I’ve spent the last few years studying the field of “grassroots for hire” consultants who help to encourage political participation on behalf of business interests and other advocacy causes, the results of which are reported in my recent book. I found that the field is remarkably well developed, featuring hundreds of consulting shops across the U.S. that work for a diverse range of clients on public issues ranging from immigration reform to intellectual property laws. And their work is large-scale, with the leading campaign by an average public affairs consulting firm targeting over 750,000 Americans for participation, in turn facilitating the participation of millions of Americans every year.
This is not the kind of participation that proponents of deliberative democracy might envision. Instead, it’s short-term and transactional. In many ways it’s changing the face of civic engagement across the U.S.
There’s a reason for this: consultants are being paid by their clients to win public policy battles, not to strengthen democracy and generate the long term relationships that integrate local community members and build bridges across social divides. As rational actors, consultants target those most likely to say “yes” to their requests, and they usually ask their targets to take a short-term action: write their member of Congress, sign a petition, join a protest, or attend a lobby day. They are much less likely to engage in meaningful organization building. It’s civic engagement from the perspective of the war room.
Take the recent “soda tax” battles in San Francisco and Berkeley. The Nov. 4 ballots in both of these Bay Area cities had propositions asking voters whether they wanted new taxes on sugary drinks within their municipalities. The unsuccessful San Francisco proposition (Prop. E), which required a two-thirds majority vote to win, would have imposed a tax of $.02/ounce of sugary beverages, increasing the price of a can of soda by approximately a quarter in the city. The successful Berkeley proposal (Measure D), which required only a majority vote, was slightly less onerous, imposing a tax of a penny per ounce on sugary drinks.
The beverage industry and its associated interests fiercely resisted these proposals. But the battle over soda taxes galvanized short term actions, not long-term organizing efforts that would enhance the capacity of communities.
The beverage industry, with the support of consultants worked through a front group called the Coalition for an Affordable City (CAC). CACs’ civic-sounding name implied that Bay Area residents were coming together to organize around issues like housing, gentrification, public transit, and related issues of concern to low- and moderate-income communities. However, the coalition was focused on one (and only one) issue: shooting down soda taxes. While the American Beverage Association’s sponsorship of the group was disclosed plainly, an ABC Nightline report found evidence that protesters were being recruited for pay on Craigslist, and many local businesses listed as supporters of the campaign were unaware of their supposed involvement. The campaign made relatively little effort to improve the Bay Area’s civic capacity.
Cases like this – other examples involve the regulation of for-profit colleges, telecom firms, and “sharing economy” companies like AirBnb – see business trying to win on specific issues. The result is that civic participation is more and more ‘transactional.’ New data-driven targeting strategies only make this worse.
To be sure, some campaigns organized with the help of grassroots lobbying consultants do help to build civic infrastructure and generate meaningful ties among citizens. For example, some consultants discussed in my research have backgrounds in grassroots community organizing, and they have continued in that tradition in their consulting work, only with more resources and better data. Others have helped progressive causes ranging from the LGBT “It Gets Better” campaign to capacity-building efforts for the Partnership for Working Families. And consultants on the right have worked to build civic capacity in their grassroots outreach to conservative groups such as churches, tea party groups, hunting clubs, and other associations.
But these are the exceptions. Public affairs consultants, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on winning specific campaigns on specific issues for their paying clients, many of which are firms and industry groups. This means that much civic engagement today serves the strategic interests of business and is less likely to build long-term ties among participants.
Moreover, because those likely-to-participate citizens that consultants target are already over-represented in the political system – those with a history of political activism, the highly partisan, and the more educated – business strategies to mobilize civic engagement tend to make participation even more unequal, by getting those who are already involved in politics to participate more, rather than drawing in people who are less engaged with the political system.
Edward Walker is Associate Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Sociology at UCLA. He is author of “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy” (2014, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor of “Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation” (2015, NYU Press).
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections