Why have conservatives been winning so many political campaigns and policy battles in the past quarter century? Why have so many low- and moderate-income Americans, whose living standards have flatlined, dropped out of the political process? And what will it take to build a winning progressive movement and breathe new life into American democracy?
These questions deserve to be debated in the progressive community, and one prolific writer engaging with them is sociologist Dana Fisher, author of a recent book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, and many articles, including “The Activism Industry,” which appeared in The American Prospect Online. (This piece is the source of the contentions that I'm quoting and responding to here.) Fisher asks many of the right questions about the conservative ascendancy and the progressive eclipse. Unfortunately, she concentrates her criticism on one progressive tool -- canvassing programs which attempt to recruit members and raise funds by going door to door. Repeatedly using the word "outsourcing," she compares canvassing to "corporations that hire workers in India to run their call centers" and claims that it "increases the distance between members and the progressive national groups that claim to represent them" and "leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized."
Like most single-cause explanations of complex problems, Fisher's thesis is faulty. By offering a blanket condemnation of canvassing based on limited evidence, Fisher ignores the diverse range of issues on which canvassing has been used -- and the extent to which it has been proven successful. Indeed, canvassing is one of the all-too-few progressive success stories of the past three decades, and by making it the scapegoat for progressive decline, Fisher risks short-circuiting the thoroughgoing review of progressive strategies and tactics that we so urgently need.
Fisher studied only one national canvassing operation -- the Fund for Public Interest Research -- and bases her conclusions on what she believes she found there. But while the Fund does account for about a third of all progressive canvassing programs, there are other such networks, including Progressive Action Network, Citizens Campaigns Network (created by Clean Water Action), and the Hudson Bay Company, as well as canvassing efforts tied to individual organizations. Such operations generally do not conform to Fisher's grim conclusions, and instead play a positive role in progressive politics. Progressive canvassing helps organizations build membership, raise money, and develop leaders and activists -- especially among the canvassers but also among the people they canvass. That is how we have built and grown many statewide and national organizations, such as Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Hundreds of leaders of citizens groups, staffers for other progressive organizations such as labor unions, and even elected officials got their start through canvassing.
In fact, far from representing an unhealthy "professionalization" of citizen activism, canvassing is a profoundly small-d democratic way to organize. It involves people talking to one another about public issues and asking them to take action. Unlike direct mail or robo-calls, canvassing involves human interaction. Unlike Internet organizing, canvassing involves face-to-face personal contact.
Moreover, canvassing gives people the sense that they matter. It alerts them to the issues that their elected officials are engaging and encourages them to hold those officials accountable by letting them know the public is watching and concerned. How much more democratic can you get? In the era of “Bowling Alone,” canvassing is part of the solution to, not part of the problem of, declining civic engagement.
Nor does progressive canvassing bear any resemblance to corporate outsourcing -- unless one sees no difference between activists ringing doorbells in Illinois and companies sending American jobs to call centers in India. Most canvassers live in the communities in which they work, and they are genuinely committed to progressive causes: They are not hired hands who canvass for lower energy prices today and higher energy prices tomorrow. In fact, canvassing goals and priorities are usually set by local or state organizations. Canvassing efforts, and the resources that they generate, are not something that a large donor can give or take away.
And canvassing does not, as Fisher contends, discourage the people who participate in it from remaining active in progressive causes. Yes, many canvassers conclude that this kind of work isn't for them, just as many people leave other demanding jobs, including teaching, nursing, and social work. But a good portion of canvassers find that they want to dedicate their lives to progressive activism. It's worth noting that, while Fisher writes that almost all the canvassers she studied are very young, more than one-quarter of the people at a recent conference of progressive canvassers were over 45.
More importantly, canvassing encourages participation in civic life. According to Fisher's own interviews (described on page 57 and 58 of her book), most canvassers say that the experience gave them a chance to participate in the political process on a regular basis, not just during elections, and that they intended to stay in politics after spending a summer going door to door. As Fisher puts it in the book, "Most of them followed through: within the year, 95 percent had written or telephoned an editor or a public official, or had signed a petition about issues that concerned them; 79 percent had attended a public meeting; 77 percent had voted in a national or state election; and 72 percent had participated in a protest or boycott."
So does progressive canvassing hinder progressive politics? Quite the contrary.
Canvassing operations root progressive organizations in Main Street America. For progressive politics to “play in Peoria,” we have to actually talk to people in Peoria. That's what canvassing does. Through such efforts, we hear what people are saying on their doorsteps, we respond to it, and, in the process, we improve our arguments.
Canvassing forces our organizations to talk to people who don't agree with them, find ways to tie people together in a broader national community, and frame issues to have the broadest possible appeal. All that is good for our organizations, good for progressive politics, and good for American democracy.
Because of these strengths, canvassing helps progressives win legislative and electoral victories. Thanks, in large measure, to canvassing campaigns, environmental activists helped win a federal Superfund to clean up toxic wastes, a better Clean Water Act, and protections for nearly 60 million acres of national forests. Canvassing also helped defeat the partial privatization of Social Security. In California, canvassing helped pass a law and, later, a ballot initiative requiring that the state generate a portion of its power from renewable sources. There have been many similar victories on the local, state, and national levels, from the 1980s to the present day.
Canvassing is just as effective in electoral politics. In a survey conducted after the 1998 elections, the public opinion analyst Celinda Lake found that the members of Citizen Action of Wisconsin -- many of whom joined after meeting canvassers -- voted as consistently Democratic as union members. In a more recent survey, the political scientist Donald Green found that people who have been canvassed are 20 percent more likely to vote than those who have not been canvassed. It is also one of the few ways to obtain small, individual donations on a scale that can have real electoral impact under current campaign finance laws.
So is every canvass perfect? Of course not. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. Certainly, some other ways of connecting with people -- in churches or union halls -- are more effective for building in-depth relationships. But these methods may not reach as many people. As with all our tactics, we need to take a hard look at canvassing, fix what is wrong with it, and build on what is best about it. We should make even more of an attempt to connect canvassers' efforts with other effective and empowering methods for building a progressive movement and a better America.
Heather Booth has been an organizer for social justice since the civil rights and early women's movement, working on issues and politics. She was the founder of Midwest Academy training center and Citizen Action, and is a Vice President of USAction.
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