grassroots

grassroots

The grassroots are the ordinary people in a region, or in a political party. The “grassroots” level is the opposite of the leadership level. In politics, having grassroots support means having the backing of the people, rather than of party bigwigs. 

A grassroots movement, or campaign, is one which organizes people at the most local level to take political action. This could mean advocating for a cause, protesting a policy, or rallying around a particular candidate. Often, a grassroots effort mobilizes people to turn out and vote. Grassroots actions can also include contacting members of Congress or signing petitions for change.

Grassroots organizing usually bypasses traditional channels like television and radio. Instead, organizers rely on face to face meetings, telephone, and especially on social media and other internet-based outreach efforts to mobilize people.

Barack Obama may have had the first modern grassroots presidential campaign. Of course, he was far from the first president to seek out the support for “ordinary Americans,” but Obama’s New Media team was innovative in their approach. One former Obama organizer described the energy of the first campaign:

Back then, we called ourselves the New Media team—and valued our artists, filmmakers, writers and online community builders as highly as our Google-trained data analysts. Our team culture was disciplined and yet explosively creative. Densely packed into our cubicles, we finished each other’s sentences and fed off the energy of our supporters as they built a movement that was going to bring change to Washington… We drove across the country, spending hours and sometimes days interviewing people about their lives. We often stayed in “supporter housing” instead of hotels—talking late into the night with our hosts in kitchens from Oregon to Mississippi to New Hampshire.

Years later, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran a series of grassroots campaigns for the presidency. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was also generally seen as a grassroots candidate.

What do you call a grassroots campaign which is not, in fact, driven by the grass roots? Pundits have a name for it – astroturf. Sometimes, a political movement masquerades as a community-based initiative when in fact, the movement is directed by a small group of people in power. The term astroturfing may have first been used in 1985, when then-Senator Lloyd Bentsen complained that he was getting piles of letters from constituents who seemed to have been mobilized by the insurance lobby.  In the internet age, of course, it’s easier than ever to create the illusion of broad-based support for a cause, so astroturfing is easier than ever.