Before the 2004 election, I'd done a little bit to help create a database tool for a third party. But for this election, I decided I'd better support the Democrats, so helped with data entry of volunteer info into their Access-based database tool. I'm a software developer, so computer work (even plain old data entry) was right up my alley.
Doing the volunteer database work felt very rewarding, because you really felt "the lever" - for 1 hour of work organizing volunteer info, I felt that I was helping to activate 10+ hours of work to be done by other volunteers. Certainly we had a plethora of volunteers at the democratic HQ's - frequently we had more people than computers or telephones for them to use!
Every night when I drove home I thought, "Wow, it's amazing that the Democrats are going to kick ass and win, despite how clunky that volunteer database they're using is. I would have assumed a big party like the Democrats would have had much more powerful software than Access; too bad they didn't develop it as Open Source Software. But it's cool that something so rough and tumble would be good enough to help win an election. "
Of course, in the end, the sad fact was the Democrats lost, and in a big way. Blame is being spread to all four corners as to why this happened. The presidential election seemed pretty close, and if only a couple things had been done better maybe it would have turned out in our favor. If only the voting system in Ohio had worked better... If only that Swift Boats thing had been more effectively denounced... But even if the presidential election had swung our way, the Democrats got trounced across the board, so some say there's fundamental problems. Maybe the Democrats are taking the wrong approaches... Maybe corporations have too much control over politics... Maybe the Republicans are doing something really naughty... Maybe people are unknowingly voting against their own interests... Maybe progressives aren't organized enough...
After the election I was angry and discouraged. How could we have lost after all that work? I couldn't imagine having to wait another 4 years before we'd get another 50/50 shot at things. When maps started showing the Blue States joined up to Canada and the U.S. turned into 'Jesusland', I knew there were a lot of people like me that felt another 4 years under an unchecked neo-con government was intolerable. Only a day after the election, Kerry had thrown in the towel, and the pundits were declaring the 'disintegration of the Democratic Party'.
WTF?? What about that huge upswell of grassroots efforts? What of the mass of volunteers that had put in more time and energy into the campaign than I'd ever seen in my life (more than could be used)? Was everyone just going to roll over and take it?
I determined that I certainly wasn't. My friends didn't either. And I knew there were tons of others like me that also were not willing to give up. The election just raised the stakes. The government is rushing headlong into an Orwellian future, and if we don't do something NOW, one day we may not be able to do ANYTHING.
But how to help? Well, giving money is one way, and certainly there are enough progressive organizations ready to take our money right now, but if giving money is the only way to make a difference, we're screwed. The people that progressives are trying to help don't have money - that's kinda the point! Plus, when you give money, you don't have any knowledge or control over what it is used for. It sometimes feels like you're just throwing it down a hole in the ground, for all the good it seems to do. The establishment can outspend me without any trouble. I don't feel like money alone is going to be the answer.
Also, I don't think we can really count on the existing apparatus fixing itself. It'd be nice to think that the church, media, or government would stop and say, "Hey, we need to make some fixes to the system!" Yet by appearances, these groups seem to be marching in lockstep behind the corporations. I don't think the establishment is interested in de-establishing itself for our benefit.
Looking at all the challenges facing the progressive causes, and all the root problems with the institutions, there's one solution that keeps on cropping up over and over again - involvement from the grassroots to either participate in the existing processes (where they still work) or routing around them (where they don't.)
Fortunately for us, despite all that went wrong, one thing went amazingly well. A *huge* amount of people put in a *huge* amount of work. Grassroots activities shoved hard at the Machine. Grassroots volunteer activity is a strength we had in spades. Unfortunately, it was working on both sides, so the Machine ended up in the same spot it started from, but that doesn't mean we should give up, just that we should look for a better grip or a different point to push on. Lots of people were aligned to defeat Bush, but much force was behind keeping him in power. Perhaps there are key places we can focus our strength where they aren't expecting it? Or perhaps diffuse action can be used to sap their strength in general?
There are tons and TONS of causes that need volunteer support, many issues needing people to fight for them. Our civil rights are under attack via various legislation in the works. School vouchers threaten to make public education worthless. Jobs are getting outsourced. A draft feels inevitable. Environmental protections are being rolled back left and right. Our Social Security looks like it's going to get turned over to the whims of the stock market. New wars seem to be peeking their heads around the corner. Minorities and the poor are going to face new oppressive measures. Certainly one need not be very paranoid to expect new legislation aimed at the suppression of dissenters in the not too distant future. Voter fraud and electronic voting problems are not getting investigated, and give the feeling that we may not be able to get fair elections anymore. There's lots of work to be done.
I figured that there's an infinite number of issues I could devote my time to, but the thing I know how to do best is create open source software. Fortunately, every one of these little efforts is going to require volunteers and the ability to effectively _manage_ volunteers if they're going to succeed. I feel like something I can do is help create a really good tool that any of these groups will find helps them be more productive in recruiting volunteers and putting them to work effectively, so they can succeed with their goals.
A good volunteer management system might enable us to apply individual skills and interests exactly where they're needed, at just the right time. It could enable people to fit in a few hours of volunteering when their busy schedules allow. It could streamline the process of recruiting volunteers, and make the communications process more efficient and more effective. It could help ordinary people feel like they're making a difference, and help coordinators coordinate everyone more effortlessly. It could enable people working independently in a distributed fashion to form alliances and operate lean and mean, with little overhead and minimal funding to achieve the larger strategies.
Now, at heart I'm an Independent, and I don't want to make a tool specifically only for the Democratic Party. While I want to help them a lot, I also want to help the third parties to be more effective. Besides, why not? It's just software, and costs nothing to make copies for everyone. Plus, there's probably a lot of other worthy causes beyond politics that'd benefit from such a tool. My only worry would be that if it's freely available, the Republicans could get ahold of it; but you know, they certainly already have the best software money can buy anyway. Making it publically available to everyone means that all the more people can contribute ideas, code, and testing to it.
There's a good bit of time before the next election - enough to get a good solid tool put together. We need to implement the software, test it in real situations, and make it available to all the potential users. In order to pull this off, we need a wide variety of skills - SQL/Perl/PHP/C++ programming, graphic designing, writing, educating, and promotion.
I've heard a lot of intriguing ideas of things to do in response to the elections. Every single one of these ideas requires the same two things: Volunteers, and a database tool to organize the volunteers. Thus, while the 2006 election is a tangible goal, this tool's real purpose is to be an instrument of change for any grassroots movement. By being freely available, freely modifiable, and freely usable, it runs counter to the control, constraint, and corporatist approach that we all are trying to stop.