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NationBuilder Signs Software Deal with RSLC, Some Progressives Call for a "Boycott"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, July 12 2012

A core group of progressive political strategists are in some cases boycotting the political software firm NationBuilder and in others are steering business elsewhere after the company announced it had reached a deal with the Republican State Leadership Committee.

"At this point, I don't think it's in the interest of progressive causes and candidates to keep supporting a platform that's basically taking a side," Raven Brooks told techPresident. Brooks is the executive director of Netroots Nation, a conference that thousands of left-leaning bloggers, activists and Democratic strategists attend each year to brush up on their organizing and movement-building skills.

"This isn't Google Docs, where anyone can sign up for free," he said. "This is 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."

Brooks was echoing concerns that have been fueling a growing debate in the online progressive community about whether software for political organizing can be treated as a commodity, the way organizers consider more general-purpose and ubiquitous software like Facebook or Google Docs.

NationBuilder announced in June that they'd signed a deal with the RSLC, which supports Republican candidates for state legislatures across the country. The deal will give the RSLC a custom version of Nationbuilder, the "GOPro Edition" with "unique website design themes, targeted voter data and increased email list size," according to the company's announcement at the time.

NationBuilder sells low-cost, web-based software for movements, including political campaigns. The deal upsets people on the left because co-founders Jim Gilliam and Joe Green both have pedigrees in progressive politics: Gilliam co-founded Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, and Green, a founder of Causes, was regional field director in northwest Arizona for Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.

Some progressives are disappointed that members of their own movement are selling the hard-earned knowledge and know-how they've gained over the years to people working to undermine the societal goals they've fought for.

"This is like saying Blue State Digital saying: 'Here Mitt Romney, you can have Obama's technology," Brooks said. "It's an advantage for Democratic campaigns -- we've had a technology advantage that we've built up over the years, and to just hand that off to the Republican party -- it could be the difference-maker in some elections. If it allows even one of these candidates to win over someone else, then you've chosen a side there."

Brooks says that he won't be recommending NationBuilder to people who ask him which tools to use and will instead point them to other products such as those from Salsa Labs in Washington, D.C. Salsa Labs has apparently capitalized on the discussion by posting a statement on its web site showing off its progressive bona fides.

Another person who's been making similar points on AmericaBlog and in an interview with techPresident is the progressive online strategist Matt Browner-Hamlin, who, among other roles, works with a group called Citizen Engagement Lab in Berkeley to advise non-profit groups.

"I’m very comfortable saying that I will not recommend [NationBuilder] to any progressive organizations or community group," he said in an interview. "The larger question is – should progressive organizations, be they political campaigns, labor unions, advocacy organizations, do business with a political campaign toolset that actively builds partnerships with Republican party institutions? My response would be no. This is not GMail or an iPad that has zero political context to it. This is a political campaigning platform that was built in many ways out of the lessons learned and strategies developed by the founders who came out of the progressive movement.”

Other organizers, such as Jason Rosenbaum, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's senior online campaign director, calls what NationBuilder is doing "evil."

"As it stands now, progressives should think carefully about who they're helping when they use NationBuilder -- every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents," he told techPresident in an email. "The [RSLC] are the folks who helped pass Scott Walker's agenda, who want to give transvaginal ultrasounds to women, who want to disenfranchise the minorities, who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Helping them win elections is pretty evil," he said. "Fortunately, there are competitive toolsets at competitive prices available to campaigns, especially on the new media side. Progressives don't have to work with a company like NationBuilder that's now the 'technology [behind] the bulk of the nationwide Republican races,' in the words of NationBuilder's own President Joe Green."

As a former coder and developer himself, Brooks notes that campaigns continually provide feedback to software providers in order to improve their product, which means that progressive campaigns that use NationBuilder to provide feedback are ultimately improving the product for their opponents as well.

Asked whether it was inevitable that the Republicans would build their own infrastructure, Brooks responded: "The important thing to note is that what they've done is usually a poor copy of the original."

"They just don't have good technology on their side. On the presidential level, you can build one-off projects, but it's never resulted in a Blue State Digital or something who then goes and sells that to a mass market and it's successful," he said. "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."

NationBuilder's Founder and CEO Jim Gilliam says there's a deep philosophical divide between people like him and people like Brooks.

"There’s a fundamental gap in what we believe," he said. "They’ve generally felt that they’ve had better weapons. We believe that is completely wrong. We’re about being neutral facilitators of democracy and that neutral aspect is an incredibly important of what we do," he said. "Over time, he will be on the wrong side of history."

Gilliam noted that he's offered his platform to Democratic organizations such as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, as well as its Republican counterpart. The DLCC ultimately decided to strike a deal with NGP VAN, which typically sells software at far higher price points.*

For their part, smaller progressive organizations don't have to use NationBuilder, but Gilliam thinks that would be to their own detriment.

"They don’t have to use it, but they’re going to regret that, ultimately," he said. "If they don’t want to use the best tools at the most affordable prices then that’s certainly their decision. I come from the progressive world and it pains me to see that small segment of the world trying to prevent others in the community from using these tools because I think it’s incredibly disruptive. I think it will hurt them and it’s sad."

*Dave Leichtman, vice president of services and support at Salsa, writes in to note that the NGP VAN deal is non-exclusive, and that the DLCC has had a contract with Salsa to provide DLCC candidates with an online suite of tools for the past four years.

See also: "The Case for Political Software as a Commodity, Not a Weapon"