First off in this series, I want to send those who followed my previous series toward Lockse's 'In Response to Strip-mining the Grassroots.' Lockse was an upper-level director for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's 2004 Democratic National Committee fundraising canvass, and 'In Response...' is an essential counterpoint to 'Strip-Mining the Grassroots.'
Though the post doesn't draw any conclusions, it does corroborate the fundamental critique made by myself and others: this model might be a cost-effective way to fatten the donor rolls of its clients, but its hidden costs are anathema for the progressive movement. Rather than cultivate the grassroots, it burns through the grassroots like cheap fuel. (This critique is specific to GCI's DNC campaign, but its implications run wide--as GCI is merely the newest branch of the Public Interest Research Groups/Fund for Public Interest Research network, a corporate family that dominates the bottom-most level of the activist industry.) I want thank Lockse for speaking with both experience and a willingness to engage with criticism from below. I also wantA number of times in the course of the series, defenders of the GCI/PIRG/Fund model tried to dismiss my posts as the axe-grinding rants of an ex-employee who 'had a bad experience.' Now, it is true that 'Strip-Mining the Grassroots' was born of my experience working for GCI. And yet, I only raised money for the DNC for three weeks -- they were intense weeks, but ultimately not enough to leave a lucid impression of systemic failure. Rather, my 'bad experience' with GCI and its model was in doing Get Out the Vote for MoveOn PAC.
Now, as I take off my calm, methodical armchair-analyst hat and put on the hat of a young, idealistic progressive who is telling the story of his first intensive experience with political activism, I hope (perhaps in vain) that the impact of the following qualification is not lost amid the din of the blogosphere: the 2004 MoveOn PAC Leave No Voter Behind was not just a 'bad' experience. It was a soul-crushing experience.
I'll have to back up.
Like many others, I originally came to work for GCI by responding to an advertisement for its MoveOn field organizer jobs. It's hard to overstate how potent those ads were in the summer of 2004: 'Get paid to do GOTV for MoveOn!? Where do I sign up?'
At the time I was hired on, the MoveOn campaign wouldn't begin for several weeks yet -- until then, all new recruits were to work as Assistant Directors in the DNC canvass office. (This wasn't mentioned until well into our interview, and at that point, like most people, I was already sold.)
During those three weeks raising money for the DNC, I experienced the same cycle that the vast majority of PIRG/Fund canvass veterans will describe: intimidation followed by exhiliration, hard work increasingly beset by frustration, and then finally (as the priorities of our operation came into starker relief) disillusionment. If for some unlikely reason I had taken that job on its own, without the MoveOn campaign dangling in front of me like a lure, I would probably have lasted the average career span of a PIRG/Fund/GCI canvasser--two weeks--and then I would have walked out, brushing my hands of it, probably writing a sardonic little essay about the experience.
But I stuck out that long extra week for the MoveOn campaign. I could see that GCI was ruthlessly effective at getting to the bottom line -- and if it was this good at raising money, I figured, it would be able to use us to turn out some serious votes. When we finally got to the swing states as MoveOn organizers, I already had misgivings about GCI, but I was thrilled at the opportunity to work a hundred hours a week or more on the true 'frontline.' I figured that three weeks in the canvass trench had prepared me for it. I was mistaken.
Things went wrong, as things always will in a campaign. Then things got worse, as things often will in a campaign. But what happened next was a breakdown that went beyond miscommunication, disorganization, and Acts of the Campaign God. What happened next was a deliberate top-down action, and our campaign fell apart beneath it. Crucial objectives were abandoned; efforts to fix the problems were thwarted; those organizers who tried to independently rescue their own operations were intimidated and threatened. The human infrastructure was so poorly treated that virtually none of it lasted two days beyond the election. Altogether, it was a profound crisis of leadership.
Before anyone goes skipping down, torch aflame, to the comment box, I'm going to get further into the details in my next posts. Of course, I hope that veterans share the nature of their experience, good and bad -- each office has a different story, after all. But I'm quite secure in making this generalization.
After the election, I spoke with as many of my acquaintances (from both the DNC and MoveOn campaigns) as possible. Then I spoke with their acquaintances. I worked far enough into our network to confirm that the experience of my office was typical -- if anything, in fact, ours was one of the better units. Other offices saw up to three quarters of their staff quit -- at least one major office was summarily disbanded -- and only a handful of people (less than one in ten) reported that their experience had been positive on the whole. Some were still proud of what they had personally accomplished, though not one person believed that our campaign had turned out a significant number of votes (let alone the 476,000 voters who, according to GCI and MoveOn leadership, 'checked in' with us at the polls on election day). The general conviction fell somewhere between two points: the people charge of the operation were either wholly incompetent, or they were frauds.
But that was an unsatisfying conclusion for me. After a long 18 months spent trying to reach a better understanding of the philosophy and history (short- and long-term) behind Grassroots Campaigns, Inc, I don't think that either of those characterizations are accurate. I don't question the commitment of the people in charge, and I don't believe they were profiting off of our labor; I even believe that they are quite capable. In much the same way that GCI 'succeeded' for the DNC, the company crashed 'Leave No Voter Behind' right into the bottom line. But the crisis of leadership erupted because that bottom line wasn't votes -- the bottom line was the model, which was protected at the expense of the soured efforts of hundreds of organizers and tens of thousands of volunteers.
Why didn't I try to make this story public by blogging about this earlier? By the time I had pieced together enough of what happened, GCI was neck-deep in a post-election struggle for its life. 2005 was a scarce year for work--since after all, most of this sort of business (non-electoral, at least) is already dominated by its big sister, the Fund. With GCI on the verge of collapse, this story would have been hardly more relevant than the many sites already devoted to exposing the hypocrisies of its sister organizations.
In 2006, things changed: both the DNC and, to my surprise and disappointment, MoveOn PAC renewed their contracts with GCI. These new campaigns aren't near the massive scale of 2004, and one would hope that the company learned from its mistakes. But one cannot learn from mistakes if one will not recognize that mistakes were made. Regardless of how many people it burned along the way, GCI implemented the model -- and internally, that was considered a success. Apparently, its clients were also satisfied.
Does that sound familiar? It's the Cycle of Shrum. The experts run campaigns that lose -- but they're experts, and it's always those dastardly Republicans who out-spend and dirty-trick us, so the experts keep getting more campaigns to run. That system of self-preservation-through-unaccountability is now being threatened by the nascent progressive movement. This system must be threatened as well.
This series will look back at the failures of 2004 in order to better understand why this model needs to be checked going forward, to November 2006 and beyond. In my next post, I will describe the structure of the model in 2004, detail its initial failures, and provide some insight into what might be different now (and what hasn't changed)
.The PIRG model for raising money sucks ass. Having adults beg for money in the street? This is ridiculous in the extreme. This kind of thing should be professional and not leaving the workers feel screwed.I've done field work in the past and it was an interesting experience, but it was professionally done. Not this nonsense. We have to do things differently, and a good start would be to force PIRG's to raise money in a safe, responsible manner. Which wouldn't include streetside begging.