Activism, Incorporated

Does door-to-door canvassing build, or does it in fact debilitate, progressive political power? Does paying the canvassers–instead of using volunteers–change the answer to that question?

Columbia University sociology professor Dana Fisher endeavors to answer these questions in her slim new book on the Fund for Public Interest Research, called Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America (Stanford University Press, 2006). The Fund for Public Interest Research is a national canvassing outfit that runs door-to-door campaigns for the Sierra Club, Human Rights Campaign, state Public Interest Research Groups, and others. The other two main questions she attempts to address are the big ones on so-very-many people’s minds lately (thank God):

1) why do we keep getting our asses kicked?, and

2) what has the Right done over the last few decades to become so powerful and effective?

These are very good questions. Activism, Inc., unfortunately, does a piss-poor job of answering them.

It is an analytically incoherent book–enthusiastic endorsements from countless disgruntled former canvassers, progressive political figures (Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader), and esteemed left commentators (Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman) notwithstanding. Despite the import and interest of the questions it seeks to answer, and despite the good points sprinkled throughout it about (among other things) our profound lack of progressive “grassroots infrastructure” (tightly organized groups of people connected to national political movements), Activism, Inc. turns out to be a shallow, muddled, unrewarding account of Fisher’s research into the Fund for Public Interest Research. (She calls the Fund “the People’s Project” in the book, by the way: one of the conditions the Fund placed on her research was that she not use their name. The Fund has acknowledged that they are “the People’s Project” since Activism, Inc. was published, however.)

Cutting the book’s many promoters some slack, I’m guessing they hadn’t actually read the whole thing when they provided their endorsements. The synopsis sounds so good–a critique of the outsourcing of door-to-door canvass operations, concluding that what the left needs is to rediscover real organizing, to make a long-term investment in building political power through nurturing a “densely connected and locally rooted” grassroots base–that, as you read through it, you keep thinking, “Okay, now it’s going to deliverhere comes the payoff … now she’ll make her real point”

Then about halfway through you realize it isn’t coming. You realize the author is pretty much clueless about what organizing is, never mind how to jump-start it in our society today.

The most concise and incisive appraisal of Activism, Inc. is provided, surprisingly, right on the back of the book: in an attempted endorsement, William Schambra of the Hudson Institute really nails it (presumably intending to say something quite different): Activism Inc. is an “imminently readable, insightful volume.”

Any minute now..

For all its weaknesses, Activism, Inc. provides a useful stimulus to debate and reflection on the questions it attempts (but fails) to answer. It has already generated a fair amount of discussion among progressive activists, the staff of progressive organizations, and canvassers–and as bad as the book is, the discussions have, it seems to me, been often useful and constructive. Despite its analytical incoherence, Activism, Inc. contains a number of important and accurate observations about 1) the profound weakness of the left’s “grassroots infrastructure,” and the strength of the right’s grassroots infrastructure, in the U.S. today, and 2) the harmful aspects of canvass operations like the very large one run by the Fund for Public Interest Research. Among the most useful (for anyone trying to figure out how to help push our country in a more liberal, progressive or left direction) of these observations:

“The transition of American [sic] civil society away from nationally federated and locally grounded civic groups to what has come to be known as ‘mail-in membership’ in tertiary associations” (p. 8) is a great big fat strategic problem for us.

Similarly: “Even though professional advocacy-oriented groups are growing in number, they ‘have lost much of their popular base, focusing instead on Washington-based, staff-led activities.'” (p. 9, quoting Margaret Weir and Marshall Ganz). Damn straight.

While many liberal and progressive organizations have made this shift away from direct interaction with (and actual organizing of) their base, the right has moved in the opposite direction, to great effect in recent elections: e.g., “The Bush campaign believed that the most effective way to mobilize sympathetic voters was to rally them to contact people they already knew. The campaign identified reliable voters (those who tended to vote in every election) and encouraged them to motivate their less reliable friends and neighbors who happened to have similar beliefs. Getting a phone call from your church friend Bob, or a visit from Betty the next-door neighbor, is more likely to mobilize a sympathetic vote than a college student who comes to town only to work on the campaign: Bob will be at the church picnic on Sunday, and Betty will be available to watch the kids the next time you need a babysitter.” (pp. 104-5) It’s hard to believe anyone could fail to understand this, of course, but Fisher is right that the Democrats and several prominent liberal organizations do appear to have not understood this for a number of years now.

The Fund provides its canvassers with insufficient training, and it does not sufficiently educate them on the political campaigns they will recruit members/donors to support.

