s gavel to the opposition party. Investing in US was only a small part of that work, of course, as millions of Americans worked fiercely to win those tough elections. But regardless of who shares the credit, the result is that we have our constitutional democracy back — at least for the moment — so we can take a step back, review our approach, and make course corrections as needed.

Course corrections in response to valid criticisms

Throughout our nearly two years in operation, we have faced ongoing criticisms of our approach. Detractors have suggested that we need to spend more on “tried and true” and less on innovation; more on coordination and less on disruption; more on Republican Party resistance or more on Democratic Party operations; more on some grantees and less on others; etc. We always consider those criticisms, of course, but they have not altered our basic strategic choices.

On the other hand, one source of criticism requires constant monitoring: namely, the concern that our tactics might cause us to become like those we are fighting. As a country, we need to have a serious discussion about what American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein has called the asymmetric polarization of our politics — the fact that federal Republicans and their authoritarian allies have systematically and asymmetrically engaged in dirty tricks and brutal hardball to seize and hold power. Our goal at Investing in US is to fight back against those tactics, but as author Greg Sargent has written, we have to find ways to do so without becoming what we oppose.

In that context, I feel it is appropriate to be clear on a few points in light of recent media reports alleging that some of our portfolio organizations may have engaged in inappropriate tactics.

First, I welcome the scrutiny. Anyone raising and deploying resources at this scale, especially to influence the political direction of our country, deserves close scrutiny by the media and civil society. America is stronger when our free press and our constitutional system bring sunlight to political discourse. As Bruce Bartlett has written, truth is the best defense against Trump.

Second, if Investing in US capital was deployed inappropriately, the blame for any transgressions falls squarely on me. No portfolio is perfect, and I bear the moral responsibility for any mistakes made or harms committed. My investors, partners, and portfolio companies all make their own judgments, of course, but they must be able to rely upon my direction.

Third, some tactics are beyond the pale. To be sure, we are willing to invest in politics, which can be tough. Indeed, we put millions of dollars into advertising fiercely critical of bad leaders. Some of the tactics used to elect Trump in 2016 are frankly tactics that Democrats and their allies should be copying, such as effective micro-targeting of messages to right-of-center audiences. Some tactics, such as social media political advertising, are illegal for foreign entities but appropriate for U.S. citizens. That said, the whole point of our investment portfolio is to fight against the misinformation and group stereotypes so common among authoritarians here and abroad. For that reason, none of the portfolio we recommended should have engaged in group disparagement or scale misinformation. Such tactics may win a battle but lose the war, by giving up on the American ideal that we seek. We wholeheartedly renounce those tactics and would view it as a violation of our ideals if our resources were used in such ways.

The path forward

We are now extensively reviewing our investing processes and portfolio as we transition into the 2019–2020 period. As we do that, we will seriously review the media allegations that have been published, as we add rigor to our investment diligence and potentially additional oversight to our portfolio organizations. We will review the reports and results from all of our portfolio organizations, as well as new groups seeking funds, and pay special attention to allegations of impropriety regarding misinformation or the use of gender or other stereotypes. We will further codify our investment principles to ensure that our resources are never used, even inadvertently, in ways that violate our core values. While we do not think it is scalable or effective to micromanage the organizations in the portfolio, we do expect them to reflect our core values.

We remain laser focused on our high-level goals: inspiring massive voter turnout; protecting accurate and nonpartisan news organizations; supporting the rule of law; and defeating white nationalist fascism.