Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Activism, Inc.


The Chronicle of Higher Education, in its September 15 issue, reviews Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, a volume by Dana Fisher, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University.

Fisher’s thought? Hordes of canvassers for left-wing causes, composed of large numbers of college students, may be less effective than imagined. Or, as The Chronicle comments “[the author] has reluctantly concluded that professionalized canvassing operations… are poisonous to liberal social movements and unhealthy for American democracy as a whole.”

A considerable element of recent Democratic campaigning has been the use of professional campaign services, hired for canvassing purposes. Grassroots Campaigns, one of the organizations profiled, cites offices in “over 40 cities” and a list of clients ranging from the DNC and MoveOn.Org to People for the American Way and Amnesty International. Door-to-door operations of Grassroots’s ilk have attracted significant interest from a variety of such concerns, who find them a convenient progressive source of urban warriors, most of them collegiate.

The trouble, Fisher suggests, is that this top-down jack-of-all-liberal trades canvassing frustrates opportunities to create genuinely grounded political structures, substituting ad hoc mercenaries recruited for the summer from their collegiate retreats, and working, at least in election years, in locations distant from their homes. This is, of course, worse than the putative conservative model:

Ms. Fisher argues that Republicans and conservative social movements have been more effective at winning elections and setting policy than the left because they are better grounded in churches and neighborhoods, whereas many Democratic activists in closely fought states like Ohio had parachuted in from New York and other liberal states.

That Ohioans might not relish the thought of Northeastern collegians parroting “I’m from the DNC and I’m here to help” on their doorsteps is not surprising. Something that is revelatory is the suggestion that these organizations serve to burn out potential activists. The review comments that many employees were satisfied, but that this feeling was far from general:

Others… shared feelings of deep frustration. Some said that their wages seemed too low and that they hadn’t been adequately warned about the complexities of the Fund [another canvassing organization]‘s quota system. Others said that their canvassing pitches — and the organization as a whole — felt too scripted. Some complained about the petty anxieties of the job, including having doors slammed in their faces 10 times a day. (In January, LA Weekly reported allegations that the Fund had quashed union organizing among its canvassers by shuttering two of its Los Angeles campaign offices.)Ms. Fisher fears that many of the thousands of young activists who take canvassing jobs every year find the experience so disheartening that they give up on liberal politics altogether.

These jobs are amply advertised at college and assorted summer job sites. On Craigslist New York, for one “HELP DEFEAT REPUBLICANS: $1300-$2100/month” has been a near-daily job posting for months. Ms. Fisher suggests that it’s an avocation whose appeal might prove mercifully brief.

Grassroots, Inc. quotes Paul Wellstone on its main page. It provides a reminder of the undeniably corporate turn that left-wing collegiate grassroots campaigning has taken from that Senator’s earthy early days. It’s a long path from the Wellstone bus to today’s youth rent-a-mobs. Stop by your local office–buy one today.


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