The Fund’s practice of regularly moving canvass directors from one city or region to another means that canvass directors often have

1) little intimate knowledge of the political, social and cultural contexts of the communities where they are running door-to-door canvasses (this knowledge being, naturally, a critical component determining the success or failure of any grassroots effort);

2) no ability to tap into their own networks of friends, family and contacts to strengthen their work; and

3) little long-term accountability to the communities where they are working.

The Fund’s mode of operation discourages canvassers from engaging in conversation with all the people who are not likely to give money or become members of whatever organization they are canvassing for. Since the canvassers’ performance is judged primarily–and in many canvassers’ account, exclusively–on the amount of money they raise and the number of members they recruit, it does not make sense for them to “waste time” talking with people who are not clearly “sympathetic.”

She reports that in southern California the Fund has closed one office to prevent canvassers from establishing a union and made other attempts to dissuade canvassers from organizing. If these allegations are true, that fact alone warrants widespread, public and spirited condemnation of the Fund by progressives and leftists, of course.

It’s these kinds of observations that I assume Fisher’s endorsers and defenders have focused on, blocking out the rest of what she says (or rather fails to say). She makes some incisive–though far from original–points about the failure of liberal, progressive and left organizations to build a real base, and the right’s strength in that area. Also, if her characterization of the Fund for Public Interest Research’s canvass operation is accurate, then the Fund–along with any other organization running similar operations, naturally–represents a truly counterproductive force sucking energy out of the progressive movement it purports to strengthen. (And even if Fisher’s characterization departs a bit from the reality by exaggerating the negatives and failing to take account of some positives, it may still be true that the Fund’s net effect on progressive power is negative.)

But what she doesn’t say–yet seems to think she’s saying–is:

1) what her research means about door-to-door canvassing as a mode of operation or tactic, beyond the case of a single, specific organization she profiles; and

2) what we might do to correct the tremendous errors of strategic judgment evident in the divorced-from-the-grassroots progressive/liberal model of political “organizing” she (rightly) homes in on with her criticism.

I got the impression, reading Activism, Inc, that the author was actually 100% unacquainted with any model of political organizing outside of door-to-door canvassing–and I bet many other readers had the same impression. An account of the failings of one organization running door-to-door canvassing operations, however large, is–if uninformed by even any comparison with the other national organizations doing door-to-door canvassing, never mind reference to any model of real political organizing–not exactly illuminating.

Just a few pages into Activism, Inc., you begin to realize that when she refers–usually with a capital “L”–to “the Left,” she is not talking about anything remotely leftist. Instead, for Fisher “the Left” essentially means “the Democratic Party and organizations aligned with it.” Just as the range of political organizing models she perceives seems to be limited to two–the benighted outsourced-canvassing model of “the Left” she knows and the impressively high-touch, locally-rooted model of the Republican Party–her grasp of the range of political positions in opposition to the right appears to be limited (like that of so freakishly many otherwise intelligent hyper-educated middle-class people) to roughly the interval on the political spectrum between Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Another basic problem of Fisher’s analysis: she makes dozens of pleas in the book for there to be more paying jobs for idealistic, educated, smart young progressives wanting to get into politics. I hear this complaint and plea all the bleedin’ time: “they (progressive organizations) don’t pay enough to keep talented young people, and it’s too hard to find jobs.” Plenty of smart, well-intentioned people offer this as a key piece of their explanation for why the right has been kicking our asses lately.

It’s true, of course, that the right invests in young people it sees as potential future leaders, providing them with financial security so they can develop their skills as “public intellectuals” of the right. And it’s true that this is an important and successful component of the right’s strategy. But does that mean it’s the strategy we should take on for ourselves? The biggest problem for us today is the lack of real organizing on the left (along with the lack of a unifying political vision, as explored later in this essay), not the lack of well-paying activist jobs for recent graduates from the nation’s most prestigious universities (the group most of Activism Inc.’s interviewees represent). People throughout our society, including the most impoverished and marginalized and also including students in many of our top universities, are simply not being engaged in meaningful organizing often enough as volunteers and members and participants: that’s the core problem. If it were corrected, then we could use our collective resources to offer more jobs to more organizers and activists (hopefully with most of them “coming up” through organizing, rather than checking off the “nonprofit activist” career-path box upon graduation from college). The creation of more jobs for “professional activists” divorced from real organizing, real bases of people, is–I would contend–more an exacerbation of the fundamental problems we’re facing than a solution to them.

