by Henry Farrell on September 9, 2006

Two interesting pieces.

First, “Open Democracy”:http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-irandemocracy/jahanbegloo_3867.jsp on the release of Ramin Jahanbegloo from prison in Iran. I blogged about Jahangebloo a couple of months ago; he was finally let out, but gave an interview immediately afterwards “admitting” that foreign agents had attended his seminars, that his work could have been useful to attempts to overthrow the government in Iran etc. According to the article, the authorities threatened to confiscate his house and the house of his mother if he didn’t give an interview of this kind, supporting the authorities’ story to some extent (although notably not confessing to spying). Thanks to my friend Carl Caldwell for the link.

Second, this “piece”:http://chronicle.com/temp/email2.php?id=bgFVfxZxmvXc5pXhzpT9BTtMd2s4cHrC by David Glenn in the Chronicle on an academic who’s landed in some controversy because of her book which argues that the progressive movement’s reliance on paid canvassers is hurting it. The Fund for Public Interest Research, which is the organization described in her book, has sent a certified letter to the academic’s department, alleging that she didn’t protect the organization’s anonymity. It does sound as though the academic should have been more careful to protect the anonymity of the organization than she was (although it perhaps would have been impossible to do this properly), but it also sounds as though the Fund’s real beef with her isn’t that the book revealed who it was, but that it was vigorously critical of the organization. The Fund has a pretty dubious “track record”:http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2787/ over issues such as allowing its staff to unionize. For more blogospheric discussion, see “here”:http://www.peterlevine.ws/mt/archives/000883.html, “here”:http://www.peterlevine.ws/mt/archives/000926.html, “here”:http://greg_bloom.mydd.com/story/2006/8/18/111159/225 and “here”:http://larvatusprodeo.net/2006/08/20/unionising-the-idealists/.



Tim McGovern 09.09.06 at 11:28 pm

I’ve been canvassing for Grassroots, Inc. for about 3 weeks now. I’m based out of the Philadelphia Door office, and honestly now, I’ve had nothing but fun. My only complaint is that the intentionally cozy atmosphere of the office doesn’t quite click when someone not suited for canvassing gets fired in the midst of a fairly ‘corporate friendly’ environment.

Philadelphia is 1 of the largest offices, even being in a swing state. I’ve been with our directors in off-hours, and when questioned by a new recruit one of ours was honest with how ‘in the black’ we are with money. Truly, regardless of how effective (and inspiring) our door-to-door talks with people of all stripes are, we still do operate debt-free. And we don’t lie about that – in fact, it’s 1 of our coded responses – “send a message to the DNC to continue to dedicate resources to our grassroots effort in putting a face to the Democratic Party, since we do not (yet!) have a platform to speak it in Congress.”

Dana Fisher, on cursory examination of your hyperlinks, to be on the easy street of this idea – just like a small number of supportive Democrats who don’t contribute on account of disliking the 50-state strategy for whatever reason, she seems to just be grandstanding for attention. My knowledge of statistics is terribly naive, with my only safeguard being looking for the words “double-blind” somewhere, I can’t be too authoritative, but let me just say that the # of doors slammed in my face is close to nil compared to the # of contributors I’ve managed to convince to support the big new wave of progressivism, regardless of the pitch that brought them in. I confess I admit to suspecting nothing less than a Marshall Wittman in Fisher – a DLC DINO, if the former wasn’t in-joke enough.

Though, when all’s said and done, us canvassers could sure use some health insurance. We do this shit rain or shine, and the idea of unionizing is brilliant – otherwise it’s the pot calling the kettle black, etc. The very idea of this has launched itself immediately into my #2 pet peeve spot, after armchair Democrats with plenty of bumper stickers who don’t help us out.


