Apps, Corruption, and Lovable Losers

If you follow U.S. politics at all, you’re aware that an app designed to transmit the Iowa caucus results utterly failed Monday night. I don’t want to get into the weeds on how it failed–though it smacks of incompetency. Nor do I want to get into the role Iowa and/or caucuses should or should not play in the electoral process (by the way, the role of the Iowa caucuses is not some sacred tradition that dates back to time immemorial).

But the app collapse is important because it highlights three problems with the Democratic Party–and by party, I don’t just mean the elected officials, but the consultants and unelected officers of the party, along with aligned pundits, which I often refer to as professional Democrats. While this seems like insider stuff, as Monday demonstrated, these failures hurt the party’s ability to take power. We need better professional Democrats, as the rest of us can’t be there all the time to do all the things*.

David Dayen notes the first problem (boldface mine):

But the spectacle has highlighted a much more consequential problem in America, something I have coined the bullshit economy. We’ve seen elements of it all over the place. When MoviePass offered unlimited screenings for ten bucks a month, when Uber gets an $82 billion valuation for a low-margin taxi business it has never made a dime on, when WeWork implodes after the slightest scrutiny into its numbers, that’s the bullshit economy at work. We have seen the farcical bullshit of Juicero and the consequential bullshit of Theranos….

The story of Shadow, makers of the app that utterly failed to deliver in Iowa, is a perfect example of the bullshit economy. It starts by being a tech solution to a non-existent problem. Iowa counties are compact; the largest one has a landmass of 973 square miles, and it’s close to twice the size of the average county in the state. Even there, no major city is more than a 30-minute drive from the county seat, Algona. Even with that ancient technology of the car, you could have each of the 99 counties report final results within a couple hours of the end of the caucuses.

Somehow, the Iowa Democratic Party got sold that they needed to improve upon this, to “disrupt” the caucus reporting. Already, the party had to increase what they would keep track of and tabulate, reporting the first set of results before the 15 percent viability threshold, the second set afterwards, and how that translated into delegate counts. It wasn’t clear why anyone needed to adding another layer of complexity into this with the app. But the app’s backers must have been persistent, getting $60,000—really nothing for the purposes of app development—to design a tool to forward the results to a central repository.

…ACRONYM issued a statement positioning themselves as a mere investor in Shadow, without knowledge of their inner workings. But last year, ACRONYM announced they were “launching” Shadow, as part of an effort to help Democrats “win” the Internet and run better campaigns. The head of ACRONYM, Tara McGowan, is married to a Pete Buttigieg strategist.

All this doublespeak is a hallmark of the bullshit economy. Your mind doesn’t have to travel to the nether regions of conspiracy, but you can hardly blame people for doing so. This is reflective of the rolling incompetence covered by confidence within the modern economy, especially when you sprinkle on the labor-saving promise of techtopia. When the bullshit economy fails, it robs people’s belief in the basic bargain of commerce, the idea that you get what you pay for, that companies operate in good faith to provide quality service. But when placed in contact with politics, it just demolishes faith in the system. The bullshit economy spurs distrust.

And then there’s the incompetence and corruption of the Democratic Party establishment (boldface mine):

It’s always been a bit of a puzzle for me to define just what the Democratic Party is. There are no formal membership dues, and registration varies by state. Candidates can sometimes run for the party nomination without being a member. And that leaves out the actual mechanisms of governance, the think tanks, banks, corporations, and law firms in which the various policy experts work as a sort of shadow government.

One of the better books on the Democratic Party comes from a former Joe Biden staffer, Jeff Connaughton, who coined the term “the blob” to denote the network of lawyers, lobbyists, Congressional staffers, foreign policy experts, podcasters, media figures and pollsters who comprise the groupthink of the Democrats. These people know each other, marry each other, take vacations together, book each other on shows, hire each other, and work together on policies and campaigns. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a community.

But that community, if it becomes immune from external pressure, can become dangerous. And that’s what happened in Iowa….

The Iowa caucuses are for most of us an experiment in democracy, but for key actors in Iowa the caucuses are a business. Take former Iowa Governor and Obama Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose endorsement was highly sought after. Vilsack is now a highly paid dairy lobbyist. Vilsack is well known, but then there are behind the scenes men like Jerry Crawford…

Crawford was a lobbyist for Monsanto and Exxon. The Democratic Party is riddled with minor ward bosses like Crawford, especially in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It’s not a criticism to observe that these communities have leaders. But of the insularity of the political class has enabled institutional actors within the Democratic Party in Iowa to become fused with corporate power through informal and formal financial and social relationships….

Everything about this situation screams bad management, and bad management is one consequence of extreme deference to power. It’s impossible to assess real problems if you can’t offer real criticism, and you can’t offer real criticism if the person in charge of some vital process is the kid of a donor or a friend of a powerful person in a cartel. (A less noticed example of this dynamic took place yesterday, when two key leaders of the Democratic Convention host committee, one of whom is the child of a major donor, were sidelined after allegations of a toxic work environment.)

…The key validator for Acronym is board member David Plouffe, the former campaign manager for Barack Obama. Plouffe is also the head of policy and advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Plouffe unlocks the trust of the entire Democratic operative class, meaning that Acronym’s technology is being used not just by the Iowa Democrats, but by Nevada Democrats, and a host of campaigns, unions, and nonprofits.

In this moment in history, the network of institutions that comprise the Democratic Party, from cable news channels to law firms to campaign operative networks to Silicon Valley lobbying outposts like Facebook and Google, are hollow and obviously incompetent.

There’s a third thing that ties this all together: if you are connected, there is no price for failure. One of the saving graces of Democrats is that most of us don’t see politics as a way to kick the shit out of people who are different from us. That’s a genuinely good thing, but what it also means is that sometimes we’re too nice. Republicans have no problems ditching their losers, whereas, the Democratic establishment protects them and rewards them. Rank-and-file Democrats, despite the insider-baseball nature of this crap (I mean, do you really want to care about some shithead consultant?), need to start paying attention to the party infrastructure–and, specifically, stop rewarding the losers. People who fail repeatedly need to be told to go away. That seems cruel, and if you’ve ever been in a position where you have to lay someone off, it’s horrible (unless you’re a seriously fucked up individual like Il Trumpe who gets off on it–though he usually finds someone to do the dirty work for him). But we simply can’t afford screw ups anymore when we’re trying to combat incipient authoritarianism–and maybe if we had been less permissive of failure up until now, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re currently in.

We need better professional Democrats. We need to stop rewarding the failures. When you vote, for any office, at any level, consider this.

*For example, me. I go to plenty of protests and local hearings, but at some point, I have a job, things I have to do, and things I want to do. Representative democracy in the 21st century does require that we are able to leave our elected representatives and their operatives alone for brief periods of time without them burning everything to the ground.

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1 Response to Apps, Corruption, and Lovable Losers

  1. I think you’re wrong about them rewarding failure, I think they’re rewarding success, it’s just that success to them is defined in a different way than you and I would consider it.

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