Dana Fisher’s book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, is about to appear with a blurb from me on the back cover:
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.
My conscience is bothering me for two reasons. First, my summary of Fisher’s book is a pretty strong statement, perhaps exaggerating what she says. Second, she does tell a highly critical story (as her subtitle indicates). My blurb lends my authority to her criticism, suggesting that her “rigorous” and “acute” scholarship must be true. In fact, given what little I know directly about canvassing, plus the evidence that Fisher presents in her book, I cannot say whether her account is accurate or not.
Fisher makes three main points:
1) Canvassing is bad for canvassers: many are burnt out, stuck in dead-end positions, or alienated because they have to raise money by reciting ?scripts? that they do not fully understand.
2) Canvassing for progressive causes is being centralized into a few big, multi-purpose operations. This consolidation reduces the connection between the canvassers and the various lobbies for which they raise money.
3) Canvassing is bad for democracy, because professional activists set the progressive political agenda and lobby using money from people whom they have mobilized through one-way conversations. Democracy needs organizations in which citizens frame their own agendas through conversations, develop working relationships with peers and neighbors, and then hold professional lobbyists and leaders accountable. (This third point is mentioned but not developed in the book; it’s partly my own extrapolation.)
The first point–that canvassing is bad for canvassers–is based on Fisher?s 115 interviews. She provides many quotes, which actually tell a mixed story. Some of the interviewees have positive things to say; some are critical of the canvass. She does not code the interviews so that she can provide statistical summaries (such as “55% were negative”), but she does use words like “most.”
I don’t think the lack of statistics matters. Selecting and coding interviews is a fairly subjective process, so any hard numbers would look more precise than they would actually be. In essence, we must rely on Fisher to generalize fairly and accurately from her own observations. The fact that she quotes people who have a positive view of canvassing could be taken as evidence that she is scrupulous and balanced. Or the fact that she draws very negative conclusions, despite having talked to people whose views were positive, could be taken as a sign that she exaggerates.
Overall, she could be right. Others have made similar claims.* However, she could also be wrong, and I know former canvassers who loved their jobs. I am uncomfortable about having endorsed her portrayal with a confidence that cannot be sustained from reading the book alone.
Incidentally, this is qualitative research, which I strongly support. I have a doctorate in philosophy, which is about as qualitative as you can get. But it’s unusual for a qualitative study to focus on one real organization and to be highly negative. (Fisher uses a pseudonym, but the real identity of the canvass is not hard to discern.) If you criticize a sector or a profession, you must try to be accurate. But if you criticize an identifiable organization, the stakes are higher.
In this respect, Fisher’s book is more like a work of investigative journalism than typical qualitative social science. Aggressive journalism is extremely valuable–no less worthy than scholarly research; but it has different norms. We realize that the reliability of a reporter depends on his or her judgment, experience, and ideological bias: reporters lack a fancy “methodology” that they can use to defend their conclusions. Furthermore, journalists feel free to tell unusual stories and to seek out atypical cases “man bites dog.” In contrast, most qualitative research is an attempt to generalize on the basis of a representative sample. Much attention goes into methods for constructing representative samples of quotations taken from representative informants. These methods of selection are the basis of the researcher?s legitimacy.
By endorsing the “rigor” of Fisher’s book, I implied that her summaries were based on representative comments by representative canvassers. In fact, I don’t have any way of knowing whether that is the case.
Despite my blurb, I really cannot say much about the second major claim of the book: that consolidating the canvassing “business” into one or a few big operations has worsened the impact on canvassers. As a theoretical point, we would expect monopolies to be bad in this field, as in any other. However, there is not much evidence in the book about the degree to which canvassing has consolidated, nor about the the impact of outsourcing on the groups that have chosen to pay for canvassing.
Fisher’s third point is that canvassing is bad for democracy. Here she relies on a critique of modern American politics that comes from authors like Harry Boyte, Theda Skocpol, Carmen Sirianni, Lewis Friedland, Robert Putnam, Marshall Ganz, Mark R. Warren, Gregory Markus, and Kevin Mattson, among others. Allowing for major and interesting differences among these authors, they all decry “mailing-list” organizations that simply ask citizens to pay for professional advocacy work. They see these organizations as a new elite that lacks an authentic base.
Several also lament a tendency to mobilize citizens by demonizing opponents. They argue that this approach makes it more difficult actually to solve problems. Boyte, for example, has written: “The canvass embodies a view of politics as a zero-sum struggle over scarce resources pitting the forces of innocence against the forces of evil. In citizen action groups like ACORN or Clean Water Action or the PIRGs, narrowly scripted issue campaigns and a rigid ideological stance dominate. Public leadership development that teaches students to understand the narratives and interests of those with whom they disagree is slighted. The open, diverse political atmosphere of places in the Hull House tradition disappears.”
We know that Americans’ average rate of group membership has stayed constant since the 1970s, yet people’s tendency to work with others on community problems and their frequency of attending meetings (as measured in surveys) have dropped precipitously. It could be that centralized, national organizations displace forms of politics in which people set their own agendas and act cooperatively. Boyte, Sirianni, Skocpol, Warren, and Markus, in particular, argue that we need the kind of “relational organizing” exemplified by the Industrial Areas Foundation, Pico, and Gamaliel. Those groups depend on long-lasting, face-to-face relationships, horizontal communication among members, local cultural norms, and open-ended deliberation.
Relatively little in this literature is explicitly about canvassing–let alone about the specific canvass that Fisher studied. Thus the question is whether canvassing exemplifies the problem of professionalized, “mailing-list” organizations. Fisher sees canvassers as tools for delivering one-way messages to potential donors. However, if canvassers engage in two-way conversations on people’s doorsteps and pass the word back to their bosses, then canvassing is better for democracy than mass mailings are. Again, everything depends on the accuracy of Fisher’s first claim about the canvassing experience.
Fisher’s book raises questions that I am not qualified to settle about the performance of a particular group. That’s unpleasant because it pits her character against theirs. I’m inevitably implicated because I know and have professional connections to both sides. However, there are also more constructive and tractable issues to consider. For example:
There has been a decline of chapter-based, strongly participatory, locally-rooted organizations that were once accountable to their members. (I am referring to the old political parties, unions, fraternal and sororal organizations, VFW, PTA, and the like.) Did the rise of mailing-list organizations contribute to that problem, or do they represent a separate phenomenon altogether? Is canvassing typically the same as “mailing-list” politics? Or is it considerably more interactive? Is there an essential conflict between the kind of canvassing operations associated with Ralph Nader, on the one hand, and the “relational organizing” of IAF, Pico, and Gamaliel, on the other? Or can they be synergistic? Would it be possible to increase the degree of interactivity, accountability to members, and horizontal communication within a canvass operation without undermining its effectiveness at raising money and lining up supporters? Could canvassing actually be made more effective if it became more democratic?