Fund/PIRG/GCI: the Incorporation of the Progressive Grassroots
by greg bloom, Thu Oct 05, 2006 at 07:35:20 AM EDT
So, the Right has the money, and the Left has the People Power. We all know that's how the game is stacked. And ever since that whole shake-up in the 60s, when both sides got their boats rocked, the Right's been building this big machine and throwing money into it. Turns out they're pretty good at it! And the Left? We've been out knockin' doors, talkin' to the People, givin' them the Power--that's how we do. That's how the story goes.
And that's why this little book released last month is a big deal. In Activism, Inc., Dana Fisher of Columbia University traces the history of the canvass--from a vital grassroots GOTV tool of local politicians, to an innovative tactic for burgeoning advocacy/lobbying groups in the 70s, to the big-box fundraising industry that sprawled out through the 90s and continues to grow today. Fisher's book is billed as the first formal study of the modern fundraising canvass ever published. (She recently published a piece in the American Prospect that more or less summarizes her argument.)
Mike Connery interviewed Fisher over at Future Majority last week about the canvasses described in her book. "This is not what democracy looks like, and it is not what progressive politics should look like either," he wrote in a post accompanying the podcast. But how can door-knocking to drum up People Power look like anything other than democracy?
Well, Fisher's book starts from the fact much of the progressive canvass world has been consolidated under one roof -- acronymically speaking, that would be FFPIRG/GCI -- the Fund for Public Interest Research and its network, including most of the PIRGs, Telefund, and Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI), a conglomerate that altogether is the single largest employer of "progressive activists" in the country.* (I wrote about Fund/PIRG/GCI's shared campaign model here in the "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" series.) Fisher then takes the time to do what no one has bothered to do in decades: ask these canvassers about their work. Fisher's conclusion is announced rather boldly right there in the book's subtitle:
How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America
Early press on the book has focused on the "controversy" surrounding its release. In "Scorching the Grassroots" (9/15/2006, Chronicle of Higher Education), David Glenn reported that this summer the Fund actually sent Fisher a letter that may or may not have contained a threat of legal action against the publication of the book. That article went on to track a back-and-forth between Fisher and eminent figures like Donald Green, co-author of the seminal Get Out the Vote!, and Heather Booth, co-author of the canvass-boosting Citizen Action and the New American Populism, who are both quoted as "critics" of the Activism Inc's conclusions--at least the conclusions as expressed in that bold subtitle. Green and Booth make positive defenses of GOTV canvassing, and the act of canvassing itself: "I think that the canvass is one of the most important tools of direct voter contact that we have," Booth is quoted. "To some extent, it helps people to stop bowling alone." But this (perhaps unintentionally) conflates the issue. The value of canvassing as a tool of civic engagement is not being questioned -- rather, the issue is the Fund's model and its dominant place in the industry. It wouldn't be accurate to say that a critique of the Fund is a critique of fundraise canvassing -- but it's close, and that itself is part of the problem.
Fisher notes that the Fund's client list features 25% of the organizations in the America Votes coalition. The country's second largest canvass subcontractor, the Progressive Action Network, is but a fraction of this size. Add in GCI's contracts with MoveOn and the DNC, and this is indeed a "near monopoly."
And yet, other critics of Activism Inc--as well as many commenters in the discussions we've had in these blogs--mischaracterize the argument in the opposite direction: as if the claim is that the Fund is singularly responsible for the Left's downfall. This also misses the point. So let's see if this mess can be straightened out.
Fisher's book advances its argument primarily on two levels:
1) She produces an ethnographic study of the Fund's canvassing staff, compiling the results of interviews with more than a hundred subjects, as conducted at multiple points in over a year's period of time.
2) She interprets these results to argue that the flaws in the Fund's model are also present in the trends that have weakened the modern Left. (Broadly, these trends are the mechanization of political activism--and its removal from local, personal contexts--which have stripped the grassroots of its essence and left only an impotent infrastructure.)
As you might expect, this second level is quite a reach. But Activism Inc's big-picture argument unfurls in a way that is rather similar--in both method and contention--to Crashing the Gate. In a "post-mortem" on the Left's 2004 election campaigns, Fisher interviewed a range of Democratic and progressive leaders (like Bill Bradley, and Josh Wachs, former executive director of the DNC) who acknowledge that when it comes to the `People Power' that should be the Left's real asset, the last few decades have seen a major loss of mojo--even with money and people pumping back into the system. This has happened in a number of ways, of which the Fund's canvass could be just one--and none of these sources quoted in her post-mortem seem to be commenting on the Fund's canvass in particular.
