By Ned Howey
It all started with an email from NationBuilder’s CEO Jim Gilliam congratulating all those who used their software in this US election cycle - including naming one client who’s been a bit in the news these days: Donald J Trump. When I first read it, I found the email itself to be pretty neutral marketing speak, to be honest. I already knew Trump, Stein, McMullin, and Johnson were using the system in their presidential campaigns. And I think in normal times an email of this sort would have gone barely noticed. But these are #NotNormal times.
This email landed right at a time when our progressive movement and all we have fought for face a stunning defeat by a great and grave threat. Understandably tensions are high. And we progressives are scrambling around trying to figure out what happens next, what we can do, and how can we can survive this reality with some of our freedoms intact. This fear is real and valid. The email also happened to hit people’s inboxes during Rootscamp, an important gathering of progressives to get together to “learn, celebrate, and grow together”. This particular combination resulted in quite the hubbub and we’ve been seeing the ripples out there ever since. I know how mob emotion works. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to grab a pitchfork and torch and march together to defeat the monster that’s terrifying us.
Stories abound of NationBuilder staff being on the receiving end of rude verbal attacks, the NB staff being miscategorized as group of all white men (which is patently untrue), platform partners being told they are “funding fascism”, and more than a nasty comment or two being carelessly tossed about on the inter-tubes. Some people apparently are banding together and planning how to encourage progressive movements and leaders to leave the system. Some even suggested it get its own hashtag: #NBexit. (How original!)
Indeed, those pitchforks and torches must feel good in the heat of so much post-election passion. But maybe before we burn everything down, we might take a moment to think before setting our own neighborhood on fire? I have to ask in the wake of our presidential election failure are we really behaving in the interest of the progressive movement or reacting as a group like a wounded dog reaching out to bite any hand that happens to be nearby?
Most of what I do in my role of digital strategy is help progressive organizations, movements, and candidates identify clearly where they want to go and how to build a logical plan of action to get from “here to there”. Which is why this pains me so deeply and personally to see a group of leaders in the progressive movement making what I see as such a horrifically obvious strategic mistake. Typical though: leave it to us lefties to sacrifice our own strategic needs for success as the price to pay for our own righteousness. We’ve all seen this show before.
Certainly you don’t see conservatives railing on a regular basis about Jim’s very open history of progressive activism or NationBuilder’s very high profile progressive campaigns. And I have it on good information those working in digital on the right are rubbing their hands together and licking their lips as progressives talk about abandoning NationBuilder and having one less powerful tool at the disposal of our efforts. As well, one must question all the motivations driving this: in a world of competing digital tools and services, there are plenty of other inferior systems that would also prefer to not compete on quality alone but some kind of propped-up moral standing.
But you know what we need to do now, more than ever: WIN!
And not just win elections. We need to win legal battles, win community battles, win for causes small and large. We need to win the hearts and minds and every campaign we can from the County dog catcher to the high halls of Congress. And removing a very key tool from our toolkit is a hefty price to pay for our own collective ego.
For the sake of metaphor, let's say for a minute we’re in Renaissance Italy with warring city-states. Our fierce enemy has just won a big battle against us using cannons from a cannon-maker that sells to all. Would our road to victory really be to never again buy a cannon from them? Is that the essential strategy we need to win? And before you get all excited about the limited role of NationBuilder being over-inflated, we know the battle wasn’t won by a couple good cannons alone. And yes, NationBuilder was one of a number of digital tools used in the winning presidential campaign.
I get it. When in crisis we fall back on what we know. For us this is collective punishment and resistance. We organize boycotts to limit spending, sending specific messages with our purchasing power. We form unions to consolidate disparate power and push back against corporations overstepping their bounds. These powerful actions have costs, risks, and blowback. Sometimes we take strategic losses - many of them significant - to accomplish our ultimate goals.
