Have you ever been approached on the street or in your home by a couple of young kids soliciting contributions and signatures on petitions for some liberal group (for example, contribute to the Sierra Club and sign a petition against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve)? There’s a pretty decent chance those kids were working for something called the Fund for Public Interest Research, which hires students to do canvassing for a number of liberal organizations, like the Sierra Club and the state level “Public Interest Research Groups” originally organized by Ralph Nader in the 1970′s. (The Fund for Public Interest Research and similar organizations are “non-profits.”)
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating report by David Glenn on a new and controversial book that criticizes the effectiveness of such canvassing, whether used for liberal interest groups, or for Democratic political candidates. The book is called, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. The author, Dana R. Fisher, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, is being attacked for her criticisms. And lawyers for the Fund for Public Interest Research have sent letters to Fisher’s department chairman and to members of Stanford University Press’s advisory board charging her with deceiving them, and with taking insufficient steps to protect the group’s anonymity.
Fisher argues that professionalized mass canvassing doesn’t work, and is even counterproductive. Conservative groups and Republicans tend to use networks of local residents and churchgoers, who are much more effective than college kids shipped in from out of state. This, for example, may help explain why the Democrats lost Ohio, and with it the presidency in 2004. At any rate, I think The Fund for Public Interest Research is making a mistake by so aggressively going after the author, and Stanford University Press. (Stanford Press feared a law suit, but FPIR now says it is not planning to sue.) Ralph Nader himself, founder of the original Public Interest Research Groups, apparently feels that the organization ought to take the book as constructive criticism. At any rate, this conflict touches on an important general difference (with many exceptions, of course) between the structure of social life in Red and Blue America: the difference between life centered around local communities and a more urban individualized style.