Ending rot in America's grass roots

Let's be honest: If you want your politics done right, you have to do it yourself.

In next week's midterm contests, as in previous elections, discussion of each party's prospects has focused partly on the so-called ground war and the importance of the grass roots. But what, exactly, are the grass roots, and why do they matter?

Put simply, the grass roots are you and me and every other citizen in America. Living and working in communities across the country, our support drives issues, and our votes put politicians in office.

The Democratic and Republican parties cultivate the grass roots quite differently. The GOP promotes its causes through naturally occurring community groups of like-minded people, such as conservative churches and pro-business associations. Democrats, however, often outsource their politics, relying on artificial, virtual networks and professional canvassers to evangelize their message and build their party.

That's particularly ironic, because many Democrats oppose corporate outsourcing. There is nothing inherently wrong with their strategy; it is a successful method of contacting voters and bringing in money. But the repeated experience of painful losses on Election Day suggests it's a flawed approach that's hurting Democrats over the long term.

The Democratic Party and left-leaning political groups rely on outside organizations to hire young people who recruit members, collect funds, and contact constituents through quota-based pay systems. Since many hires don't have strong ties to the places where they work, this approach to gaining support and getting out the vote fails to capitalize on existing personal bonds among like-minded Democrats.

These young foot soldiers can burn out easily because they often don't get to connect with local Democratic institutions, such as labor and environmental groups that have strong roots in the community. Other Democratic activists, meanwhile, don't form nourishing relationships with regional or national progressive groups because their own local political network has become so atrophied.

The Republican Party, in contrast, has a strategy that connects its constituents into national political networks, giving them an effective outlet for their collective energy.

The party continues to mobilize actual grass-roots contacts by working through existing local groups of conservative Americans who helped reelect President Bush in 2004. Civic groups that connect right-leaning Americans through networks of friends and neighbors have been extremely successful in supporting conservative Supreme Court nominees as well as local and state-level bills to ban gay marriage and cut taxes.

There are some in the Democratic Party who recognize that their reliance on less-personal tactics to rally grass-roots support for their campaigns can be risky. With his 50-state strategy, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean aims to bolster the Democratic Party on the ground in local communities by making sure that every state has local party representation.

Because this strategy diverts party funds away from key elections and swing states, Democratic leaders such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois argue that this investment in the party's future will lead to short-term losses at the polls. As a result, the strategy has met resistance.

Progressives on the ground also acknowledge this lack of political community. In fact, they are so hungry for contact that they have been reaching out to one another over the Internet in droves. These people make up the "netroots," the nexus of political activism and social networking sites that boosters say is revolutionizing campaigns and American civic life.

It's true that online communities do mobilize people across the country, but they are less effective at connecting people where politics truly happen. As most of us recognize, a friend or neighbor in your community is more likely to mobilize your support than a stranger on the Web.

While the Democrats continue to reach out to large numbers of people, their comparatively rootless grass-roots strategies have significant effects on the young people who represent the future of progressive politics in America, as well as the outcomes of elections at all levels of government.

Without the hard work of developing a strong and sustainable Democratic base, progressive politics will continue to lag. And Democrats will continue to struggle with their campaigns, which, because of their flawed grass-roots strategy, require more money and labor than their Republican counterparts.

Regardless of progressive gains or losses Nov. 7, the lopsidedness of grass-roots connections across the political spectrum poses a real challenge to democracy in America. Let's be honest: If you want your politics done right, you have to do it yourself.

Dana R. Fisher is an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grass-roots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America."

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