(A related fallacy and blindness in Activism, Inc. is the suggestion that door-to-door canvassing is the only point of paid entry into progressive activism for students at or graduates of top-flight universities. I think the SEIU, for one, would very much beg to differ. And while we’re mentioning Fisher’s apparent ignorance about the primary form of organizing of the last 100+ years (trade unions).at one point she contrasts the challenges of organizing for issue organizations like the ones that hire the Fund with the ease and security of the “built-in constituency” AFSCME can rely on. Excuse me?

I don’t look at all these questions of organizing models, political positioning, ‘professional activism,’ and unions with much intellectual distance, I should say. Models of organizing are things I come into practical contact with on a daily basis, trying to assess their various virtues and failings as best I can, to have as much of a real effect on propelling our country and world toward dignity and respect for everybody as I can. My opinions are shaped–and perhaps clouded–primarily by the different kinds of activism and organizing I have been involved in or witnessed up-close. More to the point in addressing the extremely limited scope of Activism, Inc–despite its hilarious pretensions (“At the heart of this book is the question: what is the role of citizens in democracy in America?” (p. 107))–I canvassed during the summer after my freshman year of college, for an organization that was either one of the Fund’s clients or a near relative of the type of canvassing operation Fisher describes. Like most of the young people Fisher describes, I was a middle-class white kid attending a prestigious university, seeking a first experience in political activism. Like them, by the end of my summer canvassing I was pretty cynical about the motivations of the organization I worked for; and I found the daily work of “meeting quota” (raising enough money to keep the canvass directors happy with me) both challenging and emotionally draining.

But having experienced frustrations very similar to those Fisher documents among the Fund’s canvassers does not make me any more forgiving about the deficiencies of Fisher’s argument. Canvassing is hard, she claims. Turnover is extremely high. Burnout is a recurrent problem. Some people are naturally good at canvassing, and many people are not at all good at it. Some people enjoy canvassing, while many dislike it a great deal. Engagement in in-depth exploration of an issue with supporters, or constructive debate with skeptics, is often limited by the exigencies of delivering a good ‘rap’ to as many people as possible in a limited period of time. Fisher repeats these points as though they were “findings” of her research, and as though they logically lead to condemnation of paid door-to-door canvassing as a tactic. But they are truisms. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone involved in canvassing who would disagree with these assertions. (Many canvassers take the difficulty and high turnover as points of pride, in fact.) “Exposing” these facts through the recitation of anecdotes from canvassers, as Fisher attempts to do, is a meaningless intellectual activity: the assertions being made are not in question. They don’t add up to anything, don’t make any point about what works and what doesn’t, or why. The meaningful questions related to her research–at the level of door-to-door canvassing, rather than the broader level of what the hell should we be doing to reverse the right’s ascendancy and make things better?–would be:

1) knowing these very real limitations and challenges, does door-to-door canvassing still make a positive contribution to progressive power?;

2) if yes, under what conditions does canvassing make a positive contribution and under what conditions is its effect negative?; and

3) specifically, does the outsourcing of canvass operations (by activist organizations, to ‘canvassing professionals’) kill their positive effects? Somewhat amazingly, Activism, Inc. makes no real contributions–even small ones–to answering these questions.

Rather than arguing a position on such questions, Fisher makes clear what she thinks of canvassing (right on the cover, in the book’s subtitle) and then proceeds to simply quote from and describe her impressions of people she talked with who are critical of canvassing, as though these anecdotes “speak for themselves” in confirmation of her (completely evident, but never actually argued and defended) position.

(An aside: I sincerely hope this is not indicative of what passes for scholarship in the social sciences these days. I haven’t spent much time in a university setting in the last few years, so I don’t this lack of argumentation often considered acceptable when the research methods are dubbed “qualitative” and “participatory”? There’s a lot that folks in the social sciences can do to help us organizers and activists be more effective in our efforts, I believe–a sociologist friend once likened social movements and community organizations to fighter jets, and the role of a social scientist to that of a jet technician: “someone you can call in to check the gears, do a tune-up, diagnose and maybe fix whatever problems they find, talk it over with you from a different perspective than you’re used to, and improve the jet’s overall performance.” We have a real need for such help from people with the time, resources, intellectual training, and research tools to study different social-change efforts and draw lessons on what works and what doesn’t, when, and why.)

So: enough bashing and dissecting. What lessons can we draw about what works and what doesn’t, when and why?

