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Democratic Politics and The Innovator's Dilemma

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 2 2013

Photo: Max Braun / Flickr

With post-election celebrations all over, Democrats are facing an existential question about what to do with the technology operation that helped them rack up wins in November.

There's more at stake than just who will pay to keep some servers running between election cycles. Party decisions will influence the future of a lucrative political technology industry that has been growing for over a decade, and which has been integral to Democrats' recent successes.

For now, though, partisan leaders seem to be facing two questions: Should people on the left centralize ownership of Obama for America's software tools and find an institution to house the developers who make them? And who should have the right to choose the causes and campaigns that are "progressive enough" to work with whatever that institution might be?

Technologists found their way in from the cold

At RootsCamp, a post-election confab hosted by New Organizing Institute in November, it became clear that a certain kind of tech-savvy progressive Democrat has reached a place of prominence within the party. A pre-RootsCamp press lunch at NOI headquarters was designed to serve two purposes: To let that certain type of Democratic operative do a few donuts on the racetrack after a victorious election year, and to give them a chance to thank NOI in front of a gaggle of reporters for helping them get there. It was a trip to the winners' circle for data-driven decision making in politics, and for an emerging style of coalition-focused campaigning that uses every tool available, online and offline, to put as many volunteers as can be found in front of as many voters as possible.

Campaigners at the press lunch, including Obama for America's director of organizing, Betsy Hoover, CREDO Super PAC's Becky Bond, and the AFL-CIO's Jessica Livoti-Morales, didn't need lead feet to drive their point home. RootsCamp drew hundreds of Democrats to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where they rubbed elbows with Obama for America's top leadership. OfA staffers were on hand to join in the back-slapping and high-fiving. Organizing for America National Field Director Jeremy Bird and his deputy, Marlon Marshall, led a standing-room-only session in Rootscamp's waning hours to pay tribute to the campaign's field organizers. Senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke over lunch on the conference's final day. In years past, the post-election version of Rootscamp had been a small to-do generally limited to the Democratic Party's tech-savvy left flank. This year, it was a conclave of hundreds embraced, by proxy, by the President of the United States — who, lest we forget, is the leader of the party and the very definition of the Democratic Party establishment.

So it is fair to say that while the president has famously "evolved" on a position or two over a period of years, the party has done much the same, moving from a willingness to experiment on the Dean campaign to placing technology like VoteBuilder and randomized, controlled experiments at the core of the Democratic campaign experience. Some of this has happened before: VAN began as an experiment in the service of a single gubernatorial campaign, and its VoteBuilder voter data and management software quickly became a go-to tool nationwide. Sasha Issenberg observes in his book "The Victory Lab" that the precise style of data-driven campaigning practiced by OfA this year is the product of at least three election cycles, developed over the years with the support of party leadership.

The progressive's dilemma

In a recent blog post, progressive technologists Jim Pugh and Nathan Woodhull argue that Democrats should institutionalize the software development that came out of the second Obama campaign. Democrats should find a home — possibly a private or non-profit one outside the party itself — for code and coders to keep pace with the times, then settle in to deny Republicans a partisan technology advantage. It would be nice, they add, if these tools became available for a broader network of progressives — using progressive and "Democrat" interchangeably in a way that might have been eyebrow-raising a few years ago.

This sets up the same innovator's dilemma faced by major players in other industries. If OfA technology and developers reside inside the Democratic Party, they will likely be unavailable to outside groups and to insurgents competing in primaries. They will have fewer eyes on their software to offer criticism or point out bugs. Because they would be within an official party organ, they would have little competition. On the other hand, a single outside group could work with other outside groups and hand out licenses to anyone its leadership decides is "progressive enough" — and could use control of the litmus test to stifle competition within the party. As OfA veterans spread out into the private sector, consulting gigs, and the orbits of the respective 2016 contenders, there may be new competitors coming to the field of progressive political technology — and no one institution that gets to decide who is "progressive enough" to practice the OfA style of politics. But competition can force openness, and some Democrats would sooner rely on secrecy to keep Republicans in the dark about the tactics they use in 21st-century political races. Democrats must find a route that keeps risk and innovation on one side and control and inertia on the other.

In his book The Master Switch, Tim Wu argues that innovation in technology industries follows a predictable pattern. When a disruptive actor overturns the running order of the marketplace, it glides into a dominant market share position. Then the innovator settles in, often changing tactics to focus more on blocking newcomers from getting ahead, so to speak, than on winning with the fastest possible time. Confronted with what they might even consider to be unfair denial of entry into the marketplace, newcomers spin their wheels until they either find a way past or run out of gas.

Pugh and Woodhull are effectively arguing that Democrats have innovated their way into a dominant position in the political marketplace, and should shift tactics to blocking any advance by resurgent Republican technologists. But how Democrats maneuver for an edge will also affect their own ability to innovate. When I argued in April that the Obama campaign was a tech start-up in stealth mode, I could have gone a step further to add that it was entering an already mature industry alongside big names like Blue State Digital and NGP VAN. Both companies contributed original technology to the overall campaign effort, but the database integration that Democrats regard as the real prize among all the software from 2012 was developed within the Obama campaign — the disruptive newcomer to the field.

Technologists on the left have been in heated discussions all year about control of their sector of the tech industry. When the co-founders of the left-leaning technology firm Salsa Labs found themselves on the wrong end of a boardroom coup earlier this year, one group began to worry that the company and its organizing platform would be at the service of anyone chosen by disinterested capitalists, not tech-savvy true believers. In the lobbies and hallways of Rootscamp, I also heard familiar grumbling from people who wanted better compatibility between NGP VAN and Blue State Digital software, and that NGP VAN did not offer enough access into their software's inner workings for developers who wanted to create custom applications for 2012 campaigns.

At the pre-Rootscamp lunch in November, CREDO Super PAC's Becky Bond had a clever jab for the Republican Party. Democratic politics was working better, she said, because it was focused on mobilizing people. Nobody takes a percentage of the money spent on field organizing as a commission, was her point. But field-driven politics pioneered by progressive groups in 2012 worked thanks to its scale, and it scaled thanks, in part, to technology that was the result of unprecedented expense. "Progressive technology" is already an industry, and a lucrative one at that, with a long history of mergers, acquisitions, and high-dollar lawsuits. The open question is what kind of industry it will become — and the answer to that question will have high stakes for Democratic hopes in the future.