Peter Levine 09.10.06 at 8:53 am

I can’t say whether Dana Fisher’s portrait of the Fund is fully fair and accurate. Testimony like that of Tim McGovern (#1) is useful. However, I am sure that Fisher isn’t a “DINO” or otherwise a critic of progressive values. On the contrary, she fears that progressives are losing political battles because we haven’t built a sufficient grassroots base. We need organizations that are genuinely accountable to their members, that promote deliberations about what should be done, that develop people’s political skills, and that create effective local political networks. Fisher argues that paid canvassing substitutes for such an infrastructure on the left, thereby weakening the movement. I’m not sure she clinches her case, but it’s worth serious consideration.


Marvin Mednick 09.10.06 at 10:49 am

I think that Henry meant Open Democracy, not Democracy Now. Democracy Now is a radical radio show hosted by Amy Goodman. Open Democracy is a website with funding from Swedish banks, etc. that has politics much more like Crooked Lumber.


Henry 09.10.06 at 11:13 am

Marvin – thanks – brainfart corrected.


David Weman 09.10.06 at 11:21 am

Funding from Swedish banks?


Frowner 09.10.06 at 3:37 pm

I worked for a (rather atypical and better than most) canvass-based organization a couple of years ago. They were trying very hard to find the money to hire more non-canvassers who could do actual local organizing of volunteers; they did also make volunteer work a big component of their campaigns. What demoralized me was the deception involved (although this is, I suppose, a constant of politics). When you’re raising money, it’s neccessary to have a quick little…er…”rap”, as they call it. The rap is usually full of lies by omission, something that is not always explained to the volunteers. The rap presents a simple story about an issue that can be resolved by a simple piece of legislation. And then you use a kind of spiritual jujitsu to get in the door, and essentially use body language to convince people that you aren’t leaving until they give money. (Sort of an ideological mugging, if you will) I found it extremely demoralizing, even though I worked with a lot of good people. You really aren’t building grassroots because people know that you’re there to sell them something. It may be something that they sort of want to buy, but there’s still that con-artist/salesperson vibe. And it’s so relentlessly policy-driven–there isn’t any underlying ideology or political theory, just policy-based opportunism. I think, in the end, that canvassing corrupts many of the people who do it and convinces the people who are canvassed that even the progressive side is a buncha salespeople. I understand why people–good people, people I like and respect–do it, but I don’t think it’s getting us any forwarder. Thanks for the link about the book.


lemuel pitkin 09.11.06 at 8:59 am

The Glenn piece is exceedingly interesting.

On the one hand, Fisher is surely right that genuine organizing that engages people at a level beyond check-writing is fundamentally different from, and preferable to, canvassing. But is it really one or the other? How much of the failure to build a lasting Democratic infrastructure after 2004 (say) can you really blame on the PIRGs? Not much, I would think.

This passage seems right to me:

the Republicans’ local volunteer networks are valuable, Ms. Fisher adds, in ways that go beyond simply winning elections. She concedes that the Republicans’ model “is not the Valhalla of civic engagement,” but says it is closer to the type of healthy and diverse civic activity that Mr. Boyte celebrates in his current research.

But it is at this point, according to some critics, that Ms. Fisher and Mr. Boyte’s arguments become vaguely circular. Are they condemning professional canvass networks simply because they do not embody the idiosyncratic style of high-minded communitarian politics that they admire? “I think the primary purpose of interest groups is not to promote civic virtue,” says Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University who has studied political mobilization. “Their purpose is to advance the interests of their members. It’s naïve to expect them to adopt some new frame.”

Also, it’s not clear how much Fisher is criticizing canvassing per se, and how much she’s criticizing the contracting of canvasing to professional groups like the Fund. ACORN, for example, has canvasses all over the place, but they aren’t contracted out, and they canvassers tend to be drawn from a demographic much closer to the folks they represent. They also knock on a lot of doors in lower-income black neighborhoods that other canvasses avoid.

