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.

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