The last time Democrats lost a presidential election, in 2004, some of the party’s largest donors got together to seed massive new groups that became pillars of a new progressive infrastructure.
This year, a thousand apps have bloomed online amidst the post-election chaos. With no direction from dazed party officials, a diverse mix of programmers, lawyers, mothers, and political operatives have taken it upon themselves to build new tools to harness the energy created on the left to oppose President Donald Trump’s actions and policies.
Like their Silicon Valley counterparts, many of these political startups are struggling to meet a scale of demand they did not anticipate. Run almost entirely by volunteers, some may not survive, others may be subsumed into legacy players. All hope the anti-Trump outrage that fuels them will sustain itself.
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But for now, it’s a fascinating experiment in decentralized political infrastructure building.
“The institutions are hopefully going to help with scaling some of these folks that were a little faster than the institutions,” said Scott Goodstein, the CEO of Revolution Messaging, the digital firm behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign, who has helped some of the new apps get off the ground. “But I hope that everybody realizes that we’re all in this together.”
Here are some of most discussed new startups powering the so-called resistance.
Laura Moser, a writer in Washington, D.C., had never worked in politics before — although her husband, Arun Chaudhary, was President Obama’s videographer — but she felt compelled to do something after the election. “I just thought our world’s going to hell and we all need to participate a little bit more,” she said.
So Moser created Daily Action, a text-message-based service that gives subscribers a single thing to do every day, such as call the Customs and Border Patrol office at every major airport to demand they release data on how many people were detained under the President Trump’s travel ban. (CPD released the data the night after Daily Action’s call went out).
More than 220,000 people have subscribed to the service since it launched in mid-December, with about 10% regularly making calls. That’s completely overwhelming Moser’s all-volunteer operation which consists of mainly her, “two moms” that help with research, and her brother, to whom she recently handed the keys to the Twitter account.
Now, like other political start-ups, she’s trying to figure out to make the app sustainable.
The first challenge: Paying the $30,000 phone bill Daily Action racked up along with a partner organization in its first month. “That’s part of this crazy growth that we didn’t see coming,” said Moser.
Two lawyers in Berkeley, Amelia Maizad and Kara Ganter, had a similar idea when they launched Wall of Us a week after the election (the name is a play on Trump’s promised border wall).
“I don’t want to lose my country (again) and I fear that if we are complacent and we turn a blind eye to this administration we will wake to an authoritarian regime,” said Maizad, who was born in Afghanistan before her family fled the country.
Maizad said she hopes Wall of Us, which gives people four suggested actions each week, can find its own niche with a pleasant design and a focus on corporate activism, such as the #DeleteUber campaign that led the company’s CEO to step down from a White House advisory council and join a lawsuit against the administration’s travel ban.
With about 60,000 users, Wall of Us is looking for funding and will host an upcoming “Wonkathon” that brings together coders and policy experts to try to build new tools.
“The new left has to approach this space with a lot of humility because there are people who have been doing this work for decades. We have a lot to learn from them,” said Maizad.
A simple idea with a no-frills presentation that requires a ton of work behind the scenes, the Town Hall Project is perhaps the only comprehensive list of public meetings for members of Congress that is easily available to anyone.
The user-interface is just a Google Doc, but the information it presents is collected by over 100 volunteers who each monitor a handful of congressional districts.
“Nobody was collecting every event that every member of Congress was doing,” said Nathan Williams, a former organizer for the League of Conservation Voters who joined with alumni of the Obama and Clinton campaigns to start the project. “There’s been way more interest than we expected.”
Created by Bay Area techies, 5 Calls is designed to make it as easy as possible to find your members of Congress and call them. It provides scripts, weekly email alerts, and has been generated nearly 400,000 calls, according to the website.
It Starts Today is based around an highly unorthodox approach to funding campaigns that founders compare to opt-in public financing. The site offers monthly subscriptions starting at $4.68 — one penny for each House and Senate seat on the ballot in 2018 — and then evenly distributes the money it raises to every Democrat who makes it to the general election in those races.
