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Ending rot in America's grass roots

Let's be honest: If you want your politics done right, you have to do it yourself.

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In next week's midterm contests, as in previous elections, discussion of each party's prospects has focused partly on the so-called ground war and the importance of the grass roots. But what, exactly, are the grass roots, and why do they matter?

Put simply, the grass roots are you and me and every other citizen in America. Living and working in communities across the country, our support drives issues, and our votes put politicians in office.

The Democratic and Republican parties cultivate the grass roots quite differently. The GOP promotes its causes through naturally occurring community groups of like-minded people, such as conservative churches and pro-business associations. Democrats, however, often outsource their politics, relying on artificial, virtual networks and professional canvassers to evangelize their message and build their party.

That's particularly ironic, because many Democrats oppose corporate outsourcing. There is nothing inherently wrong with their strategy; it is a successful method of contacting voters and bringing in money. But the repeated experience of painful losses on Election Day suggests it's a flawed approach that's hurting Democrats over the long term.

The Democratic Party and left-leaning political groups rely on outside organizations to hire young people who recruit members, collect funds, and contact constituents through quota-based pay systems. Since many hires don't have strong ties to the places where they work, this approach to gaining support and getting out the vote fails to capitalize on existing personal bonds among like-minded Democrats.

These young foot soldiers can burn out easily because they often don't get to connect with local Democratic institutions, such as labor and environmental groups that have strong roots in the community. Other Democratic activists, meanwhile, don't form nourishing relationships with regional or national progressive groups because their own local political network has become so atrophied.

The Republican Party, in contrast, has a strategy that connects its constituents into national political networks, giving them an effective outlet for their collective energy.

The party continues to mobilize actual grass-roots contacts by working through existing local groups of conservative Americans who helped reelect President Bush in 2004. Civic groups that connect right-leaning Americans through networks of friends and neighbors have been extremely successful in supporting conservative Supreme Court nominees as well as local and state-level bills to ban gay marriage and cut taxes.


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