Treating voters as instruments

A brilliantly trenchant critique of the Democrats’ penchant for outsourcing canvassing to professionals-for-hire sheds light on why Kerry was blown away by Bush in 2004.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books

‘How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?’

So roared the British tabloid the Daily Mirror after George W Bush was re-elected president of the United States in November 2004. On the same day, the British liberal broadsheet the Guardian bellowed ‘Oh God!’ in response to Bush’s re-election, while on both sides of the Atlantic the slogan ‘stupid people vote for stupid presidents’ became the sulking rallying cry for embittered liberals and radicals (1).

It’s true that even by the standards of Republican presidents, Bush’s glaring inadequacies in leadership and policymaking have been a nadir of recent American politics. Far from signifying a return to purposeful conservative leadership, Bush has often dithered and dallied, fruitlessly searching for some kind of ‘vision thing’ and executing catastrophic stunts in both the ‘war on terror’ and the war in Iraq.

And yet, in some ways, it was a good thing that the anti-Bush coalition was defeated in the 2004 presidential election. Despite what the likes of Michael Moore and the British liberal-left might have argued, Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry was no anti-militarist. He would have sent the US military on adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, if Kerry had won then it is likely that the American cultural elite’s illiberal agenda on personal behaviour, as well as their hostility towards democratic participation, would have become even more firmly entrenched. On such issues, the anti-Bush coalition could be more reactionary and conservative than Bush’s cheerleaders.

The defeat of the Democrats has proved productive in another way, too: it has led to the publication of an astute reappraisal of what passes for grassroots activism, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. In Activism, Inc: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, Dana R Fisher, has written an inspiring and insightful study of the crisis of left-leaning civic life in modern America. Although narrow in scope, the book is surprisingly big and bold in its political range. Fisher first became suspicious of the ‘outsourcing’ tactics used by campaign groups when she was as an undergraduate activist. Outsourcing is when environmentalists or human rights groups pay other organisations to recruit members and raise funds on their behalf. At first, Fisher noted how this process burnt out and demoralised idealist young people; she later discovered that it also withered democratic participation itself.

As part of her study of campaigning outsourcing, Fisher’s analysis of the 2004 presidential election is a very intelligent challenge to the lazy and self-serving post-mortems piloted by liberal commentators elsewhere. In fact, her diligent, non-judgemental primary research overturns every half-baked and ill-informed prejudice that has been spouted about ‘middle America’ on both sides of the pond. In recent years, the ‘dumb American’ has become so firmly entrenched in the popular imagination, East and West, that many overlook how learned, intelligent and self-analytical the top end of American culture can be (2).

Fisher’s Activism, Inc is brimming with these qualities. It is crisply written, immensely absorbing and devoid of the shrill carping and cynicism that passes for analysis by some British writers. Indeed, it is in many ways a model of primary sociological research, and Fisher’s nuanced findings are all the more powerful and urgent because of that. As this essay will show, Activism, Inc is a timely and important contribution to the question, what has happened to Western democracy?

The canvassing out of politics

After Fisher graduated in 1993, she aimed to be a lobbyist for a ‘national progressive group’. This meant earning her stripes via door-to-door fundraising efforts. Eventually she found a small group where she learned how to lobby. But some of her peers were not so lucky. One of them became ‘frustrated with the fact that success was measured by dollars brought in and not by people convinced’. Fisher says she was so ‘haunted by my experience trying to make a difference in progressive politics’ that she decided to research ‘how the experience of canvassing affects young people’.

This led Fisher to study America’s largest canvassing organisation, the People’s Project. And she found that while young people became involved in different sorts of groups – environmental, consumer, human rights and child-assistance groups – in reality they were all organising for this same organisation. According to Fisher, the People’s Project started running canvasses in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, it was coordinating campaigns for an array of national and state-level progressive groups. Today, as one of the largest canvassing organisations in America, the People’s Project runs between 55 and 75 campaign offices across the US. When Fisher began her research in the summer of 2003, she found that PP ran canvasses that addressed poverty, legal rights for same-sex partners, and various environmental goals. When the Democratic Party started outsourcing its canvassing, it hired a for-profit spin-off company of the People’s Project.

For Fisher, the outcome of this shift – where more and more political work on the ground is conducted by paid third parties – is that ‘the distance between the members and the progressive national groups that claim to represent them has become greater than ever before’. Most of these organisations claim that ‘financial problems’ force them to outsource campaigning work, but in reality it’s a consequence of the way that politics ‘has largely become a spectator sport run by professionals with disdain for ordinary people’, says Fisher. She emphasises time and again how American activism has become defined by ‘management’ of volunteers and voters rather than by democratic participation in collectively run organisations.

