You don’t need us to tell you that the United States is experiencing one of its strangest and most hotly contested election races in recent history. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit around watching the circus roll by. With voter confidence at its lowest point in years, Brigade, an app created by former Napster founder Sean Parker, aims to allow a whole new generation of people to follow their voice and regenerate democracy. We spoke with Matt Mahan, former CEO of Causes and current CEO of Brigade about why so many ‘saviors’ of politics have failed before us and why this could be the the app of all apps.
What’s wrong with the political system and why Brigade now?
By almost any measure, American democracy faces a serious crisis of confidence. Voting rates, particularly for primaries, midterms and down-ballot or local races, have been in decline for decades. Americans confidence in our institutions, and especially the three branches of government, is far below historical averages. Congress’s approval rating regularly dips into the single digits and only 28% of Americans say they are satisfied with the current state of the nation.
We’re caught in a dangerous, negative spiral in which lack of faith in government leads to lower participation in the political process, which further exacerbates the system’s dysfunction. Meaningful legislation and policy innovation are blocked by interests that benefit from the status quo and, ironically, backed by an increasingly polarized electorate that blames the other side for our woes. We have to find a model for meaningful civic participation that not only renews faith in our political system but makes the system itself more accessible, transparent and accountable to ordinary citizens.
Government has become one of the final frontiers for technological disruption and the more people use technology as consumers, the more they expect technology to shape their civic experiences. At Brigade, we use “civic” in the broadest sense of the word because we’re not just talking about political candidates or parties or even exclusively elections. The way to renew faith in and efficacy of our system is to get more people participating more consistently and with more feedback that their participation matters.
What has Sean Parker’s involvement been like so far with Brigade?
Sean has long believed that robust citizen engagement is critical for a democracy to function, but sadly measures of modern civic engagement show people no longer feel that their voice matters. This is a challenge we’ve talked about many times, including during my tenure as CEO of Causes, the social good company Sean co-founded in 2007. We share the mindset that technological advances, which have transformed other important relationships in society, can help solve the civic engagement problem.
In addition to serving as Brigade’s Executive Chairman and leading our $9.5 million Series A funding round with Silicon Valley heavyweights Ron Conway and Marc Benioff, Sean’s bold vision for how to put people back at the center of our democracy is reflected in the platform we’ve begun building. Our team consults with him regularly and we’ve found his deep experience launching genre-defining companies to be invaluable.
What kind of response have you had to the app so far?
We’re thrilled with the initial response to our beta app, which enabled people to express what they think about a range of issues, learn from others’ diverse perspectives on those issues, and form connections with other users who are aligned with their beliefs. Since then, we’ve added a voter verification tool that allows voters to claim their voter record and their place within the constituencies to which they belong. These features represent a few of the foundational tools that we believe any “democracy platform” needs to offer, but this has always been a “long play” for us and we’re only scratching the surface of what’s needed to transform the political system. To that end, we’re releasing a series of additional tools this year especially targeting citizen influence within the electoral process.
What do you hope to achieve in the long term in relation to scale of impact?
Long-term, we want to be the place that all citizens turn to, to understand and participate in the political system that serves them. There’s no doubt that the 2016 U.S. presidential election presents an incredible opportunity to capture attention–once every four years, political news and issues dominate mainstream media and watercooler conversations. But this is just a starting point. We’re focused on building a social utility to empower people civically, enabling any person to engage with their representatives in a way that is easy, social and enjoyable — regardless of the political calendar. We want to create a place that provides continuity between what people believe, what they advocate for and how they vote.
Other companies have tried and failed to increase civic engagement despite showing early promise. Why do you think this is such a difficult area? And what separates you from these previous manifestations?
A number of great startups, nonprofits and academic institutions are trying to help people understand and interact with the political system. Transforming American democracy is certainly not a one-company or one-idea project — and it’s not a problem that will be solved quickly or easily.
We believe public engagement is the lynchpin of a vibrant democracy and we’re using best-in-class consumer tech to reimagine how it works for the 21st century.
Given our emphasis on social and mobile technology, I also believe we have a generational advantage. Millennials are “digital natives” and also the largest generation in American history. Their frustration with government is real and they want practical tools for doing something about it. Recent research shows that a majority of millennials (61%) believe it’s important to be active citizens but only 26% admit to doing a good job themselves. They are beginning to take a stand on a range of issues from racial justice, to climate change, to LGBTQ equality, and they’re embracing new platforms like Brigade that make participation easy, safe and social — attributes they have come to expect from the products and services they regularly use.
The harder part is getting to a scale that ensures people’s voices and votes have real influence in the political process. We need enough scale to invert the power dynamic in the political system such that candidates and elected officials are truly held accountable by the people they serve. We’re confident we will get there with an excellent product, a strong brand and dogged persistence. Democracy in America is an “Internet-scale” problem, and it is only a matter of time before our civic lives move online.