Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Toward a progressive canvass model
by greg bloom, Tue Jun 20, 2006 at 01:36:24 PM EDT
(This will be the final post in this series. I apologize for the delay -- my time was taken first by YearlyKos and then in preparation for my next series.)
Grassroots Campaigns Inc's canvassers are out in twenty some-odd cities right now, wearing Democratic National Committee t-shirts and asking citizens if they 'want to help end the Republican majority.' They tell people that they are 'working to build support for this November's elections'; they imply that they are part of the DNC's 50 State Strategy, and they claim that a 'big show of grassroots energy' in the x days before the election will ensure victory for the party. Finally, they say the best way to help is with a $100 check made out to the DNC.
This is all rather misleading.
First of all, GCI's canvass campaign is entirely separate from the DNC's 50 State Strategy (more about this separation here, 1/3 of the way down); it's not a field organizing operation, but a financial base-building operation. And as with most base-building operations, most of this money will actually go to cover the canvassers' own overhead -- the DNC's benefit is primarily in the long-term, from the new donors added to its membership rolls. When it comes to influencing the 2006 election, those $100 checks would be far more effective if given directly to state or local parties.
The underlying justification for the campaign is that each donation is an investment that strengthens the donor's bond with the Democratic party. But so far in this series, I have argued that this is an unhealthy investment relationship. These canvassers are not trained to articulate the Democratic party's message, and they are uninformed about the state and local politics. They are instructed to direct every conversation towards the maximum possible donation, and to cut off conversations that don't appear to be headed that way. The young, passionate management staff works for less than minimum wage, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and almost inevitably burns itself out. The result is a system that is efficient at getting names onto a list -- but at what cost?
This canvass campaign is adopted from the same model (developed by the PIRGs/Fund for Public Interest Research) that has driven much of the non-profit progressive world for decades. Some have argued that this model of activism is a fatal shortcut that has inadvertently helped to strand the Left in a quagmire of civic disengagement. But we need models for effective collective action, now more than ever. This post will look for a way forward, towards a professional, sustainable, progressive model. (It will be specific to the DNC's campaign, but I believe it's an example of the kind of rethinking that is needed throughout the world of this model.)
The paradigm shift should begin, in this case, with the basics: carry voter registration forms. The argument against carrying voter registration forms is that it takes energy away from raising money, while other groups are focusing on voter registration. Allow me to suggest that a single voter created by a DNC canvasser is worth at least as much to the party in the long-run as a hundred dollar check from an existing member; allow me to further suggest that when a citizen discovers that a DNC canvasser does not carry voter registration forms, the citizen (voter or otherwise) walks away with a profoundly negative message. Ultimately, this issue has marginal cost-benefit implications but high symbolic implications. (Indeed, while I worked there, it was the first thing to signal to me that something was wrong with the priorities of our campaign.)
Somewhat less basic: canvass interactions need to be about more than just relentless pursuit of donation. It's necessary to train canvassers in professional sales techniques, but that is not sufficient for a progressive base-building campaign. And anyway, a smart salesman knows his product inside and out. So political education should be a component of training. This means more than just a 15 minute headline session every so often; canvassers should be engaged in the ideas of the party. We shouldn't expect or want canvassers to take up intricate policy discussions, but they need to be able to do more than just tick off the '6 key issues.' They are representing the Democratic Party, and for many people, they are the most immediate embodiment thereof -- so they need to be able to articulate the party's message. Even a moderate amount of investment in this regard will go a long way toward making a more professional corps.
Relationships with the existing base must be better served: The campaign's 'true' objective is to generate new donors, but canvassers are trained to lean as hard as they can (without being disrespectful) on people who've already given. It might be acceptable to ask for another donation, but the interaction is actually disrespectful to the donors as soon as it becomes clear that the canvasser has nothing more to ask of them: it sends a message that a member is only valuable to the Democratic party as a source of money. Base-builing should mean engagement. Canvassers should have something else to offer existing donors -- like issue-specific literature, information about their congressional district, or encouragement to volunteer for a particular function. Currently, canvassers don't even offer the option of volunteering unless a person first commits to a donation. Furthermore, in 2004, those who did check the volunteer box were never followed up -- so far, there has been no indication that 2006 will fare any better.
