The Center for American Progress is one of the largest and most important think tanks in Washington, certainly the preeminent “progressive” think tank. It describes its agenda as promoting “bold, progressive ideas” and releases a number of extremely useful reports and fact sheets. In 2008, TIME branded it “Obama’s idea factory.” CAP has strong ties with both Obama and the Clintons—it was founded by close Clinton confidante John Podesta and its president, Neera Tanden, previously worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton. The New Republic has described it as “stuffed to the gills with staffers who have either worked in previous Democratic administrations or will go on to work in future ones.”
The phrase “progressive” is often associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party, by contrast with its “moderate” wing, and progressives are typically skeptical of corporate influence in politics. The Center for American Progress, however, is cozy with some of America’s largest and most controversial companies. Though it is quick to emphasize that corporate donations constitute only a small part of its funding, in 2013 alone CAP received support from Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola, Citigroup, the American Beverage Association, Comcast, BlueCross BlueShield, weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman, and Walmart. The government of the United Arab Emirates (which regularly carries out forced disappearances and torture) has given over $500,000. Investigative journalist Ken Silverstein, in an important 2013 investigation of CAP’s funding, was told by multiple former staffers that when CAP was seeking support from Saudis it muted its criticism of the Saudi kingdom. (CAP continues to conceal the identities of many of its largest donors.)
CAP president Neera Tanden has described herself as “a loyal soldier” for Hillary Clinton and despite heading a “nonpartisan” think tank, worked behind the scenes during the 2016 primary to try to erode Bernie Sanders’ support. Leaked internal emails reveal Tanden’s own political instincts to depart from what is typically considered “progressive.” She advised the Clinton campaign against a $15 minimum wage, and in one disturbing instance, as Glenn Greenwald has reported, argued “that Libyans should be forced to turn over large portions of their oil revenues to repay the U.S. for the costs incurred in bombing Libya, on the grounds that Americans will support future wars only if they see that the countries attacked by the U.S. pay for the invasions.”
The Center for American Progress does not just accept shady donations. It also gives them. Journalist Andrew Perez reported that according to financial disclosure forms, CAP donated $200,000 last year to the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a right-wing free-market think tank perhaps best known as the longtime home of racist social scientist Charles Murray. When Current Affairs challenged Tanden on Twitter about the donation, she replied:
We have a joint program on defending democracy from the rise of authoritarianism. Here’s the press release from the CAP website. Welcome [Current Affairs] to cover the many papers we have jointly authored. This is a critical topic more media should focus on.
Naturally, Current Affairs gladly accepts the invitation to focus on CAP’s collaboration with the AEI. I looked at two of the “reports” that they have produced together so far. First, it is still unclear why CAP is giving AEI $200,000. The reports Tanden links to are a few pages each, more like extended op-eds than scholarly works, and involve no original research. They both focus not on “authoritarianism” as Tanden says, but on what they call “authoritarian populism.” This is important, because while Tanden suggests that nobody could object to “defending democracy from the rise of authoritarianism,” we know that to the American Enterprise Institute, “democracy” and “authoritarianism” do not necessarily mean what they mean to you and me. When the AEI speaks of democracy, it means “laissez-faire capitalism” and when it speaks of “authoritarianism” it means “minimum wage laws” or any mildly redistributive social policies that could threaten American Enterprise. Tanden wants to wave away concerns about the collaboration, because after all everyone agrees democracy is good. But the question is—what are we actually “defending” here?
The CAP/AEI report “Drivers of Authoritarian Populism in the United States” defines what it means by “populism”: “political parties and leaders that are anti-establishment and that divide society into two groups: self-serving elites and good, ordinary people.” By that definition, Bernie Sanders clearly falls under the “populist” umbrella—he is anti-establishment and believes that ordinary people are being fleeced by self-serving elites. The report says that populism is not inherently bad, and emphasizes that it is targeted against the bigoted form of populism. But in the CAP/AEI discussion of European “authoritarian populism,” it’s clear that economic leftists are included in the category:
A 2017 study, which looked at elections across Europe between 1980 and 2016, found that there is an asymmetry in drivers of support for right- and left-wing authoritarian populists. While the right wing seems unresponsive to changes in objective economic characteristics, the support for left-wing extreme populists, such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, is sensitive both to rates of economic growth and to unemployment. The rise of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, can be viewed in a similar fashion.
