Rebuilding the Party: The Technology

The other day on Twitter, I commented thusly:

Resolved: fixing the GOP cannot be done from in DC and fixing the tech problems cannot be done without professional technologists.

Within days of the election I was approached by three people representing three different groups, all of whom wanted my advice on how to proceed on the technology front. My advice was pretty simple:

  1. That you have come to me thinking I am a technologist is an indication of the problem;
  2. Luckily for you, I have come to recognize my limits, but sadly there are too many others out there who do not recognize their limits and, unfortunately, offer themselves as solutions to our tech problem instead of offering real solutions;
  3. If anyone you talk to says you need to duplicate what Obama did, run the other way as fast as possible;
  4. When looking for people, choose technologists who are interested in politics, not political guys who learned tech; and,
  5. Look outside Washington, D.C.

Then, seeking recommendations, I suggested six people — only two of whom are inside Washington, D.C.

Let me repeat it because it has become my constant theme: to succeed online, the right needs to invest in technologists who know politics and not political consultants who know technology. It is a hell of a lot easier to learn politics than it is technology. Further, technologists understand, develop, and use technology is a way more akin to what normal people do. Political consultants don’t do that. And it is doubly important to go outside of Washington, D.C. because of both points of view and circles of friends.

One caveat before wading into this: there is a place for political guys who know technology. There are tools to be developed and use of those tools. The political guys can, by and large, handle use of the tools. What I am concerned with is development of the technology tools for the right and their initial implementation.

I. Conservatives who need technology help do not know who to ask

The problem on our side is not that we are uninterested in technology, but that those who have the money and need to pursue technology really do not know where to look. They know they need it, but the only people they know to ask are the people they probably should not be asking.

That a person can run a blog, has a Twitter account, edits and posts video to YouTube, has 1000 friends on Facebook, or can install a Joomla/Drupal/WordPress/MovableType/etc. site and customize the CSS does not make that person a technologist.

I can do all those things and more. But I am no technologist. I am, however, proficient enough to wade through the bulls— artists, charlatans, and people who do good work, but are not the right people for the work ahead. I am comfortable with people calling me for advice because I will not be selling them anything and I will steer them in the direction they need. Sadly too many are selling something and it skews the advice.

This leaves the problem though. With a lot of people out there who need help and a lot of people posing as technologists, there are a lot of good conservatives getting helped, but it is oftentimes not the help we need right now to become competitive online.

II. Many of the people identifying the technology problems on the right are offering themselves as solutions instead of actual solutions.

People conservatives are turning to for help are political consultants disguised as technologists. They are no more a technologist than I am, though further along in their photoshopping, website development, and Web 2.0 integration skills.

A lot of the latest technology proposals from the right sound good, but really amount to public relations vehicles for consultants. There is a tech consulting void on the right. The political consultants know it and those who do not yet have the good gigs from the Republican National Committee, etc. are angling for their share of the pie. They are taking advantage of the wide open field in technology. They are scrambling as fast as they can putting up attractive websites, offering their services, using words like twitter, facebook groups, Ning sites, and the ever popular “social network”.

In truth, none of them is offering much new beyond the buzz. They are offering a repackaging of other technologies with some personal branding.

There is a market for all of that out there. It is all well and good and I mean no disrespect to any of these people. But let’s be clear here: harnessing existing Web 2.0 tools and adding some photoshop and Web 2.0 gradients really is not what will win us the technology battle. To listen to a lot of the political tech guys on the right, you would think they agree with me. But based on what is being offered, I am skeptical.

It all comes back to this: it is very easy to learn some technology. It is not that hard to put something together that will impress a lot of people who know nothing about technology. It is like the Inca thinking the Spanish were representatives from the gods — their technology was new and shiny. Their gun powder was impressive.

In the same way, the conservatives who need technology consider the guys who can get a website up and running technologists. But that does not make them technologists. That makes them tech savvy politicos. Unfortunately, these tech savvy politicos have not recognized or are mostly unwilling to recognize their limits. Many of them will outsource to those who know more technology, but at the end of the day, if the politico posing as the tech guy does not really know the technology, there will be problems.

