Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 6): Joiners vs fighters (or: civic conscription)

(This is the sixth in a series of posts about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so -- that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

In this series, I've written about the PIRG/Fund canvassing model, which is currently being outsourced (through Grassroots Campaigns, Inc) by the DNC and MoveOn for their field operations. In my first three posts, I described how these canvassers appeal to potential donors about the urgency of a given cause, but ask only for monetary contribution, even though this money is just used to pay for the operation itself. In my fourth post, I discussed the unsustainable working conditions in these operations. In the last post, I analyzed the canvass model as a wholly top-down operation in which each participant is interchangeable and all interactions are scripted. In this post, I'll contextualize this curious form of 'activism' within the history of American civic life.

When I described the troubling working conditions in a Grassroots Campaigns canvass office, one commenter took issue with my claim that 'fighting a war' is a misguided way to conceive of this kind of work.

[We] are in a WAR against the conservative movement. It is a war out there - each election is just a battle. Campaign work, and activism in general, is hard.... If you believe in this [war], then you aren't just willing to work your knuckles to the bone, you're happy to do it. Because it matters.

Altogether, this comment illustrated the fierce pride (which I'd mentioned in that post) with which the participants in the model undertake their work. They believe they are carrying on in the honorable tradition of the best public service of our country's heritage. What's more, they believe that what they do is all the more urgent because of the waning civic health (and right-wing power consolidation) of modern American life. The commenter suggested that 'a lot of people would volunteer to [canvass].' Indeed, being that the typical Fund/GCI staffer is a college-educated kid being compensated at less than minimum wage, the canvass model should be considered volunteerism.

I don't mean to disparage that commitment with this series. So I'll take a post to try to explore it. I'm sorry to do this, but get ready for a civics lesson. Spit out that gum.

Volunteerism, and civic association in general, is one of the classic traits of American society. We're a nation of joiners. We bond together for the good of the community. Our teenagers are expected to perform productive, self-sacrificing service that sobers them up and puts hair on their chests (or, uh, bounce in their bob). In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville remarked upon the number and dynamism and success of the young country's associations, proclaiming that "there is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society."

Theda Skocpol wrote an excellent book on this subject, Diminished Democracy. She explores how the very structure of our federalized government -- with local, state and national tiers, subject to regular elections -- encouraged civilians to participate in groups that had both local chapters and national structures, longstanding traditions and functionary officers. Through these groups, civilians not only developed relationships with their neighbors and likeminded people across the country, but also learned how to talk and think about social issues, manage the various tasks of their association, and even run for office. Fraternities like the Odd Fellows and Masons actually helped shape the political and social landscape both locally and nationally. Religions and political parties spread from town to town. By the early 20th century, federational civic organizations provided their members with educational services, health insurance, financial security, and often successfully influenced the government to extend similar benefits for the entire nation.

You might notice that we don't really have this anymore. Organizations that once waged "bold national efforts that concretely helped millions of citizens" are now considered quirky, charming clubs. Unions are dying off almost as fast as the Shriners. People 'bowl alone.' Skocpol argues that this is not because Americans simply gave up on public life--rather, there's been a fundamental change in the ways in which Americans participate in public life.

This change happened "abruptly," starting in the 60s when deep upheavals challenged American institutions. Waves of social movements roiled the country, pushing against war and for the equality of society's marginalized peoples. Driven by legions of younger Americans, many of them students, these movements consisted of loosely coordinated groups that were "more agile and flexibly structured" than classic American associations. Such groups (like SNCC, NOW, Environmental Action) were united and driven by ideals and causes, rather than structures and traditions.

In the course of the 70s, as Ralph Nader's fledgling campus PIRGs were picking up the cause of reform where university radicalism had left off, the activist energy of the 60s reconsolidated into a proliferation of "professionally led advocacy associations focused upon policy lobbying and public education." The attention of activist work also became focused upon one particular locality: Washington. In the course of the 70s and 80s, as the old-style federations aged and went defunct, a 'public interest' industry arose that called itself 'citizen advocacy' but no longer consisted of actual citizen participants.

Today, civil society is characterized by either small, isolated local groups that undertake micro-level engagement of community issues (like soup kitchens, the PTA), or national 'cause' organizations ("bodyless heads") that are funded by either foundation grants or member-donors. And for many of the progressive interest groups, the canvassing (most prominently the PIRG/Fund model) has been instrumental in generating their "base" of membership.

Canvassing seems, at first glance, to be a way to re-inject 'grassroots' civic participation into the framework of the professional advocacy industry. A canvass operates under the principles of social change through collective action and collective action through face-to-face contact. And the canvass certainly boasts the spirit of youthful idealistic activism that powered the social movements of the 60s.

