Columbia University Prof Says – Stop Outsourcing Grassroots
20 Corporate Crime Reporter 30(3), July 17, 2006

Young people, listen up.

For those of you seeking to curb corporate crime and violence –

For those of you seeking to counter the right-wing, corporate drift of the country –

For those of you seeking to push back against the Chamber of Commerce, the Fortune 500, and the corporate control over the two major political parties –

Three words of advice:

Read this book.

Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America , by Dana Fisher. (Stanford University Press, August, 2006).

Fisher is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York.

Some people are going to be very angry with this book.

These people would be the institutionalized, bureaucratic, inside-the-beltway “liberals.”

But for the rest of us, this book is a joy.

It's due out in a couple of weeks.

Fisher's study finds that most of the national environmental, student, and progressive groups have shut down their internal grassroots operations and outsourced door-to-door fundraising to a handful of large national canvass operations.

Fisher says these national canvassing operations are the point of entry for hundreds of young, idealistic and politically aware people.

But instead of funneling these people into a lifetime of progressive politics, more often than not the national canvass operations, run as secretive corporate top-down bureaucracies, burn their idealism and spit them out onto the trash heap of politics.

Fisher was given access to one of the major groups – she calls it the People's Project.

She explains in a footnote that “due to my data gathering agreement with this organization, its identity will remain anonymous. Throughout the book, it will be referred to as ‘the People's project' or ‘the Project.'”

The People's Project clients include major environmental, public interest, and human rights groups.

The Project runs between 55 and 75 campaign offices around the country and hires more than 275 primarily young canvassers a year – mostly in the summer months.

And Fisher is not happy with its organizing model.

“How can the People's Project run effective grassroots campaigns that are coordinated by rootless workaholics?” she asks. “Instead of connecting canvass offices to pre-existing local progressive institutions through its canvass directors, the People's Project chooses to move them around regularly.”

“When I asked the canvass directors if they participated in any local political or civic work outside of their jobs, most laughed at me, pointing out that they rarely had time to sleep or do their laundry, let alone volunteer or attend community meetings,” she writes.

Fisher concedes that these large national canvassing operations didn't create the problem.

The problem was with their clients – the large public interest organizations that have little real contact with their membership base to begin with.

Or as one former adviser to the John Kerry for President campaign told Fisher: “None of these organizations can actually produce two bodies usually when they need to.”

“Given their failure to elicit action from their members, it is unclear how much actual political clout should be assigned to these national groups based on their members numbers,” Fisher writes. “Threats by these national groups' lobbyists that their members will strike, protest, or even vote according to their position on an issue could be called into question. . .By outsourcing these outreach tactics, the distance between progressive Americans and politics today has grown significantly. In other words, most members recruited through canvassing do not develop personal ties to the organizations they join. True membership, in contrast, involves participation that extends beyond making a monetary contribution, including meaningful engagement at the local, regional, and/or national level.”

And by outsourcing the canvass operations, the public interest groups also undermined their own recruiting efforts.

Case in point: Greenpeace USA.

At one point, Greenpeace ran its own canvass.

But then it outsourced it to a national canvass operation.


Greenpeace USA's executive director, John Passacantando has subsequently brought the canvass back inside Greenpeace.

“The Greenpeace canvass served as a feeder track for hungry, smart people who would one day run Greenpeace campaigns and even run Greenpeace. We lost something huge when we shut down our canvass,” Passacantando told Fisher a couple of years ago. “It is not a secret. So many of the heavyweights throughout the Greenpeace world have started in our canvass. It served an amazing purpose. And we are now tasked with finding other ways to bring people in.”

Fisher has some unkind words for Democratic operatives who outsourced the 2004 grassroots presidential campaign that parachuted hundreds of out-of-state canvassers into Midwestern states – and alienated local residents.

She compares that failed strategy with the winning Republican Party 72-hour plan that tapped into already existing local civic and political infrastructures.

Fisher also discounts the “man” and “messages” explanations for why progressives have been routinely routed by right-wing Republicans in recent years.

Waiting for the charismatic candidate to come around means waiting a long time.

And even if the leader arrives, “rebuilding civil society requires people talking and listening to each other, not blindly following a hero” – as former Senator Bill Bradley put it.

Then there is the weak message theory – this is the George Lakoff, Geoffrey Nunberg, Thomas Frank school.

Or as Nunberg puts it in the title of his new book: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

But Fisher says its not as much the man, or the message, as it is the members – the grassroots.

And we've corporatized them.

And processed them.

And disdained them.

Now, she wants to reclaim them.

“As civic and political organizations have become increasingly professionalized, the ways that they engage their members has become less personal,” Fisher writes. “Most national progressive groups do not require any actual participation from their members beyond writing checks.”

She quotes citizen activist Harry Boyte: “politics has largely become a spectator sport run by professionals with disdain for ordinary people.”

Time to bypass the beltway.

Go straight to the grassroots.

Read this book.

And then let's start anew.


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