Another question is, are we talking about advocacy groups or political campaigns? The Chronicle piece implies both, but her argument seems a lot stronger as applied to the former. In the electoral world, the alternative to a paid cavnass is a lot more likely to be direct mail and TV ads than the kind of organizing she’d like to see.


lemuel pitkin 09.11.06 at 9:01 am

(That’s a two-paragraph quote from the Chronicle. Preview lied to me!)


aaron 09.11.06 at 11:49 am

Democrats don’t have effective volunteer organizations because they don’t have natural meeting places (such as churches) to congregate in. Organizing mass protests is relatively straightforward–you put up some fliers, people tell their friends. Organizing volunteer grass-roots canvassing and activism is more difficult.

The democrats need to be more creative in organizing their activism. The internet is useful for some forms of activism, but not all.

The democratic party doesn’t have churches, so it need to find a way to create gathering of democrats, and it need a way to keep track of large numbers of “pockets” of 6-10 democrats.
If the democrats want to challenge the republicans in grass-roots campaigning, they are going to revise their current approach to grassroots organizing.


Brennan Griffin 09.11.06 at 12:27 pm

It seems to me that Fisher is saying that the Grassroots, Inc. have become the paradigm for how liberal groups work. And if that’s the paradigm, its not working. I’m not so sure its true that canvassing is the paradigm for the overall progressive movement. It does seem to be largely true of the environmental movement, though (although PIRGs are also into consumer stuff, their main focus has always seemed to be about the environment, at least in my brief experience in college).

ACORN is one paradigm for progressive politics. Another is embodied in the faith networks like IAF, PICO, and Gamaliel (contra aaron, these groups are often fairly powerful on a local level, although many have not made an effective leap to the national stage).

I think that other groups just have not had the national profile as the PIRGs and so on, because they operate less as policy advocates and lobbyists on state and national levels, and more as local organizations city by city. Because I work for them, I know that ACORN at least is adding national infrastructure so that it can play on those levels, as well as the local level that we’ve been working on for the last 37 years. I wouldn’t be suprised if some of the others I named are doing the same.


lemuel pitkin 09.11.06 at 1:11 pm

I agree that ACORN, IAF, PICO and Gamaliel all do good work. Except for ACORN, tho, they don’t use paid canvasses, do they? — and IAF and Gamaliel, at least, quie consciously follow a very different model from the PIRGs and so on, focused on reaching people through leaders of churches and other existing organizations. So their effectiveness would seem to support fisher, no?

On the other hand, ACORN manages to combine paid canvasses with real base-building, so that cuts the other way. Here in New York, the Working Families Party has a paid canvass, but they also have a very close relationship to the unions — the Left’s traditional equivalent to churches. So again, that suggests that there’s no contradiction between canvasses and building more lasting infrastructure.

Peter Levin writes

We need organizations that are genuinely accountable to their members, that promote deliberations about what should be done, that develop people’s political skills, and that create effective local political networks. Fisher argues that paid canvassing substitutes for such an infrastructure on the left, thereby weakening the movement.

I agree withe first sentence, and the second sentence accurately summarizes Fisher’s argument as I understand it. But that’s a pretty weak reed to hang a word like “strangling” on, no? Everything takes resources, so any strategy is a “substitute” or “distraction” from some hypothetical superior strategy. Is there some good reason to single out paid canvassers as the problem?


Brennan Griffin 09.11.06 at 2:35 pm

ACORN is probably a bit different from a conventional paid canvas. Our organizers are full-time, with benefits, year round. Typical canvasses are part-time jobs, often summer only, although some cities extend them longer. ACORN organizers are responsible for actually pulling the people who join together into neighborhood groups.

I suspect that the WFP does followup to their donors to try to plug them into their area committee structures as well.

So I would argue that a canvas is not mutually exclusive with building a base, but most of the PIRG’s, etc., don’t take that extra step, which is unfortunate. The progressive movement would be better off if they did.

One part of the discussion that has not been part of this comment thread is Fisher’s other argument, which is that young activists get discouraged by canvasses that don’t have that further step. This I think, might have some truth. I’ve met a lot of people who get burnt out quickly on a part-time canvas. Given the turnover rates and the number of hires, I wouldn’t be surprised if a large number of potential progressive activists get turned off progressive politics as a profession in this way.

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