There’s been quite a bit of controversy lately about nonpartisan tech startup NationBuilder’s decision to sell its software to the Republican State Leadership Committee. Last month, POLITICO reported:
A suite of easy-to-use campaign software designed by rock-ribbed Democrats is about to be deployed as the go-to online tool for thousands of Republican candidates.
NationBuilder, a 15-month-old startup founded by a former John Kerry campaign aide, will announce this week a deal to be the official, exclusive software provider for the Republican State Leadership Committee. NationBuilder GOPro will enable the Los Angeles-based company to outfit GOP candidates for state-level offices with campaign tech.
As a NationBuilder customer and as someone who cares deeply about organizing, here is my perspective on all this.
Perhaps most importantly, these are tools we’re talking about, not the campaigns themselves.
Part of Brooks’ reason for starting the boycott is that progressive who pay for the platform will now also be paying to support conservative candidates’ platforms. He opines, “progressives should think carefully about who they’re helping when they use NationBuilder — every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents.”
I would disagree. The dollars and feedback that organizations give to NationBuilder help make the tools better, not an opponents’ use of the tools. There are so many steps between effective tools and winning campaigns. I guarantee that even with an excellent suite of online tools for email blasting and phone banking and turf cutting, you will still be nowhere without effective list management and inspiring messaging and effective volunteer management. That’s up to people, not tools.
Brooks thinks it’s unfair that NationBuilder will sell its technology, which he argues is based on hard-earned progressive organizing tactics, to the RSLC for conservative co-opting. Nation Builder, says Brooks, sells “a specific set of tools that draws on a body of knowledge that’s been built up on the progressive side primarily over a number of years.”
Steve Ofner of Liberal Art disagrees. Before they were used in progressive political campaigns, he says they were ripped off from business practices. And besides, shiny tools do not a good campaign make:
Can we please stop romanticizing CRM as if it were handed down from the clouds by Saul Alinksky himself? It’s just a tool, one we lifted from the business world almost a decade ago…and there’s no soul in it. You have to provide that yourself.
I wager that every ounce of energy that has been expended complaining about Jim Gilliam’s decision to sell NationBuilder to customers on both sides of the political aisle would have been better spent designing more effective campaigns. Rather than complaining about the other people using the tools, help your people get better at using the tools to their greatest potential.
A particularly troubling part of Brooks’ argument is that is seems to attack the idea of nonpartisan political software. Josh Tauberer, a software developing civics aficionado behind projects like GovTrack and PopVox, wrote:
Brooks’s point seems to boil down to a belief that there can be no nonpartisan political tools.
GovTrack, and most tools that reuse its database, is a nonpartisan tool that has played an important role in political activism over the last several years on both sides of the political aisle. It is astonishing to me that anyone would think that technology infrastructure should choose sides.
Indeed. Where is this drive to keep Internet tools polarized coming from?
I think it’s a symptom of a much larger social problem. As a culture, we have a blinding and debilitating tendency to endlessly categorize and dig in our heels in the face of ideological difference. We try to polarize for self-preservation, but our efforts to express outrage and erect more barriers can run us into the ground while needlessly vilifying others.
This is how Brooks characterizes letting the RSLC use NationBuilder:
You’re kind of giving tools to a less-advanced civilization, if you will. They don’t have stuff on their side that’s been generated by their people. They’ve tried and failed to copy our infrastructure. You can read best practices on the Internet and can study people’s e-mails and go to trainings, but it doesn’t mean that you have the secret sauce that makes campaigns work.
First of all, yes, he did call Republican campaigners a “less-advanced civilization.”
Second, Brooks is essentially endeavoring to stake off effective online campaigning as an inherently progressive thing that must not be shared. But in today’s day and age, when more people are tinkering with code and the Internet makes information more open to more people than ever before, I will place zero faith in a strategy that purports to save progressive campaigns by hiding online tools from opponents.
I’m reminded of liberal author Steve Almond’s declaration in a New York Times article that he is going “cold turkey” on the right-wing media outlets he loves to hate. Instead, he pledges, he will “take up the hard work of genuine political action.”
I’d like to make a similar argument in this situation: liberals, stop complaining and start organizing. There is so much work to be done.