First of all, we have to establish that the comparison between door-to-door canvassing as a tactic and the cultivation and development of a base of organized people as a strategy is meaningless: these two exist on different levels of political activity, and therefore different levels of analysis. Without an organizing strategy, the very best tactic executed to perfection is likely to be ineffective in altering the political balance of power. Canvassing divorced from any actual strategy for organizing people is not likely to produce anything significant. Yet these assertions do not add up to the conclusion “canvassing is useless” or “canvassing is counterproductive.” Far from it. They simply acknowledge that organizing is what matters, having a political strategy you’re trying to execute is what matters; and that door-to-door canvassing’s role within that strategy must be determined based on an assessment of its utility in a particular context in the execution of your strategy. The real question, in other words, is not whether canvassing is remotely comparable, in terms of its results and its objectives, to developing an organized base: it is not, for the first is simply a tactic among other tactics, while the second is a bedrock principle of any winning political strategy. The real question about door-to-door canvassing, put broadly, is whether it is itself good or bad, useful or not. And personally, I don’t have a confident answer to that question–though I have a strong hunch the answer comes in the form, “Canvass operations are useful under x and y conditions, and not useful under a and b conditions.” In other words, I don’t think there’s a simple “yes” or “no” answer on the question of the utility of paid door-to-door canvassing operations. They are neither generally deplorable nor a definite blessing. They are useful under some conditions and not under others. It all depends on how they are run, and as part of what sort of strategy. Outsourcing may be one of the conditions that defines whether a canvass is useful or not–I don’t know, and Fisher’s book doesn’t help us toward knowing. Since 1) the complicated questions of when and why canvassing operations are useful–and when and why they are not useful–remain largely unanswered, and since 2) canvass operations are generally very limited in their focus and goals and scope, compared to other, more comprehensive and ongoing forms of engagement between social-movement organizations and people, there’s every reason to think that academic researchers can really help us to better understand what works and what doesn’t, to understand within what strategies and under what conditions it makes sense to use a paid door-to-door canvass.

But there are bigger questions at play here as well, not about the tactics of canvassing but about organizing strategy. Fisher touches on these broader matters when commenting on some of the right’s political successes–among the more lucid moments of the book. Attention to the right’s successes has been growing by leaps and bounds among leftists, progressives and liberals over the last couple years, which can only be a good thing. Fisher uses a nice phrase to characterize a basic difference between the approaches of the left and right in their approaches to their base: “laying sod versus cultivating the grass.” Countless liberal organizations and Democratic electoral campaigns attempt to simulate grassroots organizing–or more precisely: to convince not only their funders and the media but also, primarily, themselves that what they are doing is grassroots organizing–rather than invest any time and energy (not to mention intelligent understanding of human beings’ motivations and complexity) in it. This simulation/delusion is performed various ways:

a) by running a canvass operation as their one and only form of interaction with non-political-professionals (and calling that “grassroots organizing”)–as in the case of some of the Fund’s work;

b) by showing up once every two or four years, just before elections, in communities where they have maintained no connections or base since the last time they came in talking about “social change” and “building power”; or

c) by serving as “the voice of the people in Washington” on some narrowly-defined policy issue that is their organization’s particular and carefully-defined “mission”–with no connection other than funding (and sometimes not even that) to normal people outside the Beltway–and working like dogs to recruit a couple Republican supporters for their position (and demonstrate always, to everyone including themselves, their “non-partisan” credentials), and being rewarded for their tireless efforts with the occasional policy-change “victory” so miniscule that someone looking at the issue from a distance simply could not perceive it.

Whether the canvassers are paid, whether they are outsourced, whether they “really know their stuff” or are no more knowledgeable than most people about the specific issue they’re canvassing on, what matters, in the end, is the ability to return to a “door you’ve knocked”–to a human being, family or group of people–and engage them in something lasting, substantial, reciprocal and educational. And the ability to involve them in something organized and empowering–that is to say, an effort that challenges power (usually financial and political and ideological) with power (usually human and moral). This is an area where all the Saul Alinsky-based groups have a great deal to teach us, and an especially great deal to teach the ineffectual, conciliatory, fearful liberals: in summary form, if you are not threatening and challenging some power you consciously oppose, there is an extraordinarily good chance you are not achieving anything worthwhile in terms of improving people’s lives. This is a very unfortunate truth, no doubt, but its recognition roughly marks the transition from the illusions of a healthy childhood to the clear-seeing emotional maturity of a healthy adulthood. (In empires–unfortunately for us–consumers’ varied forms of consumption are designed and orchestrated in ever more sophisticated and encompassing ways to extend and maintain the psychological conditions of childhood and adolescence. This is the great surprise about meeting real-life “Americans” for most people in the Third World who have not had that opportunity before: we are so childish and so deeply ignorant. This is very hard to square, at first, with what they know of the U.S. empire’s power, cunning and brutality.)

