Rethinking Political Innovation
(Or, an elegy for the New Organizing Institute)
Here’s a book that I think you should read: Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most.
It is not a book about digital politics. It is a book that I would like more people involved with digital politics to read, though. The book is a rejoinder of sorts to the obsession with “disruptive innovation” that has typified Silicon Valley for the past few decades. Innovation, simply put, is overrated. For all the attention and resources devoted to developing the next wave of technologies, the vast majority of software work is actually focused on maintenance. Maintenance is routinely underfunded and ignored while chasing the next-big-thing. Institutions suffer as a result. Vinsel and Russell make a compelling case for an alternate narrative, one that centers and celebrates the maintainers rather than the innovators.
This is an idea that political actors ought to take seriously. Reading the book, I kept thinking back to the demise of the New Organizing Institute, the central hub that trained democratic and progressive digital campaigners from 2005-2015. NOI was one of the organizations that I wrote about in my 2012 book, The MoveOn Effect. At that time, NOI was at the height of its power. It had started as a political innovation, but had become essential enough, for long enough, that it had become political infrastructure instead. Infrastructure is expensive. It isn’t exciting for major donors.
More broadly, I’ve found myself rethinking the value of innovation in politics. Rereading The MoveOn Effect ten years later, one thing that struck me was how, in 2012, the idea of disruptive innovation in politics seemed so simple and attractive. Old political organizations were stuck in outdated patterns! New organizations were emerging, innovating, developing novel tactics and strategies better suited to 21st-century politics! As I wrote in the final passage of the book, “This is a more modest ‘Internet revolution’ than readers may have once hoped for, but it is a positive development in the organizational layer nonetheless. The field of organized political advocacy has become more interactive. the Internet will not save the world, but it does add something of value to the work of world-saving.”
What I’ve become convinced of, a decade later, is that there is an opportunity cost to focusing on innovation in politics. The celebratory focus on innovation has come at the cost of deferred and abandoned organizational maintenance. Things fall into disrepair, institutions fall apart, all while powerful actors prioritize locating and funding the next-big-thing.
The Rise and Fall of NOI
NOI was launched in the aftermath of the 2004 election, back when the craft of digital campaigning was still new and very few professionals had any clue what they were doing. Here’s how cofounder Zack Exley described it:
“A handful of [veterans of the Dean campaign and MoveOn] kept getting asked by other organizations, by people looking to hire people, ‘who can we get, who can we get, who can we get?’ And we didn’t have anybody to recommend to them because there wasn’t a whole generation of organizers who had come up doing this kind of work.
NOI was a strong solution to a novel problem. It helped to create a field of professional digital politics. The top campaign professionals, both from electoral organizing and reformist movement organizing, signed up to be NOI trainers. They ran weekend and weeklong bootcamps where a new generation of campaigners could learn and refine their skills. For years, if you wanted to get into digital campaigning as a profession, the natural first step was to attend an NOI training. NOI’s annual Rootscamp “unconference” was one of the largest annual gatherings of digital campaigners, and it served as a forum for serious debates about the present and future of the field.
(NOI was an important enough piece of the progressive political ecosystem that, when I was conducting my dissertation research, I concluded it was absolutely essential that I attend Rootscamp 2008 even though it was being held on my 30th birthday and I wouldn’t know anyone there. I learned a ton from that trip. It was also the nadir of my social life.)
In 2014, Brian Fung profiled the organization for the Washington Post, describing it as “the Democratic Party’s Hogwarts for Digital Wizardry.”
Then in 2015, it all unraveled.
There are two ways to tell the story of NOI’s failure. The first is a story of bad nonprofit management, a leadership failure that resulted in a spiral of self-reinforcing crises. This was the focus of contemporaneous reporting. In this telling, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the new(ish) Executive Director Ethan Roeder (2013-2015), who mismanaged the organization, prompting a complete staff revolt. NOI failed to meet its fundraising goals in 2014, and the Executive Director failed to offer a transparent and compelling vision of the organization’s future trajectory. Staff morale cratered. Conflicts erupted. Eventually the shell of NOI was “absorbed” by Wellstone Action (which, in 2018, had its own set of issues).
