Good-bye grassroots: Why citizen politics may become a thing of the past

Published 8 years ago -  - 8y ago 14

A famous story in Chicago political lore goes something like this:  An eager, young man was looking to work on his first political campaign in Chicago. He went to his local ward Democratic Party headquarters and asked the ward committeeman there if he could help out. “Who sent you?” The committeeman asked him. “Nobody.” The young man replied. “I don’t want nobody nobody sent,” was the blunt answer of the committeeman to the volunteer’s request.

Professionals have plied their trade in American politics for a long, long time. Once upon a time they were known as bosses and they ran political organizations called machineswhich controlled city blocks, wards, townships, counties and even whole states from one end of the country to the other. The boss may well have been a saloon keeper or a public employee in the parks and rec. department and the organization may have doubled as a volunteer fire-fighting company. But no mistake should  be made in the describing the purpose of these organizations: Getting out the vote for the party they belonged to and the ticket they supported for by any means necessary, legal or illegal.  The boss was the one in charge of the effort and he benefitted from the spoils from winning.

However, this quest for votes to obtain the spoils of office angered businessmen and other professionals and ordinary citizens alike who didn’t like the idea of their tax money going to further fatten the already portly boss and his friends, otherwise known as cronies. As an educated middle class began to grow in the late 19th century these persons (who were nearly all Protestant and native stock American in contrast to the machine’s vote which nearly all Catholic and immigrant) decided to beat the politicians on their own field of play – the ballot box.  They may well have been amateurs when it came to politics but they used their college educations to master election law, learned how to organize and mobilize their own fellow citizens into various political groupings either for certain causes (like Prohibition or the Suffrage movement) or for certain candidates like Roosevelt, Bryan, Wilson or LaFollette and raised money from businessmen tired of being shaken down by party organizations.  In time they would ride waves of reform and voter disgust at machine corruption to rip power away from the bosses and the vested interests. And thus the Progressive Movement was born.

The Progressives came and went but the struggle between professionals and amateurs in politics continued onward and continues even to this day. However, the campaign of 2012 is showing signs that the professionals may get the upper hand for a long time to come.

Of course this has been said before and the amateurs have always figured out a way to be successful. In 1940 they were able to snatch away the Republican Party nomination from the professionals and give it to a little-known utility company executive named Wendell Willkie making his first try ever for public office (although one hesitates when the word “amateur” around those businessmen and publishers like Oren Root, Russell Davenport, Henry Luce and Ogden Reid who organized Willkie’s campaign and made his nomination possible.) Although backed by powerful Republican politicians like Thomas Dewey and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., it was the Citizens for Eisenhower group (funded largely by Texas oil money) who ran Ike’s campaign all the way to the White House, not the party apparatus which was still weak nationally.  Also on the Republican side were all the new groups created from the Conservative Movement who were the muscle which allowed Barry Goldwater to defy the Eastern Establishment and win control of the GOP. Amateurs were also affecting the Democrats as well. Even though Adlai Stevenson owed his political career to the Boss of Bosses Richard Daley, he brought in thousands amateurs into party who formed political clubs of their own to contest the machines, help drive out an incumbent President of their own party in Lyndon Johnson with the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, help reshape the party with the candidacy of George McGovern and turned an unknown former Georgia Governor into President Jimmy Carter. The well renowned political scientist Russell Q. Wilson wrote one of first books about them called The Amateur Democrat.  And citizen’s based grassroots politics helped to fuel many a third party candidacies from Robert La Follette’s to the Wallace’s Henry and George to Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Grassroots, citizens-based campaigns were also significant in party nomination contests from Gary Hart to Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson to Ron Paul to Howard Dean, whose 2004 campaign begat Barak Obama four years later.

Television and civil service reform brought an end to political machines and bosses but political professionals themselves never went away. Starting in 1960s a new group of professionals called campaign consultants rose to replace the bosses who died off or went to jail. In place of the machine came whole companies involved in either public relations work, legal work, consulting or polling and either worked on political campaigns or for corporate clients or did lobbying work as well. They are the building blocks of major campaigns these days and those candidates who can sign up the best firms are usually the ones taken most seriously by the media and the ones most seen as electable by well-heeled donors.

The animosity between the professionals and amateurs has existed as long as the categories have existed. Former New York City Congressman and Mayor Ed Koch, who began his political career as amateur Democrat inspired by Stevenson and was a member of a Greenwich Village reform club, recalls the reaction he got when he tried to work in one of Tammany Hall’s old neighborhood sachems back in 1957 in his biography Mayor.

“ ….The problem was I was the only person in the club wearing a three-button Brooks Brothers suit. The club officers wouldn’t talk to me and they wouldn’t let me do anything. They thought I was a spy. Most of the others were old-line politicians. They didn’t trust me. It was a simple as that. So I left.”  

