Further concerns about the politics of NationBuilder

There was a report in Crikey about Nationbuilder, the CRM/CMS combo that is in Australia touting for business:

The Australian Council of Trade Unions, federal Labor and leading Greens have all adopted NationBuilder platforms to power their online campaigns this year, despite persistent concerns over the company’s progressive credentials.

The Los Angeles-based campaigning solution bills itself as a “non-partisan” “community organising system” and rolls content management, a donation platform and volunteer administration into one glitzy package.

The federal ALP’s NationBuilder site popped up in early April, with Throsby Labor MP Stephen Jones’ personal site also using the technology. Greens Senate hopeful Simon Sheikh and federal Greens including Melbourne MP Adam Bandt have also launched NationBuilder sites. A senior California-based organiser from NationBuilder, Joe Conte, is currently in Australia assisting the ACTU with its website build.

But NationBuilder, which claims to be “fiercely committed to helping our customers do the thing they’re trying to do in the world”, has courted controversy in left-wing circles. Last year, the company signed an exclusive dealwith the Republican State Leadership Committee, the secretive group active in 46 jurisdictions that helps to “flip” state houses on the cusp of GOP control. Its major achievements included the election of far-right Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the notorious union smasher who is agitating to introduce forced trans-v-ginal ultrasounds.

Progressive digital campaigns specialist Alex White, who has written a book on online union activism and called out NationBuilder last year over the RSLC deal, says progressives are unwittingly helping their political enemies every time they sign a NationBuilder contract.

“The unions, Labor and the Greens … whenever they do a NationBuilder they’re empowering billionaire Republicans with conservative aims,” he told Crikey. “Each project directly benefits the GOP — in politics, which side you’re on matters.”

Now to be clear, I think unions should be using the best technological solutions available to them.

Nationbuilder makes the case that their service is the best. I can’t speak to the quality of their service, but I am concerned that they are recruiting business from unions and other progressive organisations, while not being up-front about the fact that they are servicing the Republican Party’s State Leadership Committee.

Here’s some of my issues with Nationbuilder.

Empowering (the worst kind of) Republicans

Nationbuilder has come under sustained criticism in the USA for its decision to sign a deal to become the exclusive technology provider for the Republican party’s State Leadership Committee. This committee supports candidates like Scott Walker, one of the most hostile, anti-worker and anti-union governors in American.

Criticism has come from progressives with a lot of credibility such as Raven Brooks, head of Netroots Nation, the largest progressive tech gathering in the USA:

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.”

The kinds of Republican candidates being empowered by Nationbuilder, people like Scott Walker, are the same people who are trying to legislate for forced transvaginal ultrasounds of women seeking abortions. This anti-choice legislation is being promoted in Wisconsin by the Republican Party as recently as 2013.

The Nationbuilder website exclaims that “We’re fiercely committed to helping our customers do the thing they’re trying to do in the world.” It follows — given their decision to be an exclusive software provider to the Republicans — that Nationbuilder is “fiercely committed” to force women to have medically unnecessary trans-vaginal ultra-sounds. Or “fiercely committed” to abolishing the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

The chairman of the RSLC is non-other than Ed Gillespie, one of the leaders of the Mitt Romney campaign. This is a group of empowered, conservative political activists who benefit from the online infrastructure offered by Nationbuilder.

Empowering Scottish National Party

It’s not just in the USA that Nationbuilder is being used by regressive, highly conservative groups to defeat progressives. Nationbuilder proudly promotes the case-study of the Scottish National Party. In the case-study they boast that the SNP beat Labour by 32 seats in 2011.

Since being elected, the SNP has attacked the rights of the most disadvantaged in Scottland, including cutting education and childcare funding by 20%. They are also attempting to privatise the NHS by stealth. Child poverty has increased substantially under the SNP since 2011, and is now at 1 in 4 children.

While some people may mistake the SNP as a “progressive” party, it is not.

FWD.us & immigration

Joe Green, Nationbuilder founder, is also president of the “Facebook PAC” called FWD.us (another co-founder of FWD.us is Mark Zuckerberg). Ostensibly there to promote the “tech” agenda in congress, the main issue Green has focused on is immigration reform.

FWD.us is pushing for more H-1B visas, which Brooks says underpays workers — a beef that the labor movement has also had for many years. Similarly, FWD.us wants to make it easier for foreigners to start companies in the United States and to change science and technology education. Elsewhere on the left, people are more interested in immigration policy that recognizes same-sex relationships or in issues related to border security.

