The Activism Industry

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

You've seen them before. The crunchy-looking college-aged twentysomethings who knock at your door on summer evenings or stand on street corners across the country. Dressed in the T-shirts of progressive organizations like Save the Children or the Sierra Club, clipboards in hand they step into your path, smile, and make eye contact: "Hey there, how's it going? Do you have a minute?"

This type of grassroots outreach was born on May 27, 1971 when Marc Anderson, a former encyclopedia salesman, decided to combine his door-to-door sales knowledge with the political experience he gained volunteering for a local candidate's campaign. Harvard law student and self-described "Nader's Raider" David Zwick became intrigued by Anderson's efforts while he was trying to fund his newly formed group Clean Water Action. Learning the technique from Anderson, Zwick used issue-based canvassing to develop and sustain his work, which is now supported by 700,000 citizen members around the country. Zwick notes that all of the issue-based groups that have canvassed in the past 30-plus years can be traced back to Anderson's work, either via his direct management or through people he trained spinning off to run canvasses for other groups: "Virtually all... today are either imitators or direct descendants."

During the 1990s, as the funding for progressive causes waned, many national progressive groups were forced to tighten their belts and close their local field offices. Like corporations that hire workers in India to run their call centers, the canvassing, phone banking, and direct mail outreach that sustains the fundraising and membership base of progressive organizations and campaigns in America were outsourced to national groups that emerged to fill the gap on the left. As word spread of this efficient and cost-effective way to develop and maintain a grassroots base, national groups that had never worked at the grassroots level also decided to outsource. Today, progressive groups have only to sign up with an intermediary organization and trained canvassers will go door-to-door or work the sidewalk traffic on their behalf, dressed in the group's T-shirt and armed with pitches that work.

The system is indeed more efficient. Unfortunately, this type of outsourced politics increases the distance between members and the progressive national groups that claim to represent them - and has proven no match for the kind of political institutions on the right that are locally rooted and turn citizens into engaged activists.

One of the largest of the progressive grassroots clearinghouses is the Fund for Public Interest Research*, which currently runs campaigns from numerous progressive groups simultaneously. In summer 2003, for example, the Fund ran campaigns for more than fifteen organizations around the United States, including the Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign, Save the Children, and Greenpeace. Their model of grassroots politics is very successful at recruiting members and raising funds. Sally Green Heaven, the deputy field director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), reported that their membership has grown from 200,000 to 600,000 members since the group started outsourcing to the Fund in the late 1990s. According to John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA: "[The Fund] helped us build our new financial base...It gave us a new base and it paid approximately 25 percent of our yearly income from monthly electronic donations, which is huge."

Canvassers at the Fund are expected to bounce from one campaign to another. In the words of HRC president Joe Solmonese, "The person who is out standing on the street corner trying to sign you up to join HRC... they honestly, like the next day, might be doing the same thing for [a different organization]." As a result of their short shelf lives and having to juggle multiple campaigns, most canvassers do not become particularly committed to the cause. (Turnover is notoriously high.)

Beyond raising money, it is unclear how effective canvassers can be at building grassroots support when they have such limited knowledge of and passion for the campaigns. One long-term canvasser I met in Portland spoke to me just before canvassing on behalf of Save the Children. When I asked him about the group, he replied: "Yeah I don't know too much...You probably know as much as I do."

This system has become so regimented and widespread that another long-term canvasser who worked out of the Fund's Atlanta office actually called it "a monopoly on political organizing" for the left. In fact, this type of outsourced politics maintains the grassroots base for approximately 25 percent of the largest left-leaning membership organizations in the United States. (This number is calculated based on the members of the progressive advocacy group coalition America Votes who outsource their canvassing.) In 2004 this type of political outsourcing expanded to electoral politics. During the presidential election, the Democratic National Committee hired a for-profit spin-off of the Fund to extend its political base. As a result, canvassers dressed in DNC T-shirts stood on sidewalks around the country raising funds for the Democratic Party. Josh Wachs, the executive director of the DNC during the 2004 election, reflected on the success of this outsourced canvassing for the Party: "We created hundreds of thousands of new grassroots donors, 90-some percent of which were new to the party...There were 700,000 new donors who were created through [it], which is really an incredible amount."