But you see, here’s the thing: boycotting NationBuilder isn’t strategic at all. It won’t help the progressive causes. This is us threatening to hold our breath until we get our way. NationBuilder will still be around, still growing, still powerful as heck AND STILL AVAILABLE TO CONSERVATIVES even if every progressive candidate and organization leaves. Their customer base is diversified enough to continue to support the system even without progressives. A ban because the system is open to all is going to have about as much impact as right wing rednecks banning Hamilton.
And besides, to what degree do we apply this standard? What other tools are we going to ban because they are non-partisan and used by the opposition? Facebook and Twitter? Windows, Mac and other operating systems? The pen and paper? Indeed, the ballpoint pen is well-known for its use by fascists. Lets ban that while we’re at it.
NationBuilder offers the same service, pricing, and quality to both sides of the political spectrum. And what’s more, unlike some of its competition, it offers it to a wide range of organizations in our progressive coalition who fall outside of traditional Democratic establishment-blessed mold (the Greens, anti-war organizations, etc. etc.).
It is non-partisan, and has been non-partisan since it started serving clients. None of that has changed. Except someone just used the system successfully and won the presidency. Yes, he’s a neo-fascist ass-clown. Yes, he’s our greatest enemy. Yes, we will fight him tooth and nail. But NationBuilder wasn’t giving him policy advice or supporting him with the funds it earned from progressives. It was providing the services of a non-partisan digital tool at a cost. Like Facebook, Twitter, and the many other vendors the campaign used.
Some are saying that their big complaint is Jim mentioned Trump by name in his email congratulating all those in the election that won. And in doing so lost their neutrality.
Jim’s personal opinions of Trump are no secret. He's certainly no fan. But if I had poured my heart and soul into turning ideas around a kitchen table a few years ago to the non-partisan political software system that has been used to run digital in a winning US presidential campaign, I would actually be pretty darn proud of the power of that system. I might even mention it in an email. No. Screw that. I would probably be on a table with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and whooping up a storm to the heavens. It’s the US Presidential race for God’s sake! If you haven’t heard already it’s kind of a big deal. Jim’s response was a bit more stayed in its enthusiasm than that:
For us, we are proud to have served the three thousand NationBuilder customers who were on the ballot last week, from school board to deputy mayor to president. Many of you – including President-elect Donald Trump and all three of the other non-establishment presidential candidates – were outsiders.
I know to those who have been involved in efforts to stop Trump - those of us mourning our unimaginable defeat at the hands of a politician who is without a doubt vile, homophobic, racist, and sexist (that list could go on for miles) - to see even that subtle pride in the system for having a role in the presidential win - can feel like a true slap in the face.
And yes, he called him an ‘outsider’. Even if we want to fight that narrative, is it worth us giving up access to a powerful digital tool because you felt the CEO of a company miscategorized a candidate along the lines that the media has done the entire campaign season? Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Even if Jim was a staunch republican, this still wouldn’t make strategic sense. We need to pick ourselves up and get back in the game with the best tools available.
When there is a better tool for a particular progressive cause, by all means use it. NationBuilder is not the perfect fit for every project. But there is a huge range of progressive efforts using the system and with good reason. But the focus now needs to be on arming ourselves with the best tools, not abandoning the ones we have that are good. We need to be looking at our own mistakes in this election and learning to be stronger for them instead of scapegoating a powerful digital tool. And we need to choose our battles wisely so that we win the next ones.
For now, when our clients want to asses their best options for moving their cause forward, I’m going to recommend the system that will get them there. In many, and in maybe most cases, this is NationBuilder. You can count me out of the #NBexit. As far as continuing to use NationBuilder, I’m in.
Now what? Let’s get to work!
Now it’s okay to disagree. Its one of the great strengths of our side of things. We embrace conflict and diverse ideas. But we have a big task in front of us. And pretty soon we have to come together and focus our collective energies on the most important things in the battle ahead. Here are some good places to put our energy (all incidentally on NationBuilder):
I know more efforts are coming out soon...looking forward to standing with you all in the battle ahead.