new thoughts on canvassing

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?
  • *See, e.g., Kevin Mattson (opens a PDF–look at p. 21), Greg Bloom, and Nathan Wyeth

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    4 Responses to new thoughts on canvassing

    1. Red American says:

      This doesn’t get at the main thrust of your post, but I would take strong exception to Harry Boyte’s characterization of ACORN as a canvas operation in the same mold as PIRG and Clean Water Action.

      Members of ACORN work in locally based chapters taking on issues from speed bumps to bad landlords. They are signed up as dues paying members, often through door-to-door conversations, but those door-to-door conversations are not single issue canvassing. I’ve done both, and I know the difference.

      Brennan Griffin

      Full disclosure, if its not obvious, I work for ACORN.

    2. Aaron Barlow says:

      In the early 1980s, I ran a small environmental group in Iowa. We wanted to cooperate with other groups, especially national ones (and we did, sometimes sending them money from our fundraisers). Most of the time relations were good. The only group we had trouble with was the PIRG, which was also the only one that sent canvassers to the area.

      Not only did PIRG canvassers claim to be “working with” our group when they went door to door (they weren’t, not in any real sense, and they hurt our fundraising–people would say they had already given to us), but they brought a distant agenda to local activism, diluting the effectiveness of all organizations. They also made people suspicious of all environmental organizations, for nothing local was seen from the money given.

      What we were doing, without canvassers, always seemed to make more sense. We had our local projects and held a lot of dances and parties (among other things) to raise money. All in all, we weren’t strangers coming in to raise money for some distant organization–but were local people who raised money for local concerns–and gave some of it to national organizations.

      This model, keeping it local and offering to the nationals on our terms, seems so much better to me.

      And we had a lot more fun than those canvassers did.

      I always felt sorry for them.

    3. Peter Levine says:

      From Harry Boyte:

      Brennan Griffin raises an important correction, that ACORN is not a typical canvass organization. Yet the anecdote I use to describe its politics — described in detail in “Tale of Two Playgrounds” on the CDC web site, — makes the point, I believe, that ACORN is based on a Manichean, good versus evil model of politics, not relational organizing. I think part of the problem is that from the inception, ACORN has been based on individual membership, not rooted in local civic institutions like churches and synagogues — I argued this with Wade Rathke many years ago, and it still seems to me true: the individual memberships without ties to institutions easily produce a political culture which detached and righteous.

      I have my own anecdotal experience with the canvass: For years I’ve surveyed graduate students in public affairs at the Humphrey Institute on their experiences with the canvass — I would say a remarkable number, likely the majority have canvassed at least briefly. Most burn out quickly. The considerable majority of Humphrey students who canvassed also dislike the experience of canvassing intensely.

      The great majority who take up canvassing also burn out, in the canvass language. I know about burnout from my own research, including research that I did for the book many years ago with Heather Booth that was a defense of the canvass, Citizen Action and the New American Populism. For that book we interviewed canvassers and canvass directors across the country.

      There are larger points that I think Fisher’s book opens up, even if she doesn’t treat in detail, which makes its publication an extremely positive event. The more controversy on these larger questions the better, in my judgment.

      First, the book is a powerful window into patterns of detached, efficiency-oriented technocratic practices and values more generally. These patterns operate and dominate in many professional systems and their institutional expressions. Thus, while Fisher shows the detachment of citizen activist groups and the national Democratic Party campaigns — from local civic life, many other institutions besides, from schools and unions to universities, demonstrate the same dynamic.

      Higher education bears a significant responsibility here. The reason was described by Thomas Bender in his work some years ago, Intellectuals and Public Life. Bender details the shift from “civic professionalism” to “disciplinary professionalism,” with the result that professionals – and, by implication, the institutions they shape – became increasingly detached from local cultures. This has been a very important factor in the weakening of civic culture in America.

      Second, in progressive terms, the canvass has done much to institutionalize an inflammatory and narrowly issue-focused politics on the left (other mobilization technologies, like the internet, also contribute). This is because of the formula used to whip up emotion and define issues in simplistic ways, good versus evil ways. Inflammatory, personalized, issue politics has largely substituted for efforts to articulate larger goals and vision of a more democratic society and culture change (though there are some working with progressive groups to address cultural and values questions, such as such as Richard Healey’s Grassroots Policy). The canvass’s highly ideological, good versus evil discourse has precedents on the left in the past — for instance, it bears some family resemblance to the early thirties left (“the Third Period”), or the later New Left of the late sixties.

