Grassroots political movements are incredibly important in contemporary politics. According to Dictionary.com, the term grassroots refers to “the common or ordinary people, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite of a political party, social organization, etc.; the rank and file”.
Grassroots political movements are organized from the ground up rather than from the top-down – meaning, there is less extensive monetary support from corporations, lobbyists or financial institutions etc. Instead, grassroots movements are generally driven by volunteers and private donations from individuals who also serve to organize the movement itself.
In the past, grassroots political movements were generally consigned to a certain geographic locality and were concerned with a particular issue. However, as is overwhelmingly evident today, grassroots movements have not only proved to be very influential but also capable of manifesting on a national scale and dealing with a large swath of political issues rather than a few.
One of the most influential grassroots movements in recent years is the U.S. .Tea Party. The Tea Party is an amalgamation of different individuals and groups, leaning far to the right politically-speaking. It has been responsible for organizing widespread political opposition to the Obama administration (particularly against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and has been outrageously successful on many levels. Many of the current Republican presidential candidates are “Tea Party candidates” such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and (arguably) Donald Trump.
The “catch” of such a grassroots movement is that since they develop more “organically”, as they have no overarching model or particular leader to follow, they have the tendency to throw together a mass of individuals who may only overlap on a few issues and that may only join the movement as a matter of political expediency. The U.S. Tea Party is comprised of conservatives, libertarians, as well as a few political groups with white supremacist and neo-nazi overtones.
The problem is that such decentralized movements don’t have the capacity to police themselves, and are thus always susceptible to possible “infiltration”. Republican Congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign faced a lot of trouble when it was revealed that some of his supporters had ties to white supremacist groups and Trump’s current campaign is dogged with the same problem. Even so, when a grassroots movement does manage to scrounge up a large amount of people with significant ideological overlap, they can prove to be political heavyweights.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign could be considered a grassroots movement. Since day one, he has been supported by a mass of everyday individuals and has no support from Super PACs – something he is very proud of and eager to point out. According to International Business Times, Sanders has raised 73 million dollars since announcing his candidacy while presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, his primary opponent, has raised 112 million dollars. The difference is that “The average Sanders donation was $27, and just a few hundred donors have pledged $2,700, the maximum figure allowed” while “Clinton, on the other hand, has relied primarily on high ticket prices to fundraisers to bankroll her campaign”.
The increasing prevalence of grassroots politics is not only found in the States – Canada has experienced quite a substantial growth in grassroots movements as well. According to The Globe and Mail, Canada has a burgeoning of “environmental, feminist, ‘balance the budget,’ free trade, anti-globalization, and gay rights ‘movements.’”
The Canadian Green Party and Communist Party would be two examples of prominent political movements that rely on a more grassroots based approach in terms of organization. Another example would be the Idle No More movement, which is a grassroots movement comprised of aboriginal people of Canada and allies that strives to achieve indigenous sovereignty and rights, prevent environmental damage and a whole swath of other issues.
What accounts for the recent success of grassroots political movements in both the US and Canada? Undoubtedly, the adoption and use of social media by everyday individuals has served to “level” the playing field for grassroots movements. People are now able to quickly and easily organize and coordinate political activity through the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or GooglePlus, etc. In the past, rigid hierarchically structured political movements were much more capable of public outreach than their grassroots counterparts. Making phone calls takes an exorbitant amount of time and placing political ads costs an exorbitant amount of money. Now however, people involved in grassroots movements are just as capable of reaching out to others as corporate sponsored campaigns. An article on grassroots movements in The Guardian makes note of the incredible importance of social media to contemporary political organization:
“It is the ultimate equalizer – giving people the chance to have their voices heard on the same stage as the world’s most powerful leaders. In the past decade we’ve seen online campaigning help bring down dictators, hold big business to account, elect presidents and encourage a whole new generation of young people to get involved in issues that matter”
Yet, there is another reason for the rise of grassroots movements that could be considered a pre-condition for any such mobilization of the masses – the general discontent with the status quo that always accompanies and animates such bottom-up political activity. Events such as the 2008 recession, the Syria crisis, the growing concern over climate change and a plethora of other issues have led to a political climate of high anxiety and stark political tension. Though, these many grassroots movements may follow completely divergent trajectories, it is clear that for all of those involved in said-movements, the status quo has ceased to work for them in one way or another.
This discontent in conjunction with social media has allowed for the rise of grassroots movements on a scale that was once unthinkable. Saul Alinsky, a famous American political activist and grassroots community organizer, once said “Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have”. People now “have” both the passion and capacity to organize for change and “can” thus do so in a larger and more comprehensive manner than ever before.
Assistant External News Editor