Maine conservatives can’t win with astroturf organizing

Maine conservatives can’t win with astroturf organizing

Matt Gagnon, the president of the staunchly conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, walked into a conference room in Auburn on Wednesday and in a presentation covered by the Sun Journal laid out his organization’s vision for 2016.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about grassroots organizing and who isn’t generally invited to conservative group strategy sessions, the coverage of this event provided me with some illuminating insights into the core organizing philosophy of one of the state’s more prominent right wing groups and laid bare how a group like MHPC fundamentally misunderstands grassroots organizing, or for that matter the origin of its self-proclaimed rival, the Maine People’s Alliance.

In his plan to dismantle “the liberal machine in Maine,” the Sun Journal described Gagnon as envisioning the building of a grassroots network that could rival and challenge progressive groups like the MPA. Implicit in that statement is that MHPC’s infrastructure isn’t currently built on a foundation of grassroots support, nor by extension fundamentally concerned with the actual concerns of those hypothetical supporters. Rather, Mr. Gagnon seems to be concerned primarily with using grassroots activism–and activists–as a tool for the existing aims of his organization and to strike out against member-led grassroots organizations.

In a nutshell, the president of MHPC just provided a picture-perfect example of astroturf organizing.

Certainly, MHPC isn’t alone in this line of thinking; in recent years national groups like the Koch Brothers-funded FreedomWorks, or Karl Rove’s American Crossroads have thrown down millions of dollars into attempts to turn corporate political agendas into broad-based political movements.

What these organizations seem to fail to grasp, though, is that organizing groups like MPA are successful in building grassroots support because they fundamentