The Web site http://www.grassroots.com isn't exactly what one would expect. There aren't any passionate people promising to stand up for issues, no local communities to join, no petitions to sign. The site, instead, is designed for political moguls looking for someone to send out a few e-mails to interested constituents, build a trendy Web site—and then more than likely charge them a fortune. This, it would seem, is a contradiction of what "grass roots"—rough-around-the-edges ground-up activism—is supposed to mean.
Unfortunately, in such a technological and money-focused society, this Web site, along with others, could actually be the demise of what we know as grass-roots politics. Perhaps the "power of the people" has succumbed a bit to glossy commercialism.
What the hell is 'grass roots' anyway?
For James Stewart, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Mississippi College, grass-roots politics comes from the people in the community, "from the bottom up, not from the political elite."
Traditionally, grass-roots politics is the very ideal of American government. It requires the citizens, the people, of the communities to be involved in the issues that matter to them and their community. Town hall meetings, kids protesting around the tree that might get cut down, PTAs—all that's grass roots. Put simply, it's people taking an interest in what affects their community.
Landon Huey sees it this way. "Interaction between friends, family and neighbors," he said, "that's what grass roots is all about."
Huey, now 29 and living in Baldwyn, Miss., started the Greens of Jackson before Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000. And he was the campaign manager for Green Sherman Lee Dillon's run for the governor's mansion last fall.
Although Huey knows that the Greens are not the only group fighting grass-roots causes in Mississippi, it has provided an outlet for many to participate, especially since one of the four key pillars to the Green Party is grass-roots democracy.
"Politics can still work, as long as people participate!" Huey said.
This ideal seems ever harder to reach, though, as more big money pours into politics and the mainstream media seem focused on anything but what "the people" really need.
Money's not for nothin'
Ideally, people, not money, should drive politics and policy.
"Regular folks can't participate in politics, unless at the basic local level. The media costs are so much," Stewart said.
Big bucks in even state senatorial campaigns are becoming the norm all over the country. High campaign spending has led to all sorts of legislation, but it remains obvious, especially when looking at two presidential candidates (and their VPs)—all of whom are worth millions —that money is a necessity to get the big seats.
"Dollars speak louder than words," Huey said. He says the Green Party never accepts corporate donations. "Money buys time with politicians."
Money is definitely one of the inherent evils of politics, but the prospect of that reality ever changing seems bleak.
Stewart also sees the idea of grass-roots politics being overtaken by media machines that, in effect, plow over the people's issues before they can really take hold. "It's become a victim of its own success. Whenever an issue becomes important enough, the media pick it up and deal with it too quickly for a following." Stewart added, "If there's a grassroots issue, a candidate takes it over."
Often, that means that an issue quickly becomes a skeleton of its former self. That is, a call for tax cuts for the rich becomes a substitute for actually creating new jobs for the poor. Tort reform for big industry becomes a stand-in for a plan for actual affordable health care. The call for expensive "accountability" (meaning expensive tests) drowns out the need for public-school resources. A call for classroom discipline masks efforts to kick more special-education children out of the public schools, rather than fund resources to provide them needed assistance.
In essence, the grass-roots issue becomes an excuse for a sound bite that often has little to do with the original issue.
A Second, or Maybe a First, Chance
There could still be hope for grass-roots activism in Mississippi and in the rest of the country. Huey sees people power, so to speak, as the only hope for the future of America. "In order to make sure we have rights, it is extremely important to continue grassroots politics," Huey warned.
The newest trend of grass roots is actually national, which contradicts the "bottom up" meaning, sort of. Groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn.org are the newest wave in a nationwide attempt to bring grass-roots politics back to democracy.
The Internet helps make such national grass-roots efforts at least seem local. The Web-based Democracy for America, for instance, is technically a political action committee. "Inspired by the campaign of Howard Dean," their Web site focuses on the funding of "fiscally conservative, socially progressive candidates." The site also offers training sessions (along with 21st Century Democrats) across the country to teach people how to mobilize on a grass-roots level. This often means using the Internet and e-mail, and increasingly blogs, to disseminate flyers, posters and meeting information—even about "meet-ups" in people's living rooms right here in Jackson.
Another site claiming to be grass roots in nature is punkvoter.com. Surprising to many, the site is hosted by literally a bunch of "punks," with two main missions: to get young people to vote and get Bush out of office. Currently, a group of bands is touring the country, registering voters and providing information to educate voters.
Huey sees the national surge as perfectly normal, although he still stands firm on the local aspect. "Grass roots starts locally, and if you get enough support, it creates a groundswell, and that's fine," he said.
But, it is contradictory when the issue comes from the larger entity and sifts down to the local communities. "I'd be suspicious of anything not local," Stewart warned. "If grass roots gets too big, it's not grass roots." The recent emergence of MoveOn.org—which originally was started by a small group of high-tech workers in California to encourage Congress to "censure and move on" during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandals—as a major national political player, and a controversial one, could support that fear.
Grass Grows on the Left and the Right
Both sides of the political spectrum, though, understand the importance and usage of grass-roots tactics. "Conservatives have been really successful with the ideological issues," Stewart said.
That is, on "wedge issues" such as abortion, gun control and gay marriage, conservatives seem able to reach right into the living room of the house next door and motivate people to vote for social conservatives—who may or may not have those people's best interests at heart. But they do know how to use the power of grass roots to get them involved.
Stewart also sees issues like health insurance—that directly affect so many Americans—as strong ones for the left, especially in this election year. And it may be that the left is getting better at disseminating its own emotional wedge issues.
Huey says he has witnessed the amazing impact of the left's attempts at grass-roots politics. Before the war in Iraq began in March 2003, Huey, along with 500,000 others, went to march in Washington D.C. on a mission of "Pre-emptive Peace."
"Both sides have a strong grasp on grass roots," he added.
No matter what the issue, or on what level of government it occurs, political participation is an absolute necessity.
"Direct political participation allows people to deal with issues, it lets them feel connected without the attention to parties," Huey said.
Kate Jacobson is a student at Millsaps and writes for the Purple and White.