Canvassing is a common experience, especially for young activists on the left. In a 2002 survey available from CIRCLE, people were asked, “Have you worked as a canvasser–having gone door to door for a political or social group or candidate?” Seven percent of young people (and 11 percent of the young people who were involved in politics) said that they had.
Dana Fisher wrote a Working Paper, funded by CIRCLE, that examined the canvassing experience. She has now expanded her paper into a book entitled Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. I blurbed it (along with Senator Bradley, Ralph Nader, Harry Boyte, Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center, and Doug McAdam). I said:
For idealistic young progressives today, there is basically only one paid entry-level job left in politics: canvassing. Dana R. Fisher is the first to study this crucial formative experience. Essentially, she finds that the canvass is an alienating and undemocratic experience. As a result, we are squandering the energy and ideas of a whole generation. What’s more, a progressive movement that relies on regimented canvassing is doomed to defeat because it lacks an authentic connection with citizens. Unless we take seriously the rigorous evidence and acute arguments of Activism, Inc., the future looks grim
Never having been on a canvass, I can’t guarantee that Fisher’s very critical portrait is comprehensive or fair. But I am sure that her account should trigger a robust debate about the effects of canvassing on young progressives. Indeed, Greg Bloom has kicked off that debate by writing a thoughtful series on DailyKos that makes similar points to Fisher’s. The comments that veterans of canvassing have made in response to Bloom have been very interesting and, in the main, support his critique. See also this response by a canvass organizer.