There needs to be more coordination with state and local parties. Canvassers should know their local politicians, should have some familiarity with local issues, and should be able to direct interested members to the appropriate contact points. State parties report that they are now at least in communication with the DNC about this campaign, as opposed to 2004, when most were never notified about it in the first place. But there is so much room for actual infrastructure building. One place to start might be with the volunteers mentioned above -- since the DNC canvassers are taking money out of the localities, they could give back by actively generating volunteers and directing them to state and local offices.
But the most important change that needs to occur is in regards to the canvass staff. In much the same way that they present their campaign to civilians as the grassroots frontline of the Great Party War, the staff labors under the pretense that they are the Party's vanguard. But they do not participate in the party in any way other than as conduits for this money -- and after however many eighty to one hundred hour work weeks at 24k a year, an unacceptable majority of these people burn out. This work is important -- but so is the long-term cultivation of our young leaders. As I've said before, "If your system requires fifteen hours of work a day, your system is broken."
Several of the suggestions I just outlined have come up in the comments of a previous thread, when someone who was 'familiar' with GCI argued that my posts were only serving to 'weaken the cause.' When I proposed these solutions, this commenter mostly agreed -- but backed away, saying:
The solutions are 1) too expensive or 2) too time inefficient or 3) not what the client wants (it is all about the client, right?). So change isn't happening.
As I noted in response, this is a pretty good explanation for why our society is failing to act to prevent global warming. The market's to blame. Indeed, the central mission of many of the organizations for which the Fund raises money is to overcome the evils of the unbridled marketplace by forcing industries to provide a more environmentally-responsible product. The Right's reflexive response is to call these campaigns 'anti-business.' But as we good progressives know, the truth is that sustainable industry standards foster growth in the long-run.
Watch how that could happen:
If employees work two or three fewer hours a day, they do more and better work (again -- that's science, folks). They burn out less, which means less time must be spent on recruiting (which currently takes up at least a third of a GCI staffer's day) and training (which takes up about a fifth). Add in something resembling a weekend and even a modest pay raise, and you now have an exceptionally better staff (which will make better decisions, fewer mistakes, further reducing the workload and turnover, and so on). This crack team of professional party advocates will then be better prepared to handle the more complicated task of managing a truly progressive, politically engaged office. The canvass campaign could gradually become the vanguard that it imagines itself to be.
Will they raise less money? Yes. This 'improved' canvass campaign will probably not bring in new donors at zero cost. But that zero cost is an illusion, the kind of illusion most commonly found on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. In more accurate words, the cost of this expanded donor list is shifted off the Democratic Party and onto its base and its young generation of leaders -- with nothing invested in return. It's time to recognize that while this strategy has fattened progressive organizations' membership rolls for more than twenty years, it's also left us with a desiccated base that has been taught to equate civic engagement with check-writing.
The positive change that I've outlined above is really just a matter of re-balancing priorities. But that can only come through accountability -- and currently there is none. Indeed, few of the points I've put forth here are wholly 'mine' -- they come from many interviews with people who have all kinds of experience with the model -- yet they have no chance of filtering up from below. The top-down canvass model is lacking in any transparency and unreceptive to change. Employees who believe that things should be done differently are efficiently cast out of the system. Like the consultant class in DC, these executives have spent decades up there at the top, where they wield a fierce sense of self-preservation. Even a string of breathtaking progressive setbacks cannot convince them that they might be on the wrong tack.
So how do we make these progressive organizations espouse the ideology that they purport to advance?
There are two ways to hold this system accountable. One is, as that commenter noted, through the clients. If the DNC is going to subcontract its operations, even in the short-term, it has the responsibility to ensure that there are tolerable work conditions and pro-donor practices. The DNC should expect (and be willing to pay for) a better product. I believe the netroots can be instrumental in pressuring the DNC to accept this responsibility. (And GCI also has another big client -- MoveOn PAC. In a future series, I will explain how the matter of accountability is even more important with regards to GCI's contract with MoveOn.)
The second way is through a concerted, organized effort on behalf of the staff themselves to take some control of the campaign to which they devote so much of their lives. This is by far the more difficult -- and I believe more crucial -- of the two options. In another future series, I will report on the story of one such group of staff that tried to organize, the repercussions they met, and a potential path forward.