The immediate and most recognisably negative effect is the demoralisation of young idealist activists. Many are graduates from some of America’s best universities and they’re hungry to be employed as lobbyists or political campaigners and to ‘make a difference’. Yet their experience at the hands of the People’s Project tends to extinguish all of their fiery, youthful idealism. Many complain of long and arduous hours fundraising. But the real problem is not endlessly knocking on doors. It is how outsourced canvassing reduces political campaigns to the equivalent of flogging insurance. All campaigning and fundraising requires some degree of a strategy, but activists found that in the People’s Project it was only about hitting quotas and targets rather than engaging people in a political conversation.

Fisher found there was a scripted standardisation in this kind of campaign work, which drained it of any proper meaning. One young activist said: ‘It becomes very automatic and I think you lose…or you’re not conveying as much of your sincerity as you should.’ So conveyor belt-like is the People’s Project approach to campaigning that activists are pin-balled from one campaign to the next without any discussion of the political content of what they’re doing. As an activist put it: ‘One of the problems on the canvass…was a lack of political education. Many canvassers couldn’t dialogue about the issues at all.’ (8) Those running the People’s Project seem to think that political education is not important – whether they are tackling poverty or raising awareness about human rights issues, the emphasis is always on raising the right amount of money and getting the right number of people to tick a box or sign up. Why waste time mulling over politics with young activists when you have targets to reach?

To compensate for the shortfall in debate about ideas, the managers of PP instead tried to motivate canvassers through peer group pressure and by encouraging them to make friends in each campaign they worked on. Yet these appeals to personal (rather than political) loyalty only helped to buoy up some of the canvassers; many others left after a few weeks, or even days, disillusioned with their role as automated footsoldiers in campaigns they were not politically motivated by. Those who tried to wrestle more information from the People’s Project, and who demanded a greater say in the running of the campaigns, were given short shrift. Doug, a 19-year-old sophomore from Michigan, said: ‘We got the message that it was not the canvassers’ place to make those suggestions and decisions, and that it was our place to be directed. Political action was directed by two places: either the national office…or the two lobbyists for the state branch of the organisation.’

Fisher points out that there has been much academic debate about the disengagement of American citizens from civic life. Yet during the course of her research on outsourced activism she came to the conclusion that corporate activism is designed to prop up such disengagement. As one young activist put it: ‘There is no accountability from the membership to the leadership…there are very few attempts on the part of the leadership to leverage that membership into more directed political power.’ This particular canvasser saw opportunities for political mobilisation that involved rallying the thousands of members to do more than write cheques, but the organisation did not support member-based work. Such campaigns, it seems, are designed to encourage an entirely passive relationship between supporters and the organisation.

For political science students eager to get involved in campaigns and ‘make a difference’ (a recurring motif, Fisher found), the ironically named People’s Project made it nigh-on impossible for them to enter real political life. Far from encouraging these bright young things to be the next political leaders, the People’s Project put them off activism altogether. Rather than being inspired by wanting to improve society, the canvassing became the equivalent of doing menial jobs with little purpose and not very much pay. In fact, it is striking that, unlike charities or proper political campaigns based on volunteerism, the People’s Project actually pays canvassers to go out fundraising and recruiting members. And yet, this supposedly progressive organisation – which canvasses for Democrats, greens, human rights groups and many more – does not ‘have a great policy on unions’, notes Fisher. Workers in a PP office in California found the premises closed because staff had tried to unionise. Two directors at the office had advocated setting up a union because they were having trouble getting reimbursements from the national office, and they weren’t making a liveable wage.

Such treatment of staff by the People’s Project provides an insight into how the parameters of ‘progressive’ politics have shifted. It seems that many of the campaigns or groups that outsource their work to the People’s Project are based on appealing to altruism, not self-interest. Whereas union struggles or the big civil rights campaigns in the 1960s were based on self-interest and solidarity – in turn giving rise to a bigger debate on what type of society America ought to be – today’s progressive campaigns come across at best as artificial, and at worse as holding operations for political elites seeking social order and cohesion. Whereas previous political campaigns often ended in civil disobedience and disruption, ‘altruistic’ campaigns on the environment or human rights are non-threateningly vague and non-polarising. After all, appeals to ‘save the planet’ or ‘protect the human’ are things that everyone can agree are Good and Worthwhile. In short, the kind of campaigns that the People’s Project specialise in are about providing connections, rather than generating conflicts, between individuals and society.

