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Angles of ActBlue

Earlier this month ActBlue was honored by our friends from Living Liberally at their 10th anniversary party in New York City, along with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. The party brought out local New York City advocates, progressives from around the country both young and old, and candidates, including mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio to the Downtown Community Television Firehouse, an industrial event space in Chinatown with a screen projecting live tweets from party guests using the hashtag #DL10.

ActBlue Executive Director Erin Hill accepting our award from Living Liberally co-founder Justin Krebs

Living Liberally was founded 10 years ago, about a year before we founded ActBlue (which, you guessed it, means our 10th anniversary is up next). It began simply as Drinking Liberally during the combative Bush years, when liberals were seeking like-minded individuals to drown their sorrows – and organize – with. Since then the plight of liberals has improved, but Living Liberally has still been able to expand to their social organizing program to include Eating Liberally, Laughing Liberally, Reading Liberally, and Screening Liberally events. An unexpected side effect of all this socializing, they joked, was dating liberally, marrying liberally, and procreating liberally.

Living Liberally

Living Liberally co-founders Justin Krebs, Katrina Baker and Matt O’Neill with Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz (second from right)

When the founders took the stage for the speeches portion of the night, the crowd almost immediately broke out into a chant of “10 MORE YEARS.” It was a celebration that included chapter leaders from all over the country, many of whom don’t get to see each other on a regular basis. My favorite story came from Kathleen Thompson, a chapter leader from Grapevine, TX, who talked about how she felt like she was the only liberal in the area, and what a relief it was for her to find a place where she could meet others who shared her beliefs.

Kathleen Thompson and Joseph Stiglitz

Kathleen Thompson and Joseph Stiglitz

Greg Leding, the current Democratic Leader of the Arkansas House of Representatives, met the people who ended up encouraging him to run for his seemingly unwinnable House seat through Living Liberally. Now he works to foster Democratic talent, in the hopes of recruiting others to take the big step of running for office in a state that’s often hostile to liberals.

Erin Hill, our Executive Director, took the stage to accept our award for “Empowering Liberally” through our work to connect supporters with candidates and causes in order to build a stronger progressive movement. We were happy to accept the award amongst some of our newest partners in New York City. This is the first election year that we’re able to work with candidates for mayor and city council. Justin from Living Liberally helped introduce us to many of them, including Council Member Brad Landers, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus of the NYC Council and the rest of his team, which is using ActBlue for slate fundraising in order to help support all of their members. It was the power of social organizing and the work Living Liberally does in action.

The following post is provided by ActBlue’s President, Benjamin Rahn.

When I’m explaining ActBlue to people who don’t spend much personal or professional time on politics, I usually start with something like "Most PACs operate by endorsing candidates who are strong on their issues and raising money for them.  But we’re not like most PACs."

At ActBlue we pride ourselves on being an honest broker in the Democratic movement. Concretely, that means that every Democrat running for President, House, Senate, and state executive and legislative races around the country that’s registered with the appropriate election office is listed in our candidate directory (or at least they should be — if you notice someone missing just let us know) and we provide them all with access to exactly the same software and services.

And we’re particularly proud that campaigns trust our neutrality: in primaries including the recent MA-05 special election and the upcoming ME-01 and CA Senate District 3 races, all (or almost all) of the Democratic campaigns are using ActBlue as a core part of their online fundraising program.

But for an organization with an inherently political mission, it’s an odd route to take.  So why’d we do it?

When Matt DeBergalis and I founded ActBlue in 2004, this course was a straightforward choice for several reasons:

 

  1. Republicans controlled every branch of government and were on an unchecked tear to remake this country in their own horrifying ultra-conservative vision: a disastrous war abroad, erosion of civil rights at home, and a government run for the benefit of corporate greed — social and environmental consequences be damned.  We needed to push back–hard–by returning the Democratic Party to power.
  2.  

  3. The organizations, bloggers, and grassroots activists we wanted to serve were all making different choices about who to support.  With different issue priorities, different strategies, and different opinions about which campaigns were most likely to put Democrats over the top, the best way to help them all was to build a platform that could support all of the candidates for whom they wanted to fundraise.
  4.  

  5. It didn’t hurt that this route was easy to implement. We could focus our efforts on building a novel fundraising platform rather than detailed candidate research.

Of course we got a good bit of flack for this choice in various corners: "Why are you supporting [candidate X]? They’re way too conservative/crazy/long-shot to deserve help from ActBlue."  One of my off-hand responses from 2004 lives on in our Frequently Asked Questions:

 

You listed a candidate who clubs baby seals-shouldn’t you take them off the site?

We…don’t impose our personal or ideological judgments on our decisions to include or exclude anyone. However, if our users share our anti-baby-seal-clubbing views, no one will promote them on their fundraising pages, and there won’t be any problem. 

In that quip, though, lies a more fundamental reason for our approach that we didn’t fully appreciate when we got started. By offering a trusted, neutral platform for all Democratic candidates and fundraisers, we’re creating a more democratic (little ‘d’) party — and that ultimately makes the movement stronger.

Let me unpack that a bit.

The strategy of most political groups goes something like the following:  "first, we’ll build our capacity to raise funds, recruit volunteers, and/or persuade voters.  Then, we’ll use those resources to help elect the candidates we like.  And, finally, we’ll wield our money, volunteers and votes as carrots and sticks to encourage politicians to see things our way."

In creating ActBlue, we envisioned ourselves helping fellow progressives build the small-donor fundraising force Democrats need to fight back against the corporate money that fuels the GOP and stymies progressive change. But why be so general as to help support all Democrats?  Why not restrict the use of ActBlue’s fundraising tools so they could only be used to support specific, vetted candidates we like?  If this is really such powerful stuff, why not wield our fundraising platform as a super-duper carrot-and-stick machine?

We’ve chosen to instead make ActBlue an honest broker because we believe that the best Democratic Party, and the best government as a whole, can only be achieved when every part of the political process — including fundraising — is conducted according to the greatest aspirations of our democracy.  Only by changing the rules of the game can the competition for political influence be won by those who best represent the interests of the public as a whole. 

In a Democratic movement with truly democratic fundraising, every Democrat with the courage to throw his or her hat into the ring — regardless of issue positions, previous endorsements, or chance of success — has the opportunity to pitch themselves and make their ask to everyone who wants to make a difference.  And every person involved in our movement has the technology and organizing resources to gather like-minded individuals together and build political power.  Our approach at ActBlue is backed by a belief that if we can level the playing field, the best leaders will emerge and the best ideas will win the day. 

Paired with our idealism about bringing out the best in our movement is pragmatism about building the strength we need to fight the conservative movement.  The standard political modus operandi ("Stay on message!  Focus 100% on the endorsed campaigns — otherwise you’re wasting resources!") doesn’t make sense for a movement as large and diverse as ours.

When someone goes out to make a fundraising ask, they’re not going to be effective unless they passionately believe in the cause they are supporting.  Of course activists and groups will argue about candidates and strategy.  We won’t all agree.  But even with our differences, at ActBlue we believe that the combined power of everyone’s full effort far outweighs the results when rigid adherence to a specific strategy is enforced. And so if institutions like ActBlue were to force people to follow a specific strategy designed by a few, we wouldn’t increase efficiency at all. We’d just end up with a few people being more effective, and a lot more people staying at home.  By empowering each person and each group to back the candidates they find y inspiring and to fight for the positions that they personally find most important, we maximize the power of our movement.  `

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