I don’t doubt this version of events. And, to be clear, I wasn’t there. I’ve never met Ethan Roeder personally, and have no reason to suspect that he was a misunderstood management genius or that NOI’s culture problems were anyone else’s fault.
But there’s an alternate reading of these events that we ought to consider — one that can be simultaneously true. The first eight or so years for the New Organizing Institute were a period of extended growth. NOI was training the next generation of democratic/progressive digital political campaigners. Running activist trainings is not a high-margin enterprise, but NOI was at the cutting edge of digital politics, so a lot of major donors were happy to defray overhead costs and help the organization grow. For nearly a decade, Investing in NOI meant investing in political innovation.
That all changed after Obama’s reelection. By 2013, NOI was no longer the political cutting edge. It had been around for too many election cycles. It had become established, well-known, mainstream. It had become political infrastructure. And so the big funders with an interest in finding and funding the cutting edge started to turn their attention elsewhere. NOI was infrastructure. Infrastructure requires maintenance. Funders lost interest in sticking around to help with maintenance.
Managing an organization that is facing existential budget cuts is a uniquely hard problem. It is much easier to be an effective manager when the budget is secure and/or growing. There’s simply no good way to tell your staff that some of them won’t have jobs next year, and/but we don’t know who yet, and also we aren’t going to know until some outside parties determine whether your work is still worth investing in. That is, objectively, a shitty situation.
The best leaders and managers can make it less-shitty. The can maintain morale and organizational culture. They can develop a plan for organizational restructuring and convince key stakeholders that it is the least-bad path forward. But, even if Roeder did a bad job under these circumstances, it’s still worth pausing to ask about the broader context.
When NOI was collapsing in 2015, I often wondered aloud “how the fuck are the powers-that-be letting NOI collapse?” I was convinced then, and am still convinced now, that progressive politics and Democratic campaigns were better off with NOI than without it. It was not a perfect organization (none are). It was not actually training digital wizards (we live in a world without wizards). But it was an important network forum that both facilitated skill-building amongst digital activists, campaigners, operatives, and organizers, and created a space for intra-movement debate, deliberation, and learning. It has not been replaced. No other organization has effectively filled NOI’s niche. Training is expensive, and there is less of it in the democratic party network and the progressive movement than there ought to be.
And here I return to Vinsel and Russell’s book: The collapse of NOI is what happens when the major institutional donors in the democratic and progressive ecosystems place a high premium on political innovation and too easily dismiss political maintenance.
Here is a rule-of-thumb regarding tactical innovation that I have taught for 25 years or so. I believe it to be basically true. But it is also incomplete.
Imagine you are running a campaign directed at an established political decision-maker — a state legislator or Mayor. Someone who has been around for awhile.
You develop tactics that, as Marshall Ganz puts it “turn what you have into what you need to get what you want.” These tactics are often going to be familiar to your target. You’re going to make phone calls and send emails. You’re going to write letters and contact the media. You’ll hold lobby visits and rallies.
The rule-of-thumb is as follows: if your target is used to receiving 20 constituent phone calls on every issue, you shouldn’t expect to alter the status quo by mobilizing 20 people to dial their number. You either need to think bigger, jamming their phone lines with 100 calls, or you need to think different, engaging the target in a manner they are unfamiliar with.
The trouble with thinking bigger is that it can become a Red Queen’s Race. You make 100 calls on this issue. Other citizens’ groups take note of your success, and they start making 100 calls as well. Now 100 has become the baseline. You’re running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.
The trouble with thinking different is that, all other things being equal, there just aren’t that many productive pathways to influence that no one else has tried.
