In the 90s, the word grassroots was used a great deal by Newt Gingrich to explain the success of his colleagues, the victorious 104th Republican congress, who were elected by the American People — that is, the 15-or-so percent of the public who had voted for one of them.
Gingrich’s enthusiasm over the triumph of the American People over Washington was, I think, sincere. It was not based in fact, by which I mean voter turn-out, but enthusiasm rarely if ever is. The idea that The People have been independently working toward a better society while Washington was employed elsewhere is a reassuring fiction, or at least a gross exaggeration of what is indeed happening in the world. The purpose of this essay is not to dismiss the prospect of a so-called grassroots campaign, but to populate that prospect with some really-existing folk. For I have seen the grassroots up close.
Some time ago I was canvassing on behalf of a local Catholic hospital which had been ordered to close by an agency of the Ontario government. (This was during a period of provincial and municipal restructuring.) My job was to go out among the grassroots and gather the signatures of ordinary folk who, presumably, were opposed to the order. I was sent out with a lapel button, a clipboard, and printed hospital propaganda into an area of Kingston known as the Fruitbelt, a mixed region of low-income manual labourers, welfare recipients, poor retirees, middle-class shop owners, and hospital employees. The houses were all rather modest, but were distributed across the class spectrum more broadly than you will find in most Kingston neighbourhoods. Community volunteer work allows you the privilege of seeing something that is unknown to most politicians: the way people actually live. Many people do not see into the houses of other social and economic classes, or even into the houses of their own neighbours, a fact which is probably debilitating to democratic politics. Here is an example of what I mean. Some of the houses I went into had a smell or appearance I felt to be repulsive; some others felt instantly welcoming. Each house projected a social class I couldn’t help but instantly recognize, by the power of acquired intuition. At some point my ‘progressive views’ had to admit houses and people that I find instinctively repulsive, otherwise those views would be so much chatter. Well, this fact rarely enters into the discussions of democracy and grassroots campaigns, which are always presented as a matter of jolly folks getting together to fight Big Brother. That they will have to get together in the queer livingrooms of people they find smelly, and who anyway are not one of their kind, is conveniently ignored. So it was in the hospital campaign.
I recall an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, hot bungalow. Her walls were covered with religious paraphernalia, photos of the Pope and so on. A sure ally, I decided. I explained why I was in her house and offered the clipboard for her signature. With a knowing shrug she offered her support and told me the hospital was being closed because, as she put it, “the Jews want their land back.” At another house an eager defendant of the Free Market didn’t care much for the Canadian health care system. Another person was a Seventh-Day Adventist who “didn’t believe in doctors or medicine” and who consequently saw no reason to support a hospital with his taxes. Others reasoned that, since the people in charge thought the closure was a good idea, it must be. In the end, there was no common theme, no general view, no shared aspiration which I could infer as the public interest. Why should there have been? These people had never considered the matter among themselves, and likely never would. Probably a majority signed my petition in the end, some perhaps in ignorance of the issues, some just to be polite. From a statistical point of view The People had spoken. Only, in private very few said what the hospital management wanted to hear.
I don’t conclude from my experiences of grassroots politics that public consensus is impossible. It is at several steps’ remove from impossible, somewhere in the vicinity of Bloody Hard. It must be negotiated face-to-face, and inevitably divisive matters will get in the way: resentment, racism, class- and gender-based hostility, fear, anti-semitism, complacency. As I’ve suggested however, the debate is usually precluded by the lack of a physical place in which to get things going. Democracy needs wood and concrete at least as much as it needs ‘information.’ There is no shortage of shopping malls, but shopping malls probably won’t do. Neither will going door to door to collect signatures, which results in nothing more than an opinion poll. I hear a good deal of well-meant but idle talk about ‘public debate,’ again without any reference to the actual conditions under which it must necessarily take place. In any case, debate reminds me of church attendance – decent and wholesome, but avoided whenever possible. In my experience, both are typically a burdensome affair whose chief accomplishment is to drive away honest, thoughtful people.
It is possible that democracy is one of those ideas that work admirably so long as they are never practiced. Think of democracy, for a moment, not as a system but as a lifestyle. To live the democratic life you would be required not only to vote once every few years but to keep yourself well-informed in the meantime and to show up regularly for public meetings. You would be required to maintain social relations with a diversity of persons and to perform certain duties in the public interest. You would be required to get involved when something goes wrong, which it often does. In short, your life would be less your own. It takes little reflection to realize this is precisely the sort of arrangement many of us labour to avoid. As many others, my family long ago withdrew from the burden of church attendance. It seems to me that membership in all sorts of civic organizations is declining. Public life today means going to the movies, which folks do less than in previous years because the VCR has privatized the theatre. ‘Home entertainment’ is almost redundant these days. And be honest: don’t you generally prefer it that way? Every one of us complains about the politicians, but at least they are doing the dirty work we prefer not to do. Democratic participation, whatever its philosophical merits, is a pain.
Social interaction is becoming unnecessary for an increasing number of tasks. Computers will soon replace most (perhaps all) of the human beings with whom you would have dealt in the past, by which I mean not your friends and family, but bank tellers and ticket sellers and salespeople and so on. Most of the things you need to do in person will soon be available ‘on-line’ from your house, if this is not the case already. I am not suggesting that social interaction will disappear, but only that it will be less necessary for certain purposes. Nor is this evidence of the inevitable direction of affairs. Public life will not disappear because there is less need for human bank tellers. A life with a smaller public aspect will however be possible, if you prefer. Deal with other human beings, or not; it’s your choice. Social interaction is becoming less a matter of necessity and more a matter of consumer choice. Although we tend not to think of politics as a matter of lifestyle, consumerism plays its role here as well. When is the last time you voted for an inconvenience?
Grassroots work has shown me how rational and functional contemporary democratic politics really is. There is no reward and much disappointment for the progressive individual who is informed and politically active. Many uninformed (or ill-informed) and inactive citizens may do democracy a disservice, but they have no compelling reason to behave otherwise. A detachment from civic life and electoral politics makes a good deal of sense to those who choose such a course. Do I conclude that politics is useless? No, but I understand the reasoning of those who do. The pursuit of the public good at private expense is perhaps after all a sucker’s game, whatever its supposed virtues. There is a further point to be inferred from my experiences: only among the grassroots does one discern that we in fact have the Government we want, regardless of complaints about particular governments. The system runs nicely without the necessity of public effort, and if things get intolerable enough there are public polls to convey our discontent. Government has evolved toward a state of technocratic efficiency as has everything else. Here ‘efficiency’ means ‘with minimal public intervention.’ Our reward for accepting the system is that most of the time we are left alone. This is often true also of what politicians designate a grassroots campaign. The Contract with America, after all, was delivered to the people via the couch potato’s bible, TV Guide. A place more ill-suited to negotiating a social contract could not be imagined, but the irony went mostly unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because there was no irony: it was Government as usual, conveniently arranged for the citizen who prefers to stay home. [April 1999.]