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June 23, 2006

the effects of canvassing--on canvassers

Canvassing is a common experience, especially for young activists on the left. In a 2002 survey available from CIRCLE, people were asked, "Have you worked as a canvasser--having gone door to door for a political or social group or candidate?" Seven percent of young people (and 11 percent of the young people who were involved in politics) said that they had.

Dana Fisher wrote a Working Paper, funded by CIRCLE, that examined the canvassing experience. She has now expanded her paper into a book entitled Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America. I blurbed it (along with Senator Bradley, Ralph Nader, Harry Boyte, Bill Schambra of the Bradley Center, and Doug McAdam). I said:

For idealistic young progressives today, there is basically only one paid entry-level job left in politics: canvassing. Dana R. Fisher is the first to study this crucial formative experience. Essentially, she finds that the canvass is an alienating and undemocratic experience. As a result, we are squandering the energy and ideas of a whole generation. What's more, a progressive movement that relies on regimented canvassing is doomed to defeat because it lacks an authentic connection with citizens. Unless we take seriously the rigorous evidence and acute arguments of Activism, Inc., the future looks grim

Never having been on a canvass, I can't guarantee that Fisher's very critical portrait is comprehensive or fair. But I am sure that her account should trigger a robust debate about the effects of canvassing on young progressives. Indeed, Greg Bloom has kicked off that debate by writing a thoughtful series on DailyKos that makes similar points to Fisher's. The comments that veterans of canvassing have made in response to Bloom have been very interesting and, in the main, support his critique. See also this response by a canvass organizer.

Posted by peterlevine at June 23, 2006 01:39 PM


From Greg Bloom:

Thanks, Peter. I'd also like to point to a couple of other sources on this issue. One is a recent article by Nathan Wyeth over at the Grist, in which he articulates a critique that is similar to mine and Dr. Fisher's.

The discussion gets heated there. Many people have invested a lot of time into this form of activism, and some are very passionate in their defense. There are few concrete measures to weigh the positive and negative effects; it's sometimes hard to sort through anecdotal testimony to come to an understanding. Dr Fisher's book is a good start toward that end.

One point that I'd like to add to this post: the canvassing industry is dominated by a particular family of 'activist corporations,' altogether the largest canvassing operation in the country: the PIRGs/Fund for Public Interest Research groups. Many critiques, such as mine and Nathan's above, are specific to the canvassing model used by this family. (Dr Fisher's work is also specific, though pseudonymous -- she does not name the organization she profiles ...).

For a different perspective on the canvassing experience within this model, this site was created by a group of canvassers who actually enjoyed canvassing and tried to keep doing their jobs -- by forming a union. Their story about that attempt is rather troubling.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 26, 2006 01:00 PM

From Joseph Needham:

I have been a canvasser for the past seven years and when people use the proper techniques, canvassing can be a great way to be heard by the masses. As with anything in life, a few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch.

This is why the training is so important and why the right people must be chosen to canvass. It is true sometimes when a door is banged on the prospects were busy doing something else at the time and can be short with the canvasser which leads to negative things being said on both parts.

By using the proper approach, even if the prospect does not agree with what is being said by the canvasser, the canvasser can still walk away without leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the person being canvassed.

To learn more about some of these techniques, feel free to check out my website at

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 23, 2006 09:21 PM

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