Think of an architect. It’s not a difficult thing to visualize a house. It is more complex, but not terribly hard, to learn a computer aided design program and draw out the house. It is a step up from there to design the house comprehensively and functional for a builder. An architect is trained in all of these things, knows the necessities, the building codes, the proper forms and functions, the dimensions, etc.

We need technology architects. What we have now are a group of people who have learned computer aided design, can customize some pre-existing designs, and can mock up a few new designs, but do not understand or are not really qualified to handle the entire architecture and design of our technology needs.

III. Duplicating Obama’s technology effort is not the solution for the right and those who say it is are the first people not to hire.

The Obama technology effort played well for Obama. It would not, in and of itself, play well for our side.

A. Our activist demographic is different from Obama’s.

I know there are studies out there that suggest the opposite, but I can tell you from personal experience with many of you and from flying all around the country talking to online and offline activists on the right, the left and right use the web in different ways. We see this at RedState.

RedState is unique among sites on the right in that most of our readers do not consider themselves bloggers or blog readers. RedState readers are, trusting in surveys of our readership, much more like the average conservative in what Rush Limbaugh calls “fly-over country.” This is one reason RedState diarists do not generally engage in the “meta-conversations” between blogs. Our readers read RedState, two to three news sites, and sports websites. Seventy percent of RedState readers read five or fewer blogs. RedState’s readership is much more in line with the general right of center activist’s level of engagement. To be sure, it is a level of engagement we are working to increase as we expand our readership and technology within the site.

This is all to say that the average right of center activist out there is not the same as the Obama activist. We have Obama style activists on our side, but they are not the majority.

B. A different demographic will use different tools or the same tools differently.

Unfortunately, many on our side are applying campaigns to technology instead of technology to campaigns. Because the Obama campaign used tech a particular way, a lot of people on our side advocate the same. But it does not necessarily translate.

Sure, the right needs some of the tools Obama used. Sure, there are things about Obama’s technology worth replicating. But just transferring the Obama tech wheels to the right’s bus will not get us going. The wheels do not fit.

The right does need to take better advantage of things like SMS — technology the left has been using with success. The right needs to take advantage of email better. Too many people on the right think direct mail can translate directly into email. It does not. The right needs to free up people at the bottom to become stakeholders. But the right does not need to open up everything.

A great many of the people complaining that the right is more top down than the left are people who want to climb higher up the ladder. The left is very much more top down than the right. It always has been. Frankly, it is one reason the left was more successful than the right this past year. Everyone on the left marched together in proper sequence. Nonetheless, people on the right saw the community Obama built online and decided it meant Obama freed up everybody and restructured the chain of command. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That so many on the right want to duplicate the Obama effort is a clear indication that we have learned nothing, but pretend that we have. To be sure, there are lessons to be learned. But I am starting to think if we have learned anything, we have learned the wrong lessons.

IV. Technologists and political guys who have learned technology are not the same thing.

Say what you will about Mike Duncan, Chairman of the RNC. A lot of us have been very critical. But there is one area in which criticism is off limits — technology.

[Insert sound of screeching brakes and “WTF’s” here]

You heard me. Mike Duncan, in fact, made a very wise decision hiring Cyrus Krohn to head the RNC’s technology efforts. Krohn came from a technology, not a political, background. Cyrus, a communications guy at heart, worked at CNN, Microsoft, and Yahoo gaining experience in technology with technologists instead of in politics with politicos. When he got to the Republican National Committee in 2007, he was pretty immediately able to size up what worked and what didn’t. Why? Because he is a technologist by trade, if not by specific training. He knows this stuff.

We will not really see Cyrus’s full potential at the RNC until the 2010 cycle. He did not get to the RNC until into the 2008 cycle when things were already in place. That Duncan chose to go outside the beltway to find a true technologist is worth commending. I am eager, now that the new election cycle has started, to see what Cyrus can pull together. The next RNC Chairman will do the party a great service by keeping Cyrus.

It is easier for a technologist to learn about politics than it is for a political consultant to learn technology. It is easier for a technologist to consider how average Americans use technology than it is for a political consultant to do so. It is vastly easier for a technologist to vet a shiny new tool with pretty bells and whistles than it is a political consultant. Too many political consultants get distracted by the shiny.