Podemos, Syriza, and Corbyn—“authoritarians”? Why? What could possibly put them in a category alongside Viktor Orbán? The CAP/AEI reports are actually extremely vague, saying they believe in “a market economy with shared prosperity” and “economic openness” but not making it particularly clear what that means. After all, who is against “openness” and “prosperity”? Who wants to be closed and poor? But it’s clear that what they’re actually talking about is free market capitalism. Corbyn, Syriza, and Podemos are only “authoritarian” if you subscribe to the radical libertarian theory that wealth redistribution is totalitarian. CAP/AEI are cagey about saying that they’re teaming up to defend capitalism from leftists, but that’s precisely the implication of the reports’ statement that left parties are “authoritarian populism” that needs defeating in order to preserve “democracy.”
Anyone can claim to be for “democracy.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea claims to be a democratic people’s republic. The question is what you actually stand for. After having read the fruits of the $200,000 CAP-AEI collaboration (also, why was CAP paying AEI when AEI is far richer?), I do not know what “democracy” means to them. I know they dislike Donald Trump, and tariffs, and restrictive immigration policies. But I do not know how they feel about labor rights, housing policy, and taxes. What is clear is that the CAP feels closer to Charles Murray than to Bernie Sanders, which reaffirms an important lesson that every leftist should be aware of: Many centrists, even supposedly “liberal” or “progressive” ones, would prefer neoconservative governments to leftist ones. Barack Obama felt closer to Theresa May than Corbyn’s Labour (Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina even actively worked to help Tory David Cameron beat the Labour Party in 2015). The Clintons and Obamas seem to have warmer feelings about George W. Bush than Bernie Sanders.
The AEI collaboration is not the only sign that CAP is closer to the right than the left. Neera Tanden participated in a joint event with neoconservative William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, a man whose imperial ambitions are so bloodthirsty that even Tucker Carlson is horrified by him. Tanden and Kristol had a friendly conversation about their common ground (the first of several), condemning Trump and worrying about “populism.” Tanden hosted conservative Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at CAP, where she allowed him to totally misrepresent the truth about Palestine. (The organization has gone out of its way to please AIPAC and avoid being called anti-Israel, and has censored writers for being too hard on Israel.) The conversation was full of such softballs that even Politico said Netanyahu had “stepped into a liberal lions’ den on Tuesday — and walked away with nary a scratch.” Instead, she said things like “you’re absolutely right, that Israel is a rare democracy in a dangerous neighborhood” (which Rania Khalek pointed out “validat[es] a key propaganda talking point that frames Israel as a beacon of light surrounded by uncivilized and irrational Arabs”) and asking such incisive questions as:
“There’s many areas … where we, progressives can learn lessons from Israel… Israel’s military has been inclusive of women for a very long time. Are there lessons in that space for us in the United States that you can share with us?”
(As always, I would recommend Norman Finkelstein’s book on Gaza for a review of the evidence of Israel’s wrongdoing that is buried or downplayed.)
If you enter into a conversation with William Kristol, and do not discuss the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred as a result of the disastrous, immoral, and illegal war he advocated, then you are complicit in the whitewashing of the historical record. If you sit down for a chat with Benjamin Netanyahu, and allow him to get away with distorting Israel’s record and downplaying his country’s crimes against Palestinians, you are an “accessory after the fact” to those crimes. And if you collaborate with the American Enterprise Institute, which would like to see the labor movement destroyed and which has given Charles Murray a cushy perch from which to spew bigoted pseudoscientific drivel, you are betraying “progressivism” and have no just claim to the label.
CAP still does lot of good work—they produce vital reports and many good writers have been given a home at Think Progress. 10 years ago they even paid me some money to write some blog posts for Campus Progress (I turned in one or two and then failed to ever write any more again—I am fairly sure I was eventually fired, but I couldn’t ever bring myself to open the email from my boss terminating me.) Unfortunately, that work is for nothing if they are actively working to undermine left political movements at the same time as they loudly proclaim their allegiance to left values.