[corp-focus] Activism Inc.
Thu, 20 Jul 2006 12:47:01 -0400
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Young people, listen up.
For those of you seeking to curb corporate crime and violence --
For those of you seeking to counter the right-wing, corporate drift of
the country --
For those of you seeking to push back against the Chamber of Commerce,
the Fortune 500, and the corporate control over the two major political
Three words of advice:
Read this book.
Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling
Progressive Politics in America, by Dana Fisher. (Stanford University
Press, August 2006).
Fisher is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University in
Some people are going to be very angry with this book.
These people would be the institutionalized, bureaucratic,
But for the rest of us, this book is a joy.
It's due out in a couple of weeks.
Fisher's study finds that most of the national environmental, student
and progressive groups have shut down their internal grassroots
operations and outsourced door-to-door fundraising to a handful of large
national canvass operations.
Fisher says these national canvassing operations are the point of entry
for hundreds of young, idealistic and politically aware people.
But instead of funneling these people into a lifetime of progressive
politics, more often than not the national canvass operations, run as
secretive corporate top-down bureaucracies, burn their idealism and spit
them out onto the trash heap of politics.
Fisher was given access to one of the major groups -- she calls it the
She explains in a footnote that "due to my data gathering agreement with
this organization, its identity will remain anonymous. Throughout the
book, it will be referred to as 'the People's Project' or 'the Project.'"
The People's Project clients include major environmental, public
interest and human rights groups.
The Project runs between 55 and 75 campaign offices around the country
and hires more than 275 primarily young canvassers a year -- mostly in
the summer months.
And Fisher is not happy with its organizing model.
"How can the People's Project run effective grassroots campaigns that
are coordinated by rootless workaholics?" she asks. "Instead of
connecting canvass offices to pre-existing local progressive
institutions through its canvass directors, the People's Project chooses
to move them around regularly."
"When I asked the canvass directors if they participated in any local
political or civic work outside of their jobs, most laughed at me,
pointing out that they rarely had time to sleep or do their laundry, let
alone volunteer or attend community meetings," she writes.
Fisher concedes that these large national canvassing operations didn't
create the problem.
The problem was with their clients -- the large public interest
organizations that have little real contact with their membership base
to begin with.
Or as one former adviser to the John Kerry for President campaign told
Fisher: "None of these organizations can actually produce two bodies
usually when they need to."
"Given their failure to elicit action from their members, it is unclear
how much actual political clout should be assigned to these national
groups based on their members numbers," Fisher writes. "Threats by these
national groups' lobbyists that their members will strike, protest or
even vote according to their position on an issue could be called into
question. … By outsourcing these outreach tactics, the distance between
progressive Americans and politics today has grown significantly. In
other words, most members recruited through canvassing do not develop
personal ties to the organizations they join. True membership, in
contrast, involves participation that extends beyond making a monetary
contribution, including meaningful engagement at the local, regional
and/or national level."
And by outsourcing the canvass operations, the public interest groups
also undermined their own recruiting efforts.
Case in point: Greenpeace USA.
At one point, Greenpeace ran its own canvass.
But then it outsourced it to a national canvass operation.
Greenpeace USA's executive director, John Passacantando, has
subsequently brought the canvass back inside Greenpeace.
"The Greenpeace canvass served as a feeder track for hungry, smart
people who would one day run Greenpeace campaigns and even run
Greenpeace. We lost something huge when we shut down our canvass,"
Passacantando told Fisher a couple of years ago. "It is not a secret. So
many of the heavyweights throughout the Greenpeace world have started in
our canvass. It served an amazing purpose. And we are now tasked with
finding other ways to bring people in."
Fisher has some unkind words for Democratic operatives who outsourced
the 2004 grassroots presidential campaign that parachuted hundreds of
out-of-state canvassers into Midwestern states -- and alienated local
She compares that failed strategy with the winning Republican Party
72-hour plan that tapped into already existing local civic and political
Fisher also discounts the "man" and "messages" explanations for why
progressives have been routinely routed by right-wing Republicans in
Waiting for the charismatic candidate to come around means waiting a
And even if the leader arrives, "rebuilding civil society requires
people talking and listening to each other, not blindly following a
hero" -- as former Senator Bill Bradley put it.
Then there is the weak message theory -- this is the George Lakoff,
Geoffrey Nunberg school.
Or as Nunberg puts it in the title of his new book: Talking Right: How
Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking,
Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times Reading, Body-Piercing,
Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.
But Fisher says its not as much the man, or the message, as it is the
members -- the grassroots.
And we've corporatized them.
And processed them.
And disdained them.
Now, she wants to reclaim them.
"As civic and political organizations have become increasingly
professionalized, the ways that they engage their members have become
less personal," Fisher writes. "Most national progressive groups do not
require any actual participation from their members beyond writing checks."
She quotes citizen activist Harry Boyte: "politics has largely become a
spectator sport run by professionals with disdain for ordinary people."
Time to bypass the beltway.
Go straight to the grassroots.
Read this book.
And then let's start anew.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter, <http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com>. Robert Weissman is
editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor,
<http://www.multinationalmonitor.org> and director of Essential Action
<http://www.essentialaction.org>, which helped organize the tobacco
awards ceremony. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage:
Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
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