The Activism Industry

With midterm elections just two months away, clipboard-wielding
college kids can be found on street corners and doorsteps across
the country soliciting signatures and support. Such canvassing is
especially popular among issue-based activist groups like the
Sierra Club, Save the Children, and the Human Rights Campaign, with
about 25 percent of the largest left-leaning organizations using
the tack to raise funds, awareness, and membership numbers.

The roots of this tried-and-true tool of grassroots activism
stretch back 35 years, when a former encyclopedia salesman put his
pavement-pounding know-how to use for the campaign of a local
candidate. But in recent years such activism has seen a major
shift, reports Dana R. Fisher for the
American Prospect Online. Namely, the
outreach has been outsourced.

After vast funding cuts in the 1990s, many progressive
organizations were forced to close local offices and hire
‘clearinghouses’ like the Fund for Public Interest Research to do
their door-to-door activism. The immediate result was a bounty of
reliable, well-trained canvassers and huge surges in fundraising
and membership. The Human Rights Campaign alone saw membership grow
from 200,000 to 600,000 since adopting the approach in the late
1990s.

Despite the successes, criticism quickly followed. Because
canvassers working for these clearinghouses are often college
students who have few ties to the local communities they’re
assigned, and because the work is hard and turnover is high, most
canvassers work one campaign and then quit, graduate, or move on.
The ultimate result for the left, Fisher reports, is a scattered
political base.

Conservatives, in contrast, employ a grassroots model similar to
that of the Christian Coalition. By working within existing
community groups, such as churches and civic organizations, and by
rallying their troops using local activists, the right has
successfully created enduring connections to their base.

The left should take note, says Fisher. Progressive candidates
and issues are losing out to ‘conservative counterparts that have
invested the time and money to develop real local ties to
Americans.’ — Elizabeth Oliver

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The Activism Industry

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