The founder is Jonathan Zucker, a well known figure in Democratic tech circles who used run the fundraising juggernaut Act Blue. And it’s attracted support from bold-named Democrats like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
“In sixty congressional races last year, Democrats either didn’t raise a penny or didn’t even run a candidate at all. We can’t ever let that happen again. We have to spread our message and organize our supporters in every state and district. It Starts Today is the first group with a real plan to make that happen,” Daschle said in a statement.
Pretty much every PAC takes the exact opposite approach, carefully choosing which candidates to support based on their ideology or likelihood of winning. But Zucker thinks the “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy will help recruit more candidates, fund races that get overlooked, and downplay factional rifts in the party.
“This idea was born around 3 a.m. on Election Night, as I saw my Facebook feed devolve into fights between passionate Bernie and Hillary supporters,” Zucker said.
Flippable wants to make state legislative races sexy. It’s a tall order, but comes as Democrats everywhere put renewed emphasis and resources into flipping statehouses ahead of congressional redistricting in 2020.
The app’s founders are developing a statistical model to anticipate which state legislative districts are the most “flippable” and important, and have already funneled $135,000 for four candidates they’ve endorsed in upcoming special elections — a significant sum in low-spending state legislative races.
“I think there is some fatigue in this space in the communications that we get from standard Democratic groups and I think that’s why some of these groups have sprung up,” said Catherine Vaughn, Flippable founder and CEO, who is also former business consultant and Stanford MBA who worked on the Clinton campaign in Ohio.
More than 33,000 people are on the group’s email list, which sends out weekly calls to action, and the group is looking for funding and ways to bolster other Democratic legislative efforts.
A kind of Wikipedia for anti-Trumpers, the Resistance Manual provides information on major policy issues important to progressives and what might happen to them under Trump, along with suggestions about “How You Can Resist.”
Just like Wikipedia, the content is generated by users. “It’s using crowdsourcing to create policy solutions,” said Aditi Juneja, a third-year law student at New York University who developed the project along with Black Lives Matters activist DeRay McKesson and the group Stay Woke.
Launching just before the Inauguration, Swing Left helps people find their nearest competitive congressional district where they can work to try to oust a Republican or support a Democrat ahead of the 2018 midterm election.
More than 200,000 signed up in the first week and it’s user base has growing steadily since. “Start thinking mid term elections now — this makes it CRAZY easy,” comedian Sarah Silverman
“If you Google us, you’ll see they’re regular people,” the group’s Michelle Finocchi said of the site’s founders, which include a teacher and husband-and-wife duo of a marketer and brand strategist. “We never could have imagined the scale of the response we received.”
When the White House shut down its telephone comment line, Goodstein , the Revolution Messaging CEO, saw an opportunity for a cheeky little web app he had built as a side project. The idea was to call attention to the fact that Trump had not divested from his business empire by treating his hotels and golf courses as “satellite White Houses” all over the world.”
WhiteHouseInc. helps users randomly dial one of 30 or so Trump properties where callers can lodge a complaint about Trump’s plans to repeal Obamacare or build a border wall. More than 33,000 calls have been placed lasting a total of 113,000 minutes.
“We get it’s a little bit tongue and cheek,” said Goodstein. “But we know this is a pressure point for the Trump family and the Trump administration.”
Andy Kim has a background in government, but not politics. The former Iraq Director at the National Security Council founded Rise Stronger to bring together other people with expertise in various backgrounds to try to help develop resistance strategies.
Kim said the expected a small group of D.C. types to join, but the network has quickly grown to over 50,000 people nationwide, with chapters in nearly every state and several policy working groups. It also organized a conference over Inauguration Weekend in DC.
In the process of formalizing the group as nonprofit, Kim said he hopes the network will be a resource to other organizations, saying its motto is “No ego no turf.”
“Only so many times do people feel like they call their members of congress over and over again. So what else can people do beside making phone calls and turn out at townhall meetings?” Kim said.