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How Today's Democratic Political Campaigns are Like Silicon Valley
Posted on June 26th 2013
You can attribute Silicon Valley’s success to any number of key factors: good universities, the availability of capital and a wealth of entrepreneurial experience are just a start. But without a talented pool of tech workers ready to jump to the next startup, the Googles, Yahoos and Facebooks of the world would never have been able to grow into the business (and cultural) behemoths they now are. One reason that a mobile, talented labor pool exists around San Jose? Creative destruction: the constant churn of new companies, some of which get bought, some of which grow into giants of their own, but most of which fail.
But when startups die, they’re like trees falling to the forest floor, each to decay and release its nutrients back into the soil. In the case of tech companies, the “nutrients” are trained and experienced workers, who then bring their skills to next company they join, and the one after that, and so on. Without that critical mass of available labor — free to move in part because companies so frequently fail — the Valley couldn’t sustain the waves of startups whose inventions have changed our lives.
While talking with National Field’s Aharon Wasserman at the Netroots Nation closing party last Saturday, something suddenly snapped into place: that a similar dynamic has developed on the political Left in this country in the past few years. Like (most) startups, political campaigns are ephemeral. In their case it’s by design, since campaigns exist to secure votes for a candidate in a particular election, and then they’re gone. Sure, winning candidates may maintain some vestige of a campaign structure during the lull before the next race, but most staff are cut loose after Election Day. And, like Silicon Valley techies, they’re then free to move on and take their skills with them to the next adventure.
Daniel Kreiss’s book on the rise of technology in Democratic politics tells part of this story: he tracks the process by which veterans of the 2004 Dean campaign went on to create companies like Blue State Digital that then helped to power Obama’s victorious 2008 campaign. The ’08 cycle, in turn, trained and released a whole new cadre of experienced digital campaigners, some of whom started their own companies (like National Field) but many of whom moved to the next campaign (including Obama 2012). The steady growth of attendance at progressive digital events like RootsCamp and Netroots Nation shows the results: a large (and growing) pool of skilled and talented people ready to apply their knowledge to political (and advocacy) campaigns up and down the ballot.
The dynamic currently favors the political Left, in part because we were simply lucky enough to be out of power in the mid-2000s, when digital technologies finally began to deliver on their promise to alter the way we do politics. We were hungry, and willing to try anything that might work, and the internet seemed to have great promise to counter what progressives saw as Republican domination of the political narrative in the traditional communications sphere. But here’s another way we got lucky: online tools turned out to be very good at involving people in large numbers. Blogs and social media played a role, but online-enabled mobilization via email and door-to-door contact turned out to be crucial. Both are labor intensive, since it takes a sizable staff to crank out messages and organize canvassers, meaning that grassroots-powered campaigns by their nature generate trained staff and volunteers in droves.
The broadcast era of politics simply wasn’t like that: you didn’t NEED that many people to conduct phone polls or to create and buy TV ads, meaning that a relatively small and constant group of consultants (many of whom kept being rehired no matter how many races they lost) could dominate the campaign world year after year. But the internet is all about creating and maintaining relationships, one-on-one and en masse at the same time, and it rewarded those campaigns (like Obama’s) that embraced the ethos of people-powered politics. The moment of the technology-savvy Community Organizer had arrived!
Of course, the tools don’t care who uses them, and the Right should be able to catch up, if — and it’s a big “if” — they can embrace the same mindset. Yes, the Obama presidential campaigns were “top-down” in fundamental ways, since a group of people at the top made the strategic decisions. But the campaign leadership delegated the power to ACT on those decisions to organizers at the local level, trusting their staff and volunteers to reach out on their behalf, provided that they were properly trained and directed. On Election Day 2012, Obama’s paid staff outnumbered Romney’s by six to one (he had as many people working for him in Florida as Romney had in the entire U.S.) and they were joined by tens of thousands of trained field volunteers. All but a handful would lose their positions after Obama won his second term, as would the digital and field staffers who helped secure victories (holding the Senate, for example) across the country.
I wonder what those folks are up to now? At Netroots, I talked with quite a few. Some have started consulting practices, others are off developing new technologies or working in issues in their home towns, but many have gone right back to work for Democratic campaigns, labor unions, environmental groups, community action networks and the like. At their new jobs, they’ll now train a whole new group of organizers and communicators to power the next round of change. It’s Silicon Valley all over again, except this time it’s politics we’re changing. If Republicans want to create a vibrant campaign community to match, they’d better move fast — once you’re behind, this kind of exponential growth is a bitch to catch up with.