This is not to say there is no role for political guys who have turned to tech. There absolutely is a place. Candidates still need help with online operations — that’s not something a technologist really needs to focus on. The political guys out there can do it. There will still need to be organized Facebook group efforts, Twitters, etc. The political guys can and are doing that.

But if the right is going to truly be successful, we’re going to have to go beyond the political guys turned tech guys and go straight for the tech guys. We’re going to need to find more Cyrus Krohn’s and put them in key technology positions on the right. We are going to need to build out our infrastructure and our proprietary technology.

This leads me to my final point.

V. The technology solutions the GOP must embrace do not exist nor do they reside with people inside Washington, D.C.

My never ending frustration with politics on the right is how D.C. centric it has become. Certainly there is some necessity in that. Oftentimes, however, the right online operates as if the world stops at I-495, the beltway. It’s no small irony that the party of small government operates this way.

DailyKos was started by a guy in California. Same with MoveOn.org. The Obama technology hegemony was and is run out of Chicago. Every major competitive wannabe on the right has been formed by some well meaning conservative and/or Republican inside Washington, D.C.

In fact, RedState is largely unique among those on the right. While we were started in Washington, D.C., we are now run out of a coffee shop and my house in Macon, Georgia. The majority of our readers and the majority of our front page contributors do not reside in Washington, D.C., but are spread across the country. Nonetheless, we maintain an address in Washington because the reality is everyone expects us to be there.

With some exceptions due to the tech corridor stretching out to Dulles, neither the people nor the technology solutions the right needs will come from the D.C. area. What is in Washington, D.C. are the people who crave the technology and the people who will fund the technology.

Adding to that reality is this: most of the people we need who are not in D.C. are not in politics right now. They are going to be hard to find and cost a pretty penny to get. The people we need are not the people yet committed to the cause. They are the people committed to the technology who just happen to be ideologically sympathetic to our cause. These people, being technologist first, can command more money than people in D.C. might not be used to paying.

They are worth every penny.

VI. Disinterested conservative activists and technologists must come together with funders to design and build the technological future of the right.

The meetings I referenced at top have been paying off. I am of the mindset that we should let a thousand flowers bloom and see which pollinate, thrive, and spread. So do the people I have been talking to. And they agree that the solutions to our problems and those who offer them are not in Washington and, by and large, are not even in politics right now.

A movement is coming together that I am quite happy to be a part of. I can offer nothing technology related, but I can advise and help as best I am able. I know enough to know what I do not know and have grown comfortable admitting it. I am not out to make money on this. I, like RedState, aim to win the fight. That is the purpose of this post.

We must begin developing an army of technologists we can trust. We must curtail duplicative efforts on the right to keep building the same widget. Yes, let a thousand flowers bloom, but stop ever right of center group re-engineering the same flower over and over in house. Until we have the technologists, we must have a pool of political guys who do know technology who are willing to consult and offer advice. But — and this is key — these guys should be offering advice and recommendations, not their own services and solutions or those from which they will make money.

It is time for the right to share and collaborate in ways we have grown unaccustomed to. It is time to get serious.

VII. Conclusions

There are groups starting to stand up in Washington and pay attention. They recognize they’ve been had or are about to be had. I have talked to many of them, some of them with very deep pockets. They are starting to open their pockets and pull out their wallets.

If I have my way, they will not be directing their money to Washington. They will not be directing their tech purchasing money to political guys who know tech, but rather to the political guys who can advise them where their money should go. The money will flow to places like Alameda, Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, Moreno Valley, San Francisco, and Seattle.

I do not mean to be overly critical of a lot of the political guys who now do tech. They are committed to the cause. They should not be underestimated and I do not want to paint with so broad a brush as to smear ink on them. But we are going to need some real technologists too. We are going to need some of the guys Yahoo laid off. We are going to need some of the Microsoft guys and some of the Apple guys and some of the Google guys. We’re going to need the homeschool students who have learned to code. We’re going to need them all.

Sure, a lot of those people do not agree with us and will work against us. But not all of them. And those that are on our side, we must find, pay, and put in positions to help us. With few exceptions, they all live outside Washington, D.C.