Editor’s Note: Last month the New Leaders Council named this year’s “40 under 40” — a group exemplifying “the spirit of political entrepreneurship.” We thought you might like to learn a bit about the winners, in their own words. Below is a guest post from Amanda Terkel, Deputy Research Director at American Progress and Managing Editor for The Progress Report and ThinkProgress.org.
As a young progressive graduating from Colgate University in 2004 and watching my friends go to law firms and investment banks, I faced a difficult job search for left-leaning organizations that were willing to try new, exciting ideas.
It’s important to remember that the political landscape was dramatically different just a few years ago. Democrats were disorganized and out of power, and much of the country was still rallying around the President and the Iraq War. Young conservatives could join the Bush administration or hone their skills at organizations such as the Heritage Foundation. While there were important progressive environmental, women’s rights, and labor groups, they tended to focus on a single issue rather than working to develop a comprehensive progressive agenda.
One day, my political science adviser pointed me to a New York Times Magazine article by Matt Bai called “Notion Building” that profiled an upstart progressive think tank started by John Podesta:
Podesta laid out his plan for what he likes to call a ”think tank on steroids.” Emulating those conservative institutions, he said, a message-oriented war room will send out a daily briefing to refute the positions and arguments of the right. An aggressive media department will book liberal thinkers on cable TV. There will be an ”edgy” Web site and a policy shop to formulate strong positions on foreign and domestic issues. In addition, Podesta explained how he would recruit hundreds of fellows and scholars — some in residence and others spread around the country — to research and promote new progressive policy ideas.
For me, it was love at first sight. I was fortunate enough to become an intern on the national security team, where we worked to shift the public dialogue away from the notion that conservatives have a monopoly on strong, smart foreign policy. I then took a job as the Special Assistant for Strategic Planning, where I learned the intricacies of a dynamic think tank and how progressives needed to alter their donation habits to build lasting institutions.
Six years later, CAP has surpassed expectations, and conservative organizations are trying to catch up. On Feb. 3, the New York Times did another article on a new think tank – this time profiling the right-wing American Action Network that is using CAP as its model.
The fact that I had the tremendous honor of winning the New Leader Council’s 40 Under 40 award is a testament to CAP’s success, innovation, and the support it has given young progressives.
In 2004, not only were progressives just beginning to regain their voice in policy circles, they were finally speaking out online. Blogs like Talking Points Memo, DailyKos, and Eschaton gave progressives around the country with an outlet to voice frustrations and connect with like-minded individuals. CAP’s signature product was a daily newsletter called The Progress Report, which provided progressive analysis on the day’s news.
In 2005, the authors of The Progress Report decided to start a rapid-response research blog called ThinkProgress. At the time, most blogs were doing opinion-writing; ThinkProgress would carve out a separate niche by rebutting what the opposition was saying and highlighting progressive ideas.
Even at a place like CAP, starting a blog was controversial. No other think tank had an aggressive outlet whose purpose wasn’t just to put out press releases and papers by the larger organization. People worried that it would damage the reputation of CAP, and others thought it would be a waste of time. One staff member even told us, “No one will read your blog.”
Luckily, CAP’s leadership went against the conventional wisdom. Six years later, I serve as Managing Editor of this operation and we not only still focus on rapid-response research, but with three sites (ThinkProgress, the Wonk Room, and Matt Yglesias), we have expanded to do investigative reporting, policy analysis, multimedia presentations, and opinion writing. The influence and size of the liberal “netroots” have also skyrocketed, helping elect politicians and significantly altering the media landscape and dialogue. As a nonprofit, we are lucky that we don’t have to focus on traffic and attracting revenue – we can cover the stories that make a difference to progressives.
One of the most exciting aspects of CAP is that it has helped train the next generation of progressive leaders. I am heartened to know that young progressives graduating from college now have far more opportunities, both in and outside of government, and I’m excited to learn about what next year’s New Leaders Council’s 40 Under 40 winners are accomplishing.
More 40 Under 40 Winners:
by Amanda Terkel