Fisher’s descriptions of the motivation speeches made by the managers of the People’s Project, and the day-to-day canvassing, the zigzagging between one campaign and another and the drawn-out evening meetings, are strikingly redolent of what passes for political activism in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In George Orwell’s fictional account of a dystopian future, the brightest and most idealistic youth became ‘Outer Party’ activists, endlessly on marches and rallies, who are effectively stage armies for the unelected and unaccountable political leadership. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, such unthinking activity was designed to enforce social order and stability. It is not too fanciful to see a parallel with the People’s Project, which runs moralising campaigns that are about applying social glue rather than kickstarting social change.

How Democrats stopped ‘Thinking about Tomorrow’

Even as a Democratic supporter, Fisher is unflinching when it comes to investigating and assessing how this political organisation has lost its political moorings. And as an evaluation of the 2004 American presidential election, her research has produced some of the least prejudiced and most convincing conclusions on the defeated American left.

Fisher observed that the Democratic Party outsourced its campaigning to hired canvassers in many different states. This contrasted sharply with the approach taken by the Republicans, who ‘mobilised what they purported to be an army of local volunteers to raise funds, run phone banks, and canvass for President George W Bush’. Democratic Party activists on the ground interviewed by Fisher frequently complained that, compared with the Republicans, they had ‘no lasting political infrastructure’; in particular they talked about the absence of ‘lasting roots that extend down to the level of the local voter’. In fact, the Democrats seemed scarcely enthused by those grassroots supporters who were available to help out. By contrast, the Republicans seemed to be far more in tune with local members and activists, mobilising and engaging them all year round. As such, ‘the Republican Party had an infrastructure that connected the state party organisations to the national campaign… [T]he Republicans were able to focus exclusively on developing local connections with party supporters who were firmly within its grassroots base.’

Compared to this quite patient form of party-building, the Democrats simply parachuted hired canvassers into local regions in an artificial and mechanistic fashion. The consequence was that ‘mobilising progressive volunteers who are not grounded in the localities and places where they work ignored existing personal bonds among like-minded Democrats. It was, in essence, throwing bodies at a problem that required friends and neighbours.’

Fisher’s insights might come across like a dry balance sheet on the tactical campaigning strategies of Democrats and Republicans – but the differences between the two parties cast some light on the political rot of the American liberal-left. After all, tactical considerations do not develop independently of beliefs and ideas. It is telling that Democrats seem to find it impossible to galvanise grassroots support, and feel much more relaxed with the instrumentalism offered by outsourced, professional canvassing groups. It also seems the Democrats have a disdain for ‘local voters’ and campaigners who don’t live in, say, upmarket liberal Manhattan. The end result is that the Democrats have adopted a form of political activism that is based solely on targets for fundraising and ‘on-paper members’. Winning hearts and minds no longer comes into it, not if it involves having to talk to Joe Schmo out in Michigan. The Republicans, however, had other ideas.

Since his 2004 presidential election victory, Bush has been attacked for cultivating the Christian right and for apparently indulging their religious beliefs. An army of screeching secularists have, over the past three years, taken to disparaging the devout and everything they stand for. Refreshingly, Fisher has a far more nuanced understanding of the role that religion has played for the Republicans. For a start, far from the symbiotic relationship being a ‘sinister conspiracy’, the Christian right have always been the Republican Party’s ‘natural allies’, she points out. And because they continue to hold strong ‘moral beliefs’, they can be politically mobilised in ways that hired professionals cannot. Bush, for instance, relied on Evangelical Christian organisations at schools and university campuses to fight the Republican cause. Fisher writes: ‘As a result, [the Republican Party] found itself armed with a corps of energetic young supporters in battleground states who had the free time to do whatever was needed to link the grassroots to the Republican Party’s well-maintained political infrastructure.’

The Republicans’ canvassing strategy relied on ‘like-minded beliefs’ and ‘shared norms’ between party members and campaigners – phrases that have disappeared from the Democrats’ vocabulary. Terry Nelson, Bush’s campaign director, explained to Fisher: ‘Individuals who share a common set of beliefs, values and backgrounds talking with other individuals can be an effective form of communication and persuasion.’ The Bush campaign believed that the most effective way to mobilise sympathetic voters was to rally them to contact people they already knew.

