Millennials represent one of the most progressive generations in history. From their support for raising the minimum wage to establishing free community college, to backing Black Lives Matter, young people strongly support progressive values and policies.
But a new report shows that financial support for conservative youth organizations far outpaces support for progressive youth organizations, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, conservative youth organizations had access to almost three times more money than liberal youth organizations.
This takes a real toll on young people who aspire to work in the progressive movement.
The report describes the struggles of one young woman, Sarah Duensing, who had her sights set on working on Capitol Hill after graduating from college. Sarah was told by her college career counselor that there was only funding in her state of Utah to work with conservative policymakers. Still determined, Sarah moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a position on the Hill anyway, but was never able to find a paid internship. Ultimately, she gave up her dream of working on Capitol Hill.
“There are many times in my life that I have been forced to choose paid work at someplace that was irrelevant to my goals, such as a testing center or Old Navy, instead of political engagement, just because I needed to pay the rent,” Sarah said.
Her experience was certainly not unique. The report states that of the 100 U.S. Senate offices, 27 Republican offices and only 15 Democratic or Independent offices offer paid internships.
The gap in funding between conservative and progressive youth organizations has actually gotten worse. Progressive youth organizations are now out-funded by conservative groups by a three-to-one ratio, up from a two-to-one ratio in 2008. With the exception of one progressive youth organization in 2014, contributions to such groups have flatlined as contributions to conservative youth groups grow.
The 2014 total revenue of the largest conservative youth organization, the Charles Koch Institute, was greater than that of the four largest progressive youth organizations combined.
Progressives might assume that the difference is the much deeper pockets of the right. But in addition to giving more money, right-wing funders are offering support with fewer strings attached, with an eye toward the long-term health of the conservative movement. While progressive funders tend to support specific projects, often tied to voter turnout for elections, conservative funders are more likely to focus on leadership development, capacity building, or to give unrestricted funds.
This has paid off through a new generation of conservative elected officials, judges, and thought leaders who have been trained by a well-oiled conservative leadership pipeline.
Young people believe in progressive values. In just the few months since the election, nearly 100 new progressive organizations have taken root, many of them organized by young people. This enthusiasm needs to be supported and developed in order for it to translate into long-term change at the state, local, and national level.
A few initiatives have responded, including the Young People For program, which supports long-term leadership development training, and Generation Progress, which uses activism, journalism, and events to engage young people across the country.
The grassroots energy awakened by the 2016 election marks a real opportunity for reinvigorating the left. Many small donors, together, can fund a movement as well as a handful of the super-rich. But it takes organization and long-term thinking to have a serious impact on policy. Progressives can help by providing support to turn this passion into effective, lifelong advocacy.
Christin “Cici” Battle is the director of Young People For at People For the American Way Foundation. Maggie Thompson is the executive director of Generation Progress at the Center for American Progress.