Has the Left Been Outsourced?

by Randy Shaw on November 2, 2006

Progressives have long debated the value of door-to-door canvassing by the Fund for Public Interest and other groups. Some believe that canvass jobs are exploit workers, while others view it as an effective means of providing political education and financial support for progressive campaigns. Dana Fisher’s Activism, Inc begins with a critique of canvassing, arguing that progressive campaigns “outsource” activists by hiring canvassers with no local connections and little ability to become fulltime organizers. But as indicated by her book’s subtitle, Fisher then overstates her argument by claiming that these canvas campaigns are “strangling progressive politics in America.” In fact, the predominately white and environmental-focused canvassing groups are but a small part of America’s progressive base. Canvassing groups could not “strangle” progressive politics even if they wanted to, as they have no impact on unions, faith-based organizations, non-profit community groups and other entities that join with environmental groups to comprise America’s progressive base.

For many young people, canvassing is a good way to make money and to help a progressive cause. Most canvasses today are run by the Fund for Public Interest, an offshoot of the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG’s). Although primarily focused on environmental issues, the Fund also contracts to canvass with groups like the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

The Fund’s canvassing is designed to raise money for progressive groups. While good canvassers can easily make over $20 per hour, few view canvassing as a long term job. The burnout rate is high, its extremely difficult work in bad weather, and one can master “the rap” one gives at the door in only a few weeks, so it is not a job that continues to develop one’s skills.

For reasons that remain unclear, Fisher interpreted the canvas as the left’s vehicle for progressive change. She then interprets the high burnout rate and turnover as the failure of the left to nurture young activists, even though most know going in that these are not jobs designed to nurture progressive organizing skills.

Many of Fisher’s criticisms of the canvass are on point. She is also correct to question why the left does not do more to nurture young activists.

But the reason the left does not do a better job training young activists for organizing careers is not because talent is diverted to canvassing, but rather because of a lack of money to hire organizers. Unlike canvassing jobs, which pay for themselves, hiring organizers requires money, and few progressive groups are sitting on millions and not spending it on organizers.

Contrary to Fisher’s central thesis, the groups that allegedly “outsource” activism through the Fund for Public Interest canvas (which she renames the “People’s Project”) are not the progressive organizations that “drive left-leaning grassroots politics.” These groups —the Sierra Club, Save the Children, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and other environmental groups—make up a very small part of what Fisher describes as our “national progressive movements.”

Since the canvassing groups comprise a tiny portion of the political left, Fisher’s attempt to draw broad conclusions from the canvas—such as equating corporate outsourcing with HRC’s using the Fund to canvas rather than running its own operation—falls flat.

Fisher also appears unaware of the many activists’ jobs that are available outside the canvas. And she is not alone, as a supporting blurb for the book from Peter Levine at the University of Maryland states that “for idealistic young progressives today, there is basically only one paid entry-level job left in politics: the canvas.” Really?

Labor unions, far and away the nation’s most critical progressive political resource, are always on the hunt for young organizers. In fact, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions invest huge sums to attract young organizing talent. The fact that Fisher and others are unaware of labor organizing jobs is troubling, and perhaps means that unions need to expand recruitment efforts even further.

Fisher also ignores jobs for young organizers with ACORN. In fact, her book ignores ACORN altogether, despite the group’s leading role in raising the local and state minimum wage across America. ACORN would have been an interesting example for Fisher to discuss, since, contrary to her “outsourcing thesis,” ACORN staff combine canvassing with community organizing. ACORN does provide career paths for young activists seeking meaningful work, and is an example of how canvassing can be effectively used to build local campaigns.

Since ACORN appears to refute Fisher’s thesis, Activism, Inc needed to address the organization’s model rather than confine itself to primarily portraying a small segment of the white, environmental left.

In addition to labor unions and ACORN, the state and campus PIRG’s are always looking to hire organizers. If a top-notch young environmental activist wanted a longterm organizing job with the PIRG’s, jobs outside the canvas are available.

In addition to creating an artificial “left” comprised of a small number of primarily environmental groups that do canvassing, Fisher then claims that this same “outsourcing” of activists hurt the Democrats in the 2004 election. Once again, Fisher draws broad conclusions not supported by the facts.

Fisher is not alone in arguing that while Republicans had worked in local communities in key states for years prior to the 2004 election, Democratic-linked groups “parachuted in” to Ohio and other swing states. But while Fisher interprets the bringing of outsiders to such states as a conscious decision to “outsource,” the reality is that people were brought in because there would otherwise not have been an effective field campaign.

Should the Democratic Party have invested in ongoing organizing in Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and other swing states after the 2000 election? Absolutely. Given that this investment was not made, should ACORN, America Coming Together and other progressive groups have “parachuted” in skilled organizers in key states to try to make a difference two months before the election? Absolutely.

Had progressive groups not “outsourced” in Ohio in 2004, that state would never have been in play. But since 2004 progressive groups have built local roots, and there has been no need to bring in skilled outsiders to Ohio and other states this year.

I share Fisher’s concern about the lack of progressive vehicles for activist students graduating college. But if the Fund canvas were eliminated tomorrow, this would subtract, rather than add, to the available jobs that further social change.

It is too bad that Fisher did not give PIRG leaders or the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope the opportunity to explain how the Fund canvas builds critically needed money and political support for environmental campaigns. It is also unfortunate that Fisher was unduly influenced by anecdotes from recent college graduates explaining that their bad experience on the canvas has soured them on activism, and led them instead to pursue careers unrelated to social change.

As someone who spent three years recruiting recent grads for fulltime organizing jobs, I know as well as anyone that even the most idealistic of young people often find that, while they thought they wanted to be career organizers, the reality of the job often changes their minds. Contrary to Fisher’s thesis, students who want to continue activism after college know of the many job opportunities outside of canvassing. A high percentage of those who get the type of organizing jobs Fisher prefers also drop out, not because they have been “strangled” by outsourcing, but because student activism and fulltime organizing jobs involve very different lifestyles.

The fact that the canvas does not serve all of the many needs of progressive movements should not attract from its value.

Filed under: Book Reviews

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