When it comes to political technology, Democratic campaigns and organizations have a whole lot more crayons in the box than they did a few years ago. In part, that situation is thanks to a new wave of progressive tech startups, many fostered by Democratic incubator Higher Ground Labs.
Behind those companies are a whole lot of dedicated founders and staff, many of whom are very, very young — though not all. Some founders may have graduated from college a few months ago, but others have years of experience in the political world or some other profession.
As a whole, they’re immensely diverse — far more so than my colleagues in the first political tech boom, back in the late 1990s. I can’t speak about people building new digital tools on the Republican side — they don’t invite me to their parties as much — but the Democrats vary widely in race, gender identity, background and style.
By contrast, political dot-commers were mostly white and mostly male. Plus, this was DC a quarter-century ago, before office-casual had liberated cube workers from their jackets and ties. If you were in downtown south of Dupont Circle and wearing jeans, you were probably a bike messenger.
Among my political-tech peers, except for the programmers, most of us had come from the institutional side of politics. I’d worked in the Texas Legislature, while others came from Capitol Hill, trade associations or government contractors. In other words, a buttoned-down crowd.
I remember relatively few people who arrived straight from campaigns, but this was well before the digital, data and field revolution that culminated in the Obama turnout machine of 2008. Political campaigns in the late 90s mostly meant TV — mentioning a campaign’s URL in public could be newsworthy.
Today’s politech newcomers are much more likely to have spent time on the ground working for campaigns or doing community organizing and advocacy. Their companies tend to reflect the pragmatism those experiences often breed. Most have zeroed-in on a particular problem that needs to be solved, whether it’s managing press clips, creating social-media content in bulk or scaling a relational organizing program.
Back in my day, we were different. We were shooting for the stars! We were the dot-com era, when eyeballs were the prize and a simple website could IPO for millions.
Actually, the community somewhat split between companies trying to build a public-facing political portal of some kind and those who were developing products for political professionals. I tried both approaches, including a targeted search engine for politics and policy on the one hand and an email-based legislative and regulatory alert system on the other. Neither made me rich.
Besides their more-realistic approach, today’s Democratic tech founders have a huge advantage in the form of an ecosystem of investors, many of whom founded firms of their own in the past. HGL stands out, but individual investors are also helping new companies get off the ground. Beyond the money, they’re sharing their experience and their connections, giving new entrepreneurs a foundation that I would have envied twenty-five years ago.
Many of these companies will succeed, some will fail outright, and a few will muddle along for a while before fading into the mist. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll likely seed the next round of political startups with people and money, helping them develop tech solutions to political problems we may not even have encountered yet. I’ll take that over Pets.com any day.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2023 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a veteran of more than twenty-seven years in digital politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.