The agenda being promoted by FWD.us and Nationbuilder founder is one that is pro-immigration reform to the extent that it allows for the more efficient exploitation of immigrants. Founded and operated by millionaires and billionaires, this is a group of people who already socially, economically and politically empowered.

Nationbuilder and Keystone XL

The FWD.us political action committee is not just run by Nationbuilder founder Joe Green. The PAC also uses Nationbuilder to run its site and database. One of the most controversial decisions FWD.us has taken is to actively support the disastrous Keystone XL Pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). They like the idea so much they are running TV ads to support these environmental destructive policies.

FWD.US is bankrolling two subsidiary organizations to purchase TV ads to advance the overarching agenda — one run by veteran Republican political operatives and one led by Democratic strategists. The GOP-lead group, called Americans For A Conservative Direction, has created an ad in support of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) which praises him for supporting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and expanded drilling elsewhere. The ad, which does not mention immigration policy, also attacks Obamacare, “wasteful stimulus spending,” and “seedy Chicago-style politics.” Politico reports the group plans a seven-figure buy with this and other ads.

Watch the ad:

The other group, called Council for American Job Growth and purportedly intended to appeal to liberals, lauds Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) for “working to open ANWR to drilling.” The ad also does not mention immigration reform but does highlight Begich’s support of a balanced budget amendment.

Watch the spot:

The group’s forceful advocacy for expanded drilling and pipeline construction is surprising given Zuckerberg’s public statements about the purpose of the group. In an introductory column, Zuckerberg said that the group would be dedicated to “building the knowledge economy,” which he contrasts to “the economy of the last century… primarily based on natural resources.” Zuckerberg adds, “there are only so many oil fields, and there is only so much wealth that can be created from them for society.”

The Keystone XL pipeline is part of a carbon bombs that threatens to blow up our climate. Opposition to the KXL Pipeline has seen the galvanising of large sections of the progressive movement in the USA, including acts of civil disobedience by the Sierra Club (the world’s largest conservation organisation) for the first time in its history.

Progressive Criticism

The criticism of Nationbuilder amongst progressive leaders in the USA in my view is compelling. It boils down to the decision by Nationbuilder to make their software available to Republicans.

Because Nationbuilder is a paid service, rather than a free one like Facebook or Google Docs, it is reasonable for the business (and it is a business) to decide who and what kinds of clients it would accept. It could — like many organisations, only accept progressive, liberal or Democratic, clients. This speaks to the values of the business.

It could abandon all pretence of the empowerment language, and just promote itself as an online marketing software company, like Salesforce or Marketo.

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.”

We’re just technology

When I’ve spoken with Nationbuilder representatives, their main defence to my questions about the GOP is that “we’re just technology”. The implication is that they’re a values-free utility, like gas or electricity, which is used by everyone.

Perhaps a more apt analogy is that Nationbuilder are trying to argue they are like Google, Facebook or Microsoft: we’re just a platform, that Democrats, Republicans, unions and employers can all use. “Surely unions shouldn’t stop using Microsoft just because the Republicans do…”

This doesn’t stack up for me. Firstly, services like Google (and Google Docs or Google Apps) and Facebook are free to use. Nationbuilder costs money — it’s a service.

The Microsoft analogy is even more worrying. Microsoft has used unethical business practices to gain a monopoly position and its profits come from gouging tens of millions of customers.

However, Microsoft is a mass-consumer retail brand. Their software is bought and sold in supermarkets and stores around the world. Their software is plug-and-play. The market for MS is the mass consumer market.  The unique insights and reports generated by users of Microsoft Office are not primarily derived from the creative capital and intellectual property of progressives campaigns and organisations.

Finally, Microsoft does not have an exclusive technology deal with the Republicans. Nationbuilder does.

Price and features

The final argument I hear often is that Nationbuilder is cheaper. This was once true, about 12 months ago.

Now, services like Blue State Digital have dropped their prices, and unions can get access to the world’s leading CMS/CRM for just $450 per month (compared to Nationbuilder’s $303). What’s more, older services like Salsa labs and BSD have more advanced features.

Unions that are serious about digital campaigning can also look at enterprise-level solutions, which are for-profit companies without direct ties to the Republican Party, such as Marketo or Sitecore.