But the Alinsky form of opposing power is not sufficient, of course. That model takes a basic insight–one almost entirely absent from our national discourse these days–about the need to fight if you hope to win, and the need to oppose power with power, and does almost as little as possible with it: it defines powers narrowly, challenges them with a deeply formulaic strategy, and wins predictably narrow victories. These victories are actual victories, which should be a slap-across-the-face wake-up to the countless liberal and progressive organizations and “movements” out there that never give the (few) people they involve in their campaigns an opportunity to experience the empowerment of actually winning something. But the victories of Alinsky groups are generally narrow and local; rarely if ever do they contribute to the creation of a new political circumstance in which similar groups of citizens will not have to form and fight and win in other places to achieve the same basic gain. They do not catalyze political change, really–just the resolution of a particular community’s “unique” problems.

This is where ideology comes in. (Or “ideas” or “principles” or “objectives,” if the word “ideology” sounds sour or antique to you.) I described above the importance of organizing people to “challenge power (usually financial and political and ideological) with power (usually human and moral).” This description of most existing attempts in our society to really organize and fight–whether by Alinsky groups or unions or workers’ centers or Latino/a immigrants’ organizations or the many bad-ass local groups around the county that don’t fall into any easily-defined category of political activity–underscores a critical point. While the right holds most of the financial and political power, and we on the left hold most of the human and moral power (if only more people would fight with that power like these sorts of groups do, rather than being blown around by the stupid liberal winds of poll-data and what the media pundits are saying “the center” wants to hear), the biggest battle is the one we (liberals, progressives, and even in the end those of us on the left) are not even fighting today: the battle over ideology. For the most part, the various groups really challenging power with power through organizing (the types of groups listed above) are not, at this sad historical moment, doing so with a consistent, coherent, inspiring ideology and vision. And the right has been pounding away for years on an extremely consistent, coherent, and appealing (if not inspiring) ideology in just about everything they do, to the point that today not just centrist Democrats but plenty of self-described progressives subscribe to the core principles of the wacked-out neoliberal economic vision that is the centerpiece of the contemporary rightwing program. Until we fight them on that terrain as well–until all our battles are infused with the language and clear-eyed vision of the different society we’re trying to bring into being (the “daughter of socialism” is my shorthand, borrowed from a friend, for this vision)–we’re going to keep getting our asses kicked like we have been these last many years. Little shifts in the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats will prove almost irrelevant to the achievement of our long-term goals of dignity, justice and peace..just watch.

In the end, real organizing and ideology are deeply linked. When the left has either one of these without the other–as with the Alinsky-based models (real organizing without ideology) and countless 20th-century manifestations of intellectual socialism (ideology without real organizing)–the right has the opportunity, if it has both (as it does in the U.S. today, in spades), to beat the living shit out of us. The advances they have made in recent years, and what these mean in concrete terms for the lives of millions of people here and billions around the world, are simply breathtaking and rather spirit-killing to behold. At this moment when even politically clueless, intellectually befuddled “pragmatist” liberal Democrats like Dana Fisher–stuck on a narrowly defined and poorly conceived exploration of one organization’s door-to-door canvassing operation–are still making intelligent analytical comments about the impressiveness of the right’s recent achievements in grassroots organizing, we simply cannot miss the chance to build understanding of and commitment to the deep inter-dependence–the mutual necessity–of real organizing and ideology.

(If “ideology” still sounds a bit grating, or if this is all sounding a bit obtuse, please give “worldview” a try–check out the excellent and very un-obtuse materials on “worldview” on the web site of the Grassroots Policy Project:

The political problems we’re facing are–obviously, I think, for most people–not going to be resolved by the choice of the “correct” tactic in the short-term or for the next election. They are problems that were long in the making, and that are going to take us a while to reverse. There is useful academic work to be done assessing the relative virtues and faults of various tactics for mobilizing people and sustaining membership organizations–Activism, Inc. tries, but fails rather desperately, to be part of that useful literature. But far beyond those sorts of narrow questions, the mere existence of and interest in a book like Activism, Inc. calls attention to the desperate desire, at this political/historical moment in our society, among not only leftists but many progressives and Democratic liberals, for real engagement with the central (and deeply inter-related) questions of political strategy: how to organize, and around/with/toward what ideology. Let’s not squander this moment.

JIM B. is an educator and agitator. He thinks everyone on the left should have kids–not just because we can’t let the bastards on the right outbreed us, but because there’s no remotely comparable way to maintain your sense of joy and purpose while throwing yourself daily into the struggle. There’s nothing more deeply satisfying than being a parent — and also no better reason to fight the capitalist radicals with every bone and breath.





Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!