The press accounts of the App That Failed during the Iowa caucuses this week were probably most Americans’ introduction to Acronym, the Democratic nonprofit responsible for developing the app, but journalists have had a chance to scrutinize the organization for almost three years. Acronym launched in 2017, to overwhelmingly credulous coverage. Axios wrote that it creates “‘breakthrough digital [campaigns]’ online and on mobile to reach progressive voters during crucial campaigns.” That was the general tenor of most stories written about Acronym, basically, up through Monday night.
Reading those stories now brought me to a depressing realization: The people who said they were going to beat Donald Trump in 2020 by emulating his supposedly highly sophisticated digital targeting operation have instead emulated Trump by turning their campaigns into a lucrative grift for a small group of well-connected party insiders. And, because this is the Democrats we are talking about, they did so by burning enormous sums of money that could have done untold good, politically and strategically, had they been used for just about anything else.
The very public failure of the app led, at least, to some useful reporting on the opaque dealings of the organization that sponsored its creation. Acronym is a 501(c)(4), a “social welfare” nonprofit that can shield the names of its donors. That is one of the conventional things about it. Less conventional, perhaps, is that Acronym has spent the last few years acquiring and starting for-profit companies, such as Shadow, the company behind the IowaReporterAPP from which Acronym has been ineptly distancing itself since the caucus debacle.
The entire organization seems to have been designed to make it impossible to know where the money that it accepts from donors actually ends up. As a “Democratic operative” told Politico, “There’s a nonprofit and then there are for-profits below it, like a nesting doll. It’s moving money around in a way that’s unclear to people.”
Acronym and its associated entities were able to drum up eye-popping donations from very wealthy people, such as billionaire Seth Klarman and venture capitalist Michael Moritz, because they adopted the vernacular of startup culture, promising to disrupt—and innovate in—the formerly staid world of political advertising.* As an Outline story revealed, though, it doesn’t seem to do much innovating; it basically just gives a roomful of millennials no other direction or strategy than to create anti-Trump content. “They call it a ‘startup environment’ as an explanation for why no one knows what’s happening,” one staffer said. Acronym apparently told donors that it would create content, which would gin up a lot of impressions on social media, and that this, far more than any traditional advertising strategy, was a better investment—but to date, Acronym, according to the Daily Beast, has not managed to spend very much of the money it promised to devote to taking down Trump.
So where is that money going, exactly? Acronym’s principal is a political operative named Tara McGowan, who had worked for Priorities USA, the main super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She is also the owner (and apparently the sole employee) of Lockwood Strategies, a for-profit “digital consulting” company that, as it happens, received $1 million from Acronym in the fall of 2018. In other words, almost immediately after she failed to win the most important election she had ever worked on, McGowan managed to convince some of the wealthiest liberals in the country to shower her with money to produce ineffective trash. This is called “disruption,” and it now powers the American economy.
Most galling of all, McGowan has promised to raise $25 million for Courier Newsroom, a “liberal news network,” or perhaps more precisely, a sketchy network of content mills producing newslike content in various swing states, overseen not by anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper but by a former Vice editor and—more to the point—marketing and communications professional who was once recognized by Ad Age for her role in creating one of the “10 Best Branded Content Partnerships of 2017.” The idea was to create content and pay Facebook to place it high up on people’s news feeds; in reality, Acronym is asking donors for money by promising both to beat the right-wing disinformation network and to save that precious commodity rich people know the United States needs more of but don’t feel much like subsidizing: “local news.”
Twenty-five million dollars could support an enormous amount of actual news, just as it could be put to much more potent political messaging purposes. But because of the deeply broken state of our money-choked and mostly unregulated election machinery, those funds go instead to people like McGowan, who wield power within the party because they are able to raise money, not because they have shown any real ability to spend it in ways that help Democrats win elections. This machine is designed to extract cash from people with too much of it and distribute it to insiders in the permanent campaign. If an election gets won here or there, it’s mostly incidental.
* This article has been updated to better reflect Seth Klarman’s relationship with Acronym and its associated entities. He has donated to Acronym’s PAC, not Acronym itself.