In the end, these interviews aren't breaking new ground - it's those study results from that first level that are most useful to us, and Fisher's hard data really drops down into two main points:
1)The Fund canvass is not a successful channel for professional advancement into the progressive movement. Less than 15% of the staff who participated in Fisher's interview were still employed at the Fund a year later. Of course, this is a summer job -- but only a "very small handful" of those who left had gone on to work in political or public interest jobs. Furthermore, those who do stay on staff have no access to real career paths into the wider progressive network, from which the canvass is pretty much isolated -- among all of the Fund's clients who spoke with Fisher, only one staffer could be identified as having "come up" from the organization's canvass.
2) Survey results confirm that the canvassers, as a group, were more politically aware than the general population; but one year after their initial involvement with the canvass, their level of civic engagement (as measured through voting and other means of participation) had dropped back to a level that is not higher than the general population by any statistically significant measure. The canvassers canvass, leave, and don't seem to stay involved.
Since the Fund/GCI/PIRG sees many thousands of young people pass through its recruitment meetings each year, all anticipating an experience in "grassroots politics," this is not a small pair of points. Of course, churn-and-burn is a problem inherent to political organizing of any sort. The tiered chart of attrition, as reproduced in Connery's post, is not some damning blueprint that reveals the Fund model's inherent flaw. This work is indeed "not for everyone," and a successful canvass operation is going to have to account for that by throwing a wide net. But Fisher's results suggest that the Fund's model of human-resource-intensive subcontracting actually exacerbates the churn, even feeds off of it -- that those levels of attrition are perhaps even maximized, and that there are untenable hidden costs (both opportunity costs, in terms of interactions that could have taken place, and negative externalities, in terms of interactions that leave a bad impression on the participants).
The question that Fisher's book doesn't try to take up is one of ENDS---of what actually happens with the money these canvassers raise, and how the organizations it funds actually contribute in any meaningful way to the progressive movement. To Fisher, who is a scholar of civic engagement, the means, the processes, are more interesting - especially since, for many of the thousands of participants (millions, if you consider the prospective donors) this interaction is one of the defining experiences of "grassroots" politics.
Now, if any Fund/PIRG/GCI senior managers were to come across this humble blog post, they might at this point be exclaiming "Ah ha!" and busting out a reference to their hallowed mentor, Saul Alinsky. His Rules for Radicals is used as a core-curriculum text for the FFPIRG ideology (to the horror of Alinsky's spirit, I'm sure), primarily for one chapter entitled "On Means and Ends." In its third paragraph, the wily old man writes:
The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles. The real arena is corrupt and bloody.
The Fund/PIRG/GCI's objective is to "grow the progressive movement," and that happens when a bunch of people are hired to sign up a bigger bunch of people at doors and on the street, which makes more money for the movement. If the money becomes the ends, and the people are reduced to mere means, then by Alinsky's logic it is unnecessary for managers to consider questions about the indignities and frustrations suffered by staff--it's even foolish to ask. But these are not just transactions taking place on the door, in the street, at the office--they're interactions--and Alinsky would be the first to remind us that human interactions have fundamentally qualitative values.
When Fund/PIRG/GCI asks "are [the ends] achievable and worth the cost?," they do not consider that qualitative value between manager, staff, member -- all they ask is `how quickly and cheaply can it be done?' That very well might be how they have become so "successful." But suddenly, this is not sounding so much like Alinsky. Suddenly, this is sounding like WalMart---or more aptly, like Enron.
- / -
In my next post, I'll grapple with some serious criticism that has been issued at Fisher's book. Personally, I feel that Activism Inc offers a diagnosis but no prescription, as it does not contain a clear, actionable proposal as to what is to be done to make a better canvass model. Fisher's answer is essentially "get local," which is a fine thing to say in an academic discussion about civic engagement, but I think the problem at hand demands a more immediate prescription--one that addresses the interests of the canvassers as well as the needs and responsibilities of the progressive organizations who subcontract this work. [UPDATE: How about that, Lockse wrote essentially what I said I would cover...and she did it better than I could have, too.]
* -- In Activism, Inc, Fisher masks the Fund with the pseudonym of the "People's Project," which was a condition of her access to its canvassers; the anonymity was rather thin, however, since the People's Project was noted to be the largest canvassing organization in the country, and even its for-profit sister Grassroots Campaigns Inc was named. In any case, the Fund itself acknowledged its identity in Green's article.