But as I described in my last post, the PIRG/Fund canvass model is actually built around that same membership/management dichotomy that Skocpol claims to be "eroding" America's channels of "inclusive civic mobilization." Not only will a canvass's 'activated' donors probably never meet each other or another representative of the organization, but the canvassers themselves aren't members of the organization. They're not even workers who can claim basic labor rights. They're only units in a line of sheer top-down automation. Their canvass world is more martial than civic.

This also effects how a canvass expresses the civic imperative. Dr. Harry Boyte, renowned scholar of civic theory, was initially a proponent of the canvass model as part of the populist tradition. But Boyte now argues that the canvass has become even farther removed from the vitality of classic American civic life. The canvass, he explains, emphasizes that "politics is a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources. It pits the forces of good... against the forces of evil, powerful corporate interests." [Essay in PDF here]

So politics is no longer a dynamic process through which different groups work alongside each other toward long-term objectives. Instead, politics is a cause and the cause is a war -- and the individual's only possible relationship to the cause is sacrificial. In this way, the canvass model intentionally uses the psychic impulse for civic engagement as fuel, rather than building material.

It would be one thing if this machinery worked to serve its cause. But it hasn't been working for some time now.

In the decades since the explosion of special interest groups and the early organizing successes of the PIRGs, the impact of both has waned. Amid its survey of the severely dysfunctional American Left, Crashing the Gate takes a moment to ponder the 'Death of Environmentalism,' and notes that the organizations that once fought scrappily to get Richard Nixon to pass landmark environmental legislation--the same organizations whose base the Fund's canvass model has been building for decades--are now 'supremely well-funded' and 'stuck in neutral.' Their policy gains are being rolled back on a wide scale, but they seem unable to recognize that their strategies are failing -- since after all, their memberships keep getting bigger.

Kos and Jerome conclude: "until the environmental community taps into a broader progressive ideology and sells that to the public in alliance with the other progressive causes and groups, it will likely continue to see its every policy initiative defeated."

I think it would be safe to say that Kos and Armstrong would happily replace 'environmental community' with the Democratic National Committee, or any other liberal network that has seen its causes rolled decades back in just a few years.  And let me further suggest that, George Lakoff notwithstanding, progressive ideology does not mean 'vocabulary.' Progressive ideology means comprehensive worldview; it means way of life; it means model.

At some point almost three decades ago, as the Right was building its own dynamic network of 'civic' associations, the Left forgot that when it comes to the 'grassroots,' process means participation, not just contribution; quality as much if not more than quantity. We're talking about having to reimagine the very ways in which citizens, activists, and organizations interact.

Now, the netroots has begun to reclaim that process -- what we see here is a promising new beginning. Allow me to suggest a metaphor: the netroots are like the intelligentsia of the progressive movement, and the canvassers are our workers. When it comes to the grassroots, we have a lot of re-imagining to do.

But as Skocpol notes, it's futile to pine for the brotherhoods and sisterhoods of our past. Instead, we have to reform existing structures, inject them with new ideas, refocus their energies upon engagement and "combination." Still professional, but more participatory.

On that note, is it possible that a canvass campaign apparatus for the national Democratic Party is just such an innovative use of an existing structure? After all, party politics is Manichean (at least it is now), and political energies are galvanized by nothing so much as the sort of conflictual immediacy that the canvass presents face-to-face. Furthermore, since the party machine has withered under the rise of the DC consultant class, we need a new large-scale infrastructure for partisan service.

As you might guess, my answer is: perhaps, but not this model. This is a strategy that might have worked once upon a time, but has since become calcified into a wasteful machine that serves first and foremost to perpetuate itself. In order to make truly positive gains towards progressive rejuvenation, the model would have to be fundamentally re-aligned. In my next post, I'll suggest ways to begin this re-alignment. And in my next series, I'll turn more directly to the past (Election 2004, specifically) in order to illuminate the seriousness of the stakes at hand.

Tags: boyte, canvassing, civilsociety, CrashingTheGate, Fundraising, GCI, grassroots, membership, PIRGs, skocpol, TheFund (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

Rallying the troops

Good stuff, man.

by Rafe Noboa 2006-06-06 10:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 6): Joiners vs

I think your analysis is better then ever.

We need to stop burning out the grassroots.

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-06-07 07:12AM | 0 recs
UPDATE: edited final paragraph

I originally wrote in the final paragraph: "I think this model is broken." I've changed the emphasis to be more forward-looking. This model is perhaps the largest structure for activism we have in this country, and the pragmatist in me believes that it needs to be restructured, reimagined-- not 'taken down.' I've spoken with many people who defend the model yet believe this too. However, the skeptic in me believes that the executives (some would call them 'leaders') won't change the model unless faced with drastic, forceful impetus to do so -- which is why I originally wrote that it is 'broken.' </clarification>

by greg bloom 2006-06-13 10:16AM | 0 recs

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