In chapter 7 of The MoveOn Effect, I referred to this rule-of-thumb in a section on the “half-life of political tactics.” I argued that the promise of netroots political associations was that they were more nimble, more innovative, better positioned to identify tactics that could break through the background noise. These “innovation edges” have limited duration, because your targets and your competitors learn and adapt. But I figured there was a first-mover advantage of sorts for the organizations that mastered new technologies to either amplify their existing tactics or develop completely new tactics.
It occurs to me now, a full decade later, that there is another dimension of political power that this rule-of-thumb fails to consider: reputational shadows.
Saul Alinsky’s first rule of power states that “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”
The power of the NRA is based less in its demonstrated ability to directly influence election outcomes than in the longstanding belief among public officials that the NRA has the capacity to directly influence election outcomes.
Institutional longevity is a source of power. The mayor or state legislator that remembers that time you jammed their phone lines with 5x more calls than they’d ever received before is more likely to take your meeting and thoughtfully listen to your concerns.
Investing in political innovation does little good if it comes at the cost of undercutting political maintenance. Every new movement and political organization must build its reputation for effectiveness from scratch.
Viewed from this lens, a few other longstanding problems come into clearer focus.
Why, for instance, does the Democratic Party seem so incapable of building state and local infrastructure? Every two years, I hear smart political actors bemoan the fact that Republicans are perpetually building power at the lowest levels, running slates of angry conservatives to take over local school boards, etc. In 2005, Howard Dean was elected DNC chair and launched the much-heralded “50 State Strategy” to transform the party by deepening its presence in every community, swing-state or not. The 50 State Strategy was a (surely imperfect) solution to a well-established problem. And then it was discarded. Not improved upon. Not revamped. Outright discarded.
Again, we could dwell on the details of who killed the 50 State Strategy and why. (Rahm Emanuel did not control it and thus did not like it.) We could discuss how one of the Obama Administration’s biggest failures was that the party decayed at the state and local level while authority was centralized in his Executive Branch. We could yell about the power of the consultant-class in controlling and dictating electoral strategy.
But, thematically, I suspect that all aligns with a simpler insight: it costs a lot of money to build and maintain all that state and local infrastructure. The 50 State Strategy was good, but it was also expensive. It had the backing of the party leadership early on, when it was hailed as an innovative new approach. Once it stopped looking like an innovation, it simply didn’t have enough well-placed defenders to maintain it as a funding priority.
I suspect the Democratic Party would be better off today if it had spent the past two decades building state and local infrastructure. I feel certain it would not be any worse off! I also suspect this is not a controversial observation. Basically everyone agrees on this, at least in theory. But it is hardly an innovative idea, and the maintenance costs are large, ongoing, and not tied to a single well-placed constituency.
Likewise, progressive democrats have wondered for years why the extended Republican Party network is so much more effective at building lasting infrastructure — the Koch’s state party network, the Federalist Society, and conservative partisan media. It isn’t that these organizations are more innovative than their progressive counterparts. It’s just that conservative billionaires seem more willing to make multi-decade investments.
My strong suspicion is that this is not because conservatives place greater importance on political maintenance than political innovation. The much simpler explanation is just money: The have more of it. When the Kochs spend a fortune supporting groups with a deregulatory agenda, that isn’t charity. It’s an investment. It’s a business strategy. The partisan asymmetry isn’t because conservative elites have some brilliant long-term investment strategy. It’s simply that they have more money to throw around.
Ten years after The MoveOn Effect, this is one of the major themes that stands out to me. Political infrastructure requires maintenance. There is value in innovation — in developing new organizational models, tactics, and strategies. But I have come to increasingly suspect that innovation is overrated.
There is value in stability and capacity-building. The democratic donor-class has, I suspect, been too eager to chase the new and discard the old. That’s only partially about money. It’s also about values. The mythology surrounding disruptive innovation and technological innovation has detracted from power-building.
To the extent that my work has played some small part in elevating that mythology, I hope I can now play a role in promoting a different narrative.