This type of outsourced politics is widespread in electoral campaigns on the left. According to Karen Hicks, who worked as the national field director for the Democratic Party in 2004 after running Howard Dean's presidential campaign for the state of New Hampshire: "The trend within the Democratic Party has really been to outsource contact with voters to paid vendors and direct mail firms... [as well as] hiring people just to contact voters because it's a shortcut. It's a more reliable way to do it."

Although she recognized the efficiency of outsourcing grassroots politics, Hicks also noted that canvassing does not foster long-term dedication and commitment or develop much local infrastructure: "At the end of the campaign, you're left with nothing, basically, because all those canvassers walk out the door. It's not a job that most people do time and time again." So the organizations get members and money out of canvassers, and most of the canvassers go back to their schools or jobs, or move on to an entirely different campaign when it's over. As a result, this type of outsourced politics leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized.

Indeed, progressive causes and progressive candidates have been losing out to conservative issues and candidates who use a very different model of organization. In contrast to the outsourced politics of the left, political groups on the right work through pre-existing civic associations formed by churches and other locally grounded networks to create lasting connections with its political base. Adopting more and more of the social conservative platform originally developed by the Christian Coalition, Republicans are able to tap into the extensive network of local groups that the Coalition developed since its creation in the late 1980s.

In the 2004 presidential election, the Bush-Cheney campaign instituted a strategy designed to exploit such local connections. The Republican Party's "72-hour Plan" was designed to get out the Republican vote by taking advantage of these ever-expanding networks of conservative Americans. Originally conceived to provide a blueprint for the final 72 hours of a campaign, its goal was to recruit Bush supporters -- both young and old -- through a complex network of local volunteers contacting Republican and Republican-leaning voters. The National Conservative Coalition’s director for the Bush campaign, Gary Marx, stated that the Plan mobilized economic and social conservatives through each individual's "sphere of influence." Volunteers who were recruited through their friends and neighbors were taught how to implement the 72-hour Plan in their communities through trainings and the campaign's sophisticated web site.

While the Republicans rallied local networks of conservatives to work on the Bush campaign, the Democrats relied on paid professionals and imported volunteers from blue states to canvass and work for them to turn out the vote on Election Day. Although the Democrats mobilized more people than ever before with the help of 527 political groups like America Coming Together, the outcome of the 2004 election speaks for itself: having non-local people go door-to-door with clipboards is not as effective as mobilizing locals already living in those neighborhoods to speak with their friends and neighbors. Laurie Moskowitz, a political consultant who directed the DNC's field effort for the Gore campaign in 2000 and worked on the grassroots mobilization of progressive Americans during the 2004 campaign through an independent firm, explains: "The Republicans built a system that was based on personal connections over time...[they] had the time and energy invested in it, and the resources ...[with the 72-hour Plan] you had your ten people...based on that personal connection. At the end of the day, we just were trying to make contacts."

In recent years, there has been some recognition of the dangers of outsourcing progressive politics. John Passacantando pointed out that canvassing used to be a major entry point for activists to get involved with his organization, but after outsourcing to the Fund, Greenpeace could no longer mobilize canvassers to participate in political actions. After comprehending the need to combine their fundraising with their activism in a more meaningful way, and noting the fact that the members who signed up through their outsourced canvass did not stay on very long, Greenpeace became one of the only national organizations to buck the outsourcing trend. As of December 2004, Greenpeace was no longer outsourcing its grassroots outreach. Instead, it is experimenting with running its own local campaigns.

Beyond this one environmental group, however, the trend continues. As a result of this political shortcut, the distance between progressive Americans and the national groups and political candidates that purport to represent them is growing. More importantly, progressive candidates and progressive issues keep losing to conservative counterparts that have invested the time and the money to develop real local ties to Americans.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

* In the book, Activism, Inc., from which this article is derived, the author refers to the organization as the "People's Project." Since the Fund for Public Interest Research has chosen to reveal its identity to David Glenn in his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the organization is named directly in this piece.

This article is available on The American Prospect website. © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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