I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
Grassroots politics, the common term for political movements that use popular participation to effect change, came to prominence in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the social movements of the 1960s that challenged the ruling elites, consulting firms started offering services to help clients develop, focus, and deploy campaigns to shape policy using popular opinion.
Edward T. Walker, a professor of sociology and that University of California, Los Angeles, captured the results of his detailed study of political consulting firms specializing in grassroots mobilization in his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy. The product of several years’ work interviewing grassroots consulting firms and analyzing data on the industry, Walker’s book offers a dispassionate and detailed look into this category of firms.
An Example Campaign
The author opens his commentary with a discussion of Students for Academic Choice, an advocacy organization started by for-profit colleges and trade schools such as the University of Phoenix. This organization ran an advocacy campaign, which included letter-writing and email efforts from students of for-profit universities, with the goal of ensuring these schools remained on the approved institutions list for federal student loan programs.
Students for Academic Choice recruited student leaders and provided support services, including template emails students could send to lawmakers public email accounts. All the participant had to do was fill in information such as their course of study and institution before sending it to their representative. The process of identifying opinion leaders, designing support activities, and driving participation is different in the details but often follows a standard pattern that’s well suited to templated consulting.
Walker goes into some detail on the structure of and range of services offered by grassroots consulting firms. Many of the interviews were done on a not-for-attribution basis, but in some of those cases he could still share significant details by choosing what to reveal and masking the identity of the firm and the individual he spoke with. As with any profession, participants show a range of motivations and attitudes, ranging from caring deeply about the issues they choose to support to working actively for whoever is willing to hire them.
Grassroots for Hire also spends a good deal of time on so-called “astroturf” campaigns. AstroTurf is the patented trade name of a synthetic turf used on sports fields for many years. Just as AstroTurf might be thought of as “fake grass”, a “fake grassroots” campaign could by analogy be called an “astroturf” campaign. The author cites three considerations that could indicate a popular campaign is illegitimate (p. 33):
It’s easy for a campaign’s opponents to dismiss it out of hand as a fake effort funded by one or more elite interests, but often difficult to prove any direct involvement without information from an opinion leader recruited by campaign consultants or copies of the “generated mail”.
The author rounds out his coverage of public affairs consulting in support of grassroots campaigns with a series of appendices describing the data his team collected and the specific methodologies used to analyze it. These appendices bridge the gap between the author’s doctoral dissertation (from which this book is adapted) and a published work. Academic writing doesn’t always translate well to the traditional publishing world, even for established houses such as Cambridge University Press, but in this case the transition was successful.
Walker’s goal in writing Grassroots for Hire was to provide factual and statistical support for debate about the consequences of professional consultants providing advocacy support services. His analysis more than meets that challenge. Highly recommended.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.