A few words about NationBuilder, Blue State Digital, and partisan software

A few days ago, my friend Jim Gilliam — who is CEO of NationBuilder — shared a brief note with his customers celebrating their collective successes in this month’s US Elections. In the days since, I’ve seen the progressive movement unleash a wave of vitriol at both Jim and his company that I believe is both misdirected and unwarranted. I’d like to talk a little about why.

I’m old enough to remember how — from 2004–2010 — companies like NGP VAN and Blue State Digital essentially had a monopoly on effective digital organizing tools, and how they lorded those tools over conservatives as a sort of bludgeon with which they’d finally beat us into obscurity. Beginning during Howard Dean’s term as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and moving into full force following President Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic Party digital machine had successfully weaponized software and was arguably unmatched online. 

NationBuilder changed all that, and they did so out principle. Jim founded NationBuilder because of his fundamental belief in the power of individuals to be leaders in their communities. He believes — and I agree — that elections ought to be about ideas, not about who has the more powerful war chest, and he dedicated himself to making the foundational toolkit for effective organizing available to everyone. The result is a company whose dedicated, civic-minded employees passionately serve customers across the political spectrum with fairness and compassion — and who are not in the business of picking winners and losers. 

Now, it’s true: using NationBuilder has helped conservative campaigns and causes catch up and even leapfrog their progressive opponents in the past few years. But this isn’t evidence that NationBuilder has betrayed a progressive cause it never claimed to be fighting for; it’s evidence that when the playing field is leveled, conservatives win. Progressives had access to the exact same tools as conservatives, and they got out-campaigned. Plain & simple.

The organized Left — led by Blue State Digital — is arguing that “it’s irresponsible for a business to take a value-neutral worldview” while selling software used by political campaigns and causes. Set aside for the moment that this is precisely what Facebook, Google, Salesforce, and a range of other software providers do… fine. That’s their prerogative. But I can’t help but think that this recent uproar is less about moral superiority and more about sore loser-ism and economic opportunism. They’re angry that Republicans are winning up and down the ballot, and trying to leverage ideological common ground into qualified sales leads. 

What BSD and others won’t tell you is that NationBuilder concurrently served President-Elect Trump, Gov. Gary Johnson, Dr. Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin — all of whom were running for president at once; during the Democratic primaries, many organizations supporting both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders ran their digital operations on NationBuilder, as well; and in the United Kingdom, both sides of the Brexit referendum used their software. NationBuilder doesn’t exist to promote conservatism or progressivism, but to promote community, democracy, and leadership. I fail to see the lack of nobility and principle in that endeavor.

Blue State Digital and others have dedicated themselves to the progressive principles they believe in, just as Hines Digital has dedicated itself to electing and supporting conservatives. NationBuilder has done neither, and should not be attacked for it. 

If the “tolerant” left cannot abide the notion that people they disagree with may have access to the same tools they use, then perhaps they need to have a hard look in the mirror and a serious conversation about their values and respect for the electoral process. In the meantime, we’ll keep using the very best software available to us to keep the playing field level so our campaigns and causes can win on Election Day.

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