      But there is an alternative broad progressive, democratic tradition, crucial to recall and revive. This is the tradition of the popular front in the late 1930s, and also the southern freedom movement of the late fifties and sixties, especially in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Indeed, there is direct and personal continuity between the two: Ella Baker, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, key architects of SCLC and the freedom movement, were rooted in the thirties and forties.

      This is also the tradition that shaped Saul Alinsky — his first book, Reveille for Radicals, can be read as a conceptual rendering of popular front principles and themes. For instance, Alinsky insists that organizers begin by listening and learning the mores, history, and values of any community they work in. Their work is not to convert but rather to help draw out the democratic potentials in any community. This is the wellspring of what is called relational organizing in IAF, Gamaliel, PICO, and the reason that such networks contrast what they are doing, “organizing,” with the “mobilizing” approach of canvass-based groups. Relational organizing has yet to generate a broader movement, but there are stirrings, like PICO’s New Voices campaign, or the Gamaliel ISAIAH groups new focus on values of hope, community and abundance to transform the dominant culture of fear, scarcity and isolation.

      In this alternative democratic tradition, issues are framed in terms of a broad vision of democratic society and culture change. In the thirties, the focus on broad culture change and “defense against fascism” became the positive effort to build democratic civilization as the alternative. And the rhetoric shifted significantly: from calls for “socialism” to “democracy,” “democratic society,” “the commonwealth.” There was, accompanying the larger vision, much attention to American democratic symbols, figures, stories. It also meant organizing for more cooperative, egalitarian values in many cultural industries and settings such as films, journalism, art, education. The Fourth of July was the highpoint of the year.

      This politics has strategic implications. In the thirties, it generated what was called a “center-left” alliance, alliances for broad change not only in electoral politics but in many arenas. This can be contrasted with the left’s penchant for demonizing moderates today.

      This same broad democratic political tradition also informed Martin Luther King’s brilliant capacity to frame the freedom movement as about American democratic and religious values and traditions. He said, for instance, it was “the best in the Southern tradition.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail appealed to southern moderates, and invoked a multitude of images and traditions. And the sensibility of SCLC was widely shared among key leaders. As Thelma Craig, a remarkable local leader in Alabama put it, if the goal is culture change (as was crucial in the face of the culture of pernicious and pervasive racism) then the strategic objective should be to get 80% — not 51% — of the people.

      The left, it seems to me, now generally aims for a narrow majority, 51, what one wants in an election (or for passage of a particular piece of legislation) but far too narrow to change the society in deep and significant ways. The canvass reinforces this tendency all the time. Progressives need to aim instead at winning 80 to a vision of democratic change, and need to organize for such change in a myriad of settings.

    4. Red American says:

      Not to belabor this, but ACORN’s members actually do live in the neighborhoods, and they do go through an organizing process that could easily be called “relational,” discussing top concerns, figuring out what will have the greatest impact on their own community, etc.

      The reason I would argue that the IAF, PICO, Gamaliel, etc. haven’t reached a broader movement is that they have to deal with so many entrenched institutional agendas, and that those institutional agendas often make it difficult to reach the consensus that a broader movement requires. It keeps them very locally focused, and it doesn’t allow for easily coordinated national campaigns. Also, the purist Alinsky-style groups eschew permanent alliances and coalitions.

      As for canvases causing or reinforcing, in part, polarization, I would say that the best canvases go on the basis of things that are fairly popular, at least within the area that they work in (although the continued geographic polarization of the US means that that may not be that unifying a force). Otherwise, its pretty hard to make them economical.

      Even on popular issues in progressive areas, the poorly kept secret of the canvas world is that canvases almost always lose money in and of themselves. Organizations only do them to develop a list of consistent donors. Those donors do have a relationship with the organization, and the Sierra Club, for instance, does have a quite healthy, although somewhat contentious, election process among their membership every few years. Is it “relational”? Not in the same way that Boyte means. But it does mean something, I think.

      Brennan Griffin

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