Matt Bruenig on Using the Internet to Build a Think Tank
Everyone knows that the internet enables new kinds of scale. Companies can grow very big very fast; organizers can put huge numbers of people into the streets on short notice.
But until recently, no one had tried it with a think tank. In 2017, Matt Bruenig used the internet to build a socialist think tank from scratch. Entirely crowdfunded, People’s Policy Project now pulls in roughly $10,000 per month on Patreon and ActBlue, and publishes reports, posts, and videos at peoplespolicyproject.org.
We sat down with Matt to discuss how he started and scaled People’s Policy Project, and his broader thoughts on the prospects of using the internet to build alternative political institutions.
Could you begin by telling us a little bit about People’s Policy Project? What is 3P, and why did you start it?
People's Policy Project is a crowdfunded think tank that focuses primarily on socialist and social-democratic policy ideas. The purpose of 3P right now is to try to provide policy support— analysis, construction, justification—for the gaps left by the liberal think tank establishment.
I started 3P because it is clear that there is a rather large swath of the American public who support ideas that are to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party. Prior to 3P, those people had no organ capable of polishing those ideas into practical policy. This is not because those ideas are inherently impractical, but rather because there are few if any institutions who put in the work on those ideas.
This gap between where the American public is and where the overwhelming weight of the DC think tank establishment is most clearly manifested itself in the last Democratic primary race, where Bernie Sanders was advocating ideas that are all completely doable—indeed they exist in other countries in the world right now—but which the major policy shops refused to do work in support of.
Some of this refusal was coldly careerist: people who work in these institutions crave administration jobs and so wanted to be on the team they thought would win the primary. But it was also ideological, meaning that the people who populate the DC liberal policy establishment just do have more conservative politics than Sanders, and financial, meaning that these institutions get money from people and organizations who are opposed to a Sanders-like agenda.
Why did you choose to fund 3P through Patreon? What kind of advantages or opportunities does that crowdfunding model provide?
I am not sure if "choose" is the right term here. When I began 3P, there was no way for me to get money from any other source than crowdfunding. No big donor or foundation is going to give money to a twenty-eight-year-old who says he's starting a new think tank. But I hoped that people who know my work from the internet would be willing to pitch in $5 a month for a while to see if I could actually make this happen. And it worked.
Even though I had no choice but crowdfunding, it nonetheless has a lot of advantages. I don't have to spend money or time on fundraising or "development" as they say in the nonprofit world. It just comes in from Patreon on its own. Maybe I'll need to promote the Patreon here and there with a social media share, but mostly it just grows organically as people see my stuff and as I get interviewed in outlets like this.
Additionally, crowdfunding means I am not heavily reliant on money from corporate donors, foundations, or very rich people. In fact, I am not heavily reliant on any one entity, as I have over 1,800 small donors. This gives me a lot of independence and completely liberates me to promote whatever policy I think is best, without wondering how this or that donor will feel about it. This can seem like an abstract "money in politics" type point, but all one has to do is look at what happened with New America and Google to see that funding sources exert very real influence over what a think tank produces.
The Patreon model clearly has a lot of benefits, but I wonder if you could speak to any challenges or limitations you’ve faced so far. Has it been tricky or time-consuming to “manage” your patrons—by supplying exclusive content, for instance, or providing input on certain decisions?
The Patreon part has been really easy. I don't supply any exclusive content or do any real patron relations management type stuff.
I have done some open threads on the Patreon platform to get input from patrons on things. For instance, the patrons named the think tank. That has been hugely helpful to me and not a burden at all.
I've also gotten a lot of help from patrons on things I didn't know how to do. So, for instance, I wanted to do videos as part of the think tank but had no prior experience doing them. I indicated as much on the Patreon platform, and from my patron pool, I got messages from voice actors who could do voiceovers. I got messages from audio engineers who could handle the voiceovers and mix in music and such. I also got some messages from animators who can put the videos together. In fact, 3P's first video was produced with the labor of four different people. Three of those were patrons, all of whom I paid, and one is my wife. So, the patrons also serve as a kind of labor pool, which was unexpected, but creates a really neat community dynamic since it is their collective money that I then use to pay them to do things for the think tank.
Do you have plans to do more “offline” things with 3P, such as conferences or talks? Or is “online-only” a more efficient model for now?
I do some offline things. I talk to people on Capitol Hill pretty regularly. I do podcasts and media interviews. There are some limits to the offline stuff only because I am one person, but I do more of that than people might realize.
The offline vs. online efficiency question is an interesting one that I am not sure I have an answer to. I've always found talks and conferences and such kind of odd because, when you go to them, you are speaking to a few dozen people and maybe a couple hundred at most. But if I deliver the same content online, I can easily reach tens of thousands (and often more) just through my own social media distribution. For instance, the first 3P video was shared by Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders and received over half a million views on Facebook alone. But nonetheless, people see doing offline stuff as the real, impactful work for some reason. I get that when it comes to organizing real people, but I don't really get it when it comes to spreading ideas throughout the discourse.
The kind of offline work that I suspect is really valuable is paradoxically the stuff that is the most private: meeting with politicians’ staff, the editors of other publications, and that sort of thing. I do more of that than I do big public appearances.
We’d love to hear your broader thoughts on the prospects of using the internet to build alternative political institutions that can challenge the prevailing common sense. Do you think the Right or the Left has been more successful so far in capitalizing on the new opportunities created by the internet?
The value of the internet is primarily the fact that it has quasi-free distribution. I can reach millions of people for nothing. This means I can also fundraise from millions of people for nothing—or thousands, in my case. The social aspect of it means that people I reach can in turn share it with people they know, also for free. This allows for a level of coordination that wasn't previously possible outside of huge institutions.
So in that sense, it does enable movements and people to try out new stuff and succeed without going through the usual institutional gatekeepers.
As far as which political orientations have used the internet most successfully, it's hard to say. The left movements behind Bernie and Corbyn, both fairly successful, were heavily assisted by the internet. Corbyn says as much.
I don't think the Right has been successful in the same sense, but obviously they rack up huge audiences, especially in the InfoWars and InfoWars-adjacent part of the internet. So it's obviously not a universally positive medium.
Some people worry that the internet is bad for leftist politics: that it encourages insularity, “uncomradely” conversations, and so on. What’s your response to that?
I don't think the internet is bad as much as certain subcultures on the internet are bad. I've seen those same subcultures operate in real life, especially when I was a student in Boston. They are just as self-destructive and stupid there as they are online.
Matt Bruenig is founder of the People's Policy Project.