Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Outsourcing the "grassroots"

Sociologist Dana R. Fisher has written a miniscule book (or perhaps a hardcover magazine article) with a long title, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. The "grassroots" in the title refers to the paid canvassers fielded by contracting firms who raise money for big liberal advocacy outfits, including major environmental (Sierra Club), public interest (Save the Children) and gay rights (Human Rights Campaign) groups. In the 2004 election cycle, the Democratic National Committee hired this existing canvassing infrastructure to compensate for the atrophy of party-run field operations capacity.

Fisher compiled extensive research data -- interviews with 115 canvassers at six regional offices of one large canvass company in 2003 and with half of the same people a year later. Some observations on her main points -- my paraphrases are in bold face.

Paid election field operations are ineffective. Sometimes. Fisher's critics, including Heather Booth who helped develop the canvass model, point out that when it comes to getting out the vote, there can be lots of methods used concurrently. I think Booth is right, if, IF, there is coordination. From what I saw on the ground in 2004 in New Mexico, paid canvassing added extra wrinkles to an already chaotic mix. National 527 committees were desperate for canvassers and offered pretty good money to attract recruits. Naturally, local campaigns saw their potential volunteers follow the money -- even though they were turning out the same voters! Running field operations at scale is an endeavor something like the Normandy invasion -- progressives don't begin to have the needed management capacity. It is not surprising that the DNC turned to the canvass companies; they have more of that expertise than most. Unlike Fisher, what I'd emphasize fixing in this area is our ability to manage at scale.

The canvass model slights local organizing and creates donors, not activists, especially local activists. Absolutely true. The canvass model is not organizing. It is resource extraction. Fisher got a Democratic operative to admit one of the dirty truths of the U.S. liberal establishment:

None of these organizations can actually produce two bodies...when they need to.

Anyone who has ever had responsibility for a GOTV effort learned that a long time ago. Almost without exception, there is no there there after you get the endorsement from progressive advocacy groups. If you need to run a human intensive field operation, you are going to have to do your own recruiting or reach out to organizations outside the usual liberal universe. It can be educational.

The canvass model drives canvassers out of progressive politics. It probably does, but we need to figure out how to avoid having it do so. Every political and advocacy campaign I've ever worked for or run has exploited its lowest rung workers; most such campaigns have also treated those workers as easily replaceable, interchangeable cogs. These faults seem to be a function of putting up a temporary operation on a significant scale. But while the first is probably unavoidable, the second can be at least partially overcome.

That is, there'll never be enough money to pay the doorknockers a fair wage, but you can use the campaign as a school for future political engagement. Sure, most of what bottom-rung workers do will continue to be repetitive and unpleasant -- and have to be scripted to be effective. Democracy works poorly in the heat of a campaign battle. But from a movement building perspective, it is vital to invest in teaching those who stick around something about the issues the campaign is working for and a great deal about why their work is organized in such a seemingly machine-like way. After the campaign, we must evaluate whether we hit our numerical goals. But we must also harvest what the workers learned from doing the work. And the workers themselves need a way to contribute what they learned to a broader movement. Since every campaign sees twice as many carping critics and peddlers of impossible ideas than workers, it is hard to retain the mind set that the workers learn anything useful working the doors -- but they do. We lose it at our peril.

Fisher focuses on the motivation of the canvassers, their desire to "make a difference." I'm more interested in the demographic profile that emerges from a close examination of her book. Off in a metaphorical corner, I found this:

Although I observed a diverse group of people -- from different backgrounds, races and ages -- come through the door, those who achieved staff status during the summer 2003 canvass were not particularly diverse: 84 percent white, and many said they lived with their parents...

Now wait a minute -- if that description holds, canvassers are simply not the people a resurgent progressive movement needs to have out there, representing us. The core of our future progressive movement is Black, Brown, queer, low-income, and frequently single female heads of households. Meanwhile, the canvass model utilizes predominantly well meaning, privileged white young people. At root, that's what is wrong with the canvass model as a form for our politics. No wonder there were problems with using this set of well-meaning folks to get out our vote.

Politics that makes change will only be done by people who believe their lives depend on it. It can't be just a summer job (though people may need to be paid) -- it has to be about survival.

Folks who become canvass management do assume that mind-set and the maniacal work habits that go with it. Wouldn't it be great if they turned their accumulated expertise toward developing a mass model for mobilizing the people who really are the progressive core, not just for picking off low hanging donor fruit?


sfmike said...

Great analysis.

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