Rather than adopt a tone of smirking cynicism in relation to these developments, Fisher forlornly realises what the American left has lost and needs to regain. As she approvingly says about the Republicans’ strategy: ‘Getting a phone call from your church friend Bob or a visit from Betty the nextdoor neighbour is more likely to mobilise a sympathetic vote than a college student who comes to town only to work on the campaigns. 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.’ Fisher subtly reminds the left (as well as disparagers of the devout) that previously some of their campaigns grew out of ‘progressive religious groups’. Ironically, for a type of politics that was built around grassroots activism, the American left seems to have become estranged from community groups altogether. Fisher says that American progressives need to rekindle ‘networks of reciprocity’, and calls on them to trust party campaigners rather than leaving it in the hands of professionals.

To Fisher’s dismay, it seems many on the American left have come to rather different conclusions. Democratic Party members openly talk about the need to find more ‘charismatic men and women’ for future presidential campaigns, rather than concentrating on cultivating an active membership. So instead of scrapping the one-sided, top-down approach to politics that has already weakened their base, Democrats still hold forth that simply ‘delivering the right message’ to consumer-led voters is enough. As Fisher witheringly concludes of the Democrats, ‘they see voters as instruments for achieving specific goals and have no real connection to their follow citizens’. How did ‘progressive’ politics become so contemptuous of mass democratic participation?

The closing of America’s political mind

As she traces the ubiquity of hired canvassers in the Democratic Party, Fisher concludes that it was under Bill Clinton that the practise of outsourced canvassing became widespread. Certainly, his election in November 1992, followed by his re-election four years later, was partly a consequence of broader shifts in Western politics. Two years previously, the collapse of the Stalinist bloc in Eastern Europe had undermined the solid political certainties of left and right that the United States had gravitated around for 40 or more years. It meant that the traditional cohesive glue in America, namely anti-Communism and a conviction in the ‘Western way of life’, had suddenly been made redundant.

However, many in Clinton’s baby boomer generation had long considered aspects of American society to be redundant, even absurd. Much of what was called the counterculture in the 1960s, of which Clinton and others were a part, derided ‘affluent suburbia’ (aka the masses) as complacent, conservative and something to rail against. At the same time, the supposedly radical alternative to Western consumer capitalism, Soviet communism, was associated with the repressive and stifling regimes of the Eastern Bloc. Far from taking sides in the left v right battleground, many of the counterculturalists decided to vacate the battleground altogether. The lesson they drew was that firmly held political convictions of any stripe led to ‘totalitarianism’ or to the dominance of one section of society over others. It was far better to adopt a live-and-let-live, all-opinions-are-equally-valid standpoint instead, they believed.

This generation, which would later run the Democratic Party, as well as the People’s Project, thus learnt early on to be hostile to any firmly held beliefs and ideas. As a corollary to this, they also became suspicious of what they saw as the political masses’ complicity in the dominance of grubby sectional interests in politics and society. At root, their rejection of left/right battles was motivated by an elitist and anti-democratic impulse.

In Activism, Inc, you get a glimpse of where such non-polarising ideas lead: to the campaigns run by the People’s Project. The very name of this professional campaigning group seems designed to skimp over real divisions, and conflicts, that arise from real inequalities in society. If those running the People’s Project became jumpy at activists making demands, it’s probably because they have inherited from the counterculture the idea that self-interest is the first step towards repressive tyranny over others. It is far better, they believe, to encourage a brand of politics and activism that does not stoke fiercely contested ideas and interests but rather tries to glue us all together with consensual politics. They believe that managerialism, and its corollary of instrumental goals, is preferable as a way of getting things done without having to worry about a passionate and potentially ugly clash of ideas and beliefs. Thus the Democratic Party’s decision to outsource party activism is informed, not just by short-term pragmatism, but by a long-held idea that mass politics is deeply unsavoury.

In his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, the late classics professor Allan Bloom critically noted how value relativism was robbing American society of its guiding purpose. As he half-joked: ‘Openness…is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger… There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?’ (3) Judging by the stinging account in Activism, Inc, present-day Democrats and ‘progressives’ do not even believe that the social contract is desirable.

Still, all is not lost. Fisher’s methodical and trenchantly argued book has blown the whistle on those who hold democracy and mass participation in contempt. Her insistence that politics is galvanised by ideas and beliefs, rather than aims and outcomes, is a counterblast to today’s soulless and creepy managerialism. In its diligent and guilefully nuanced way, Activism, Inc makes an important contribution to reclaiming democracy for the twenty-first century.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London.

Activism, Inc: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America by Dana R Fisher is published by Stanford University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See After the American Election by Brendan O’Neill

(2) See Still The Greatest Show On Earth by Neil Davenport

(3) The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom, Touchstone, 1987

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