Today, it’s no different. Watch a You Tube video of Ron Paul supporters confronting professional pollster Frank Luntz in New Hampshire of 2008 and you’ll see the same thing, contention between passionate civic involvement and the cool detachment of the permanent campaign. Indeed it was this animosity did much top fuel the campaigns of Ross Perot, Howard Dean, and Ron Paul and to a lesser extent the 2008 campaign of Barak Obama.

The amateurs thought they had gotten the upper hand on the professionals over the last decade. Grassroots campaigns have used the internet and its entire social media potential to organize campaigns literally from scratch. From Meetup to Facebook to You Tube to Pay Pal to Twitter, everything one person or a group of people needs to organize meetings, produce media, keep followers informed and interactive with the campaign and pay for it as well is there at the click of a mouse. Who needs to pay the Luntzs of the world millions when a politically savvy housewife could theoretically do the same thing from her kitchen table? 

But as with all new technology, eventually everyone learns (or almost everyone as VCR clocks in basements or landfills remain unprogrammed). Thus, every campaign now has its own internet site, its own You Tube channel, its own Facebook page and Twitter followers (which campaigns can actually buy by the bulkload). The campaigns pay the tech. geeks to handle these sorts of things and can pay handsomely because their TV ad budgets can now be subsidized by either one man or several different groups thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision. And that same court decision means that in the future political campaigns taking on either incumbents or front runners  or the establishment’s designated choice will have to be bankrolled by single individuals like a Sheldon Adelson or Foster Freiss, or they’ll be have to be supported by political groups funded by billionaires or corporations, hardly campaigns one would call “grassroots”.

Plus, one can wonder whether such support is really all it’s cracked up to be. Rick Santorum’s campaign in Iowa this past election cycle consisted largely of his family members traveling from one small town to the next. But when Santorum was endorsed by an influential religious Right figure in that state, overnight his poll ratings shot up and soon after his campaign was being aided by Religious Right voters who helped him eke out and upset victory. It didn’t matter that Santorum had very little grassroots support or campaign infrastructure in the state, all that mattered is that he got the right support from the right people at the right time. No doubt Ron Paul had far more intense grassroots support than Mitt Romney ever did in the primaries (Outside New Hampshire, ever see a lot of Romney signs around until this past fall?) but all it got Paul was some convention delegates and 10 percent of the GOP primary vote while Romney got the nomination. Newt Gingrich didn’t have much of a campaign in South Carolina but he didn’t need one after one great debate performance threw the state’s Republican activists in his corner. And it isn’t long before said grassroots groups are usually absorbed into the party structure itself. Obama’s grassroots groups from 2008 played no real independent role in 2012 while the Tea Partiers of 2010 are pretty much did the Romney campaign’s bidding.

Not to mention the fact some volunteers can cause campaigns headaches. Rand Paul had to disavow a supporter who reportedly stomped on the head of protester outside of debate during his Senate campaign of 2010. The Ron Paul presidential campaign had to do the same to supporters who chased and threw snowballs at Sean Hannity in New Hampshire back in 2008.  Indeed, infighting between Ron Paul’s grassroots supporters and those working for the official campaign has occurred since 2008. By 2012 it had reached a point of bitter acrimony as grassroots supporters attacked Rand for his endorsement of Mitt Romney along with campaign manager and Paul son-in-law Jesse Benton, fellow campaign manager John Tate and the campaign’s official blogger (and TAC contributor) Jack Hunter for various reasons. It also produced an open split during the Republican National Convention where the official campaign held its own rally in the Sun Coast Dome in Tampa while grassroots supporters held their own at the Florida State Fairgrounds (in 2008 there was just one end-of-the-campaign rally). It’s doubtful either Rand or Benton or Tate or Hunter enjoy reading the names they’re being called on various Paul grassroots websites (Daily Paul or Ron Paul Forums) and one wonders if any potential Rand for President campaign will have much of a grassroots component at all or be top-down structure with coal company money replacing chip-ins, automated robo-calls replacing sign wavers and plenty of slick TV ads replacing blimps.

And the burdens for campaign volunteers, never easy ones, have only gotten harder as the years have gone by. It’s more expensive to feed, house and clothe said volunteers. It’s more expensive to drive to Congressional District or state conventions or find lodging for an overnight stay. It’s certainly harder if said volunteers who have young children and need to leave said kids with a baby-sitter or relatives to attend meetings (Paul grassroots supporters had to organize Chip-In or Pay-Pal accounts to help delegates defray the costs of attending conventions.) It’s harder now after Citizens United to help keep such campaigns competitive with just “moneybombs” when the Great Recession has robbed volunteers of even the pocket change or beer money they once sent in.

This is not to say there won’t citizens actively engaged in politics anymore but if so, it may well be as a part independent groups or other for causes than campaigns that are less expensive and perhaps would make them feel more wanted.

Published originally at : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”

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