Another liberal tech company doing work for conservatives

Updated below

NationBuilder is an online campaigning tool kit, providing clients with the ability to do online advocacy, email supporters, raise money and integrate social media. NationBuilder was founded by a group of progressive and Democratic technologists with campaign and grassroots non-profit organizing experience in the Netroots. It’s not particularly different from other online tool kits like Blue State Digital, Salsa or Action Kit, with the notable exception that it is dramatically cheaper, with pricing starting at $19 per month for smaller campaigns and non-profits. Online tools can be quite expensive, beyond the reach of many state level campaigns, or even congressional candidates. NationBuilder has, in my estimation, been successful at making online organizing tools more accessible to people with less money to spend.

All of this is preface to another disappointing development: NationBuilder has announced a deal to be the “exclusive software provider for the Republican State Leadership Committee.”

Excuse me? The RSLC helps elect Republican state legislators, the very people who are going around the country passing things like bans on marriage equality, racist laws targeting immigrants for deportation, and rolling back reproductive rights and environmental protections. These reactionaries think passing laws banning Sharia law is a good use of time. And NationBuilder is going to provide the technology to help more of these people get into office.

Have no fear, despite being started by progressives and made popular in large part from progressive and Democratic business, NationBuilder is only a technology platform.

[Co-founder Joe] Green said he has no misgivings about providing technical assistance to candidates with whom he likely disagrees vehemently.

“Our ultimate goal is simply to level the playing field and let the people decide based on the strength of the arguments, not based on who has the biggest TV ad budgets,” Green said. “We’re proving that political software can and will be nonpartisan.”

I’m sure Green and his business partners won’t mind, then, if Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations fire NationBuilder today.

Much of the controversy around revolved around their construction of an open campaign platform, staffing themselves with many notable progressive campaigners, accepting the mantle (both earned and perceived) as being a progressive piece of infrastructure, and then deployed a defense of “But we’re an open platform!” when criticized for working with union busters.

In fairness, NationBuilder has been more open about a willingness to work with the Tea Party from its earliest days. But its founders’ backgrounds in Democratic electoral politics and the activist-progressive film and organizing group, Brave New Films, have lead to many grassroots progressive organizations to embrace the tools. Again, NationBuilder has said they’re non-partisan, but there’s a bit of a difference between being an open platform and inking a contract to provide tools to just about any Republican state legislative candidate in the country.

It isn’t openness when what you mean is you’ll work for anyone who gives you a big check. That’s what Lanny Davis does with his lobbying services and I don’t think it’d be accurate to call him an open platform.

Technology can be used to do anything. At its most basic level, programming may be fundamentally non-ideological. But once code enters the world, it is used for specific ends. The people who sell technology can decide whether they want their code to be used for good or ill. They have a choice. And NationBuilder is choosing to work for people who want to put women in jail for getting abortions and deport any brown person with a Hispanic-sounding name. That anyone can pay to use NationBuilder’s tools is no defense. It’s an excuse and a sad one at that.

I think it’s time for progressive activists and organizations to start putting out clear expectations about the behavior of companies who want our business. Clearly there is a problem with ostensibly left-leaning technology firms and their willingness to do work with conservative activists.

My recommendation is to deny business to technologists who are working with conservatives to turn America back to the late 1800s. If you are a client of NationBuilder, fire them. If you are considering hiring them, don’t. Make your decision public and make sure that even if NationBuilder isn’t going to change, other technologists will know that progressives won’t work with the people whose code is being used to attack the human and civil rights of women, gays, immigrants, people of color, and workers.

Update 6/29:
I’ve received feedback on this post, both in the comments and offline, and I think it was inaccurate for me to describe NationBuilder as a “liberal tech company.” They are non-partisan and honest about that fact. I noted this in the post, but the headline and lede do not make that clear.

That said, the criticism of any company for objectionable business practices is fair, especially one which derives a significant portion of its revenues from progressive organizations and campaigns. NationBuilder should be treated exactly the same way as any other business which works to help get reactionary Republicans elected. Recent examples would be Waffle House, Koch Industries, and Coors Brewing Company, though online progressive groups regularly run campaigns pressuring businesses which support conservative work, as we saw with tremendous campaigns against ALEC’s corporate donors.

In short: There’s no reason to give technology companies that progressives use any different treatment from any other companies who are doing objectionable things.

An accurate use of the word “cynicism” in politics

Matt Taibbi, in a highly enjoyable Q&A with the Village Voice about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, makes the rare move of accurately using the word “cynicism” to describe its appearance in American politics:

I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest. They think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they really do want somebody who is idealistic.

This is an accurate description of why it is Barack Obama, not his left critics, who are cynical.

Those non-populist Democrats

Jonathan Martin of Politico asks:

What the hell ever happened to populism in the Democratic Party?

It was never there in the first place, at least not since the DLC grabbed control of the party in the 1980s. Bill Clinton was no populist. Al Gore was no populist. John Kerry was no populist (though at least he wasn’t a DLCer). Barack Obama has never been a populist and has explicitly positioned himself as independent of such passions.

Martin’s piece was surely conceived as a vehicle for hippie punching, but it is quite accurate in its descriptions of how far away the Democratic Party is from anything resembling populism. On the contrary, Martin notes that, “It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.” Martin finds support for this from numerous elected officials, as well as President Obama in his book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

“When I decided to run for the Senate, I found myself spending time with people of means,” wrote the then-senator. “As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class. I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the sense that I spent more time above the fray, outside the world of hardship of the people that I had entered public life to serve.”

Is there a fix to this? I think Howard Dean is right in terms of what it would take to move Democratic politicians who have become culturally and financially aligned with the 1% to reconsider populism.

The last Democrat to truly tap into mass anger — though about war, not economics — said the campaign finance system desperately needs fixing to rein in the power of business but fretted that only a crisis may prompt reform.

“It may even take another banking collapse before that gets fixed,” said Howard Dean, the 2004 presidential candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman.

But Dean is wrong that the outcome of another financial collapse should be a restructuring of campaign finance laws. That’s putting the cart before the horse and is a functional non sequitor to the idea of another financial crisis. While another crisis would surely have been abetted by Wall Street lobbying and money in politics leading to relaxed regulation and law enforcement, the proximate response to such a crisis should be first focused on the financial crisis! Only after breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks and strictly re-regulating finance would campaign finance reform be possible.

Additionally, a return to populism won’t look like current elected officials like President Obama suddenly embracing the idea of holding their Wall Street pals accountable for doing unpleasant things like destroying the trillions in housing wealth. Instead a new crisis would have to usher in new politicians who fundamentally see value in holding financial elites accountable for their destructive behavior.

Celebrating Nonsense

Charles Pierce on today’s Supreme Court rulings and the larger American zeitgeist:

We live in the unreality of the moment now. We have tolerated — nay, celebrated — nonsense in our public life for so many years that we are now both its victims and its accomplices. We have detached ourselves from the duties of self-government to the point where the government itself has detached itself from our lives, partly because of the deliberate acts of venal and corrupt men, and partly because we listened to those venal and corrupt men and threw it away ourselves. We think ourselves free when, actually, we have bound ourselves in shackles of apathy and cynicism and childish fantasy. We have accepted fiction as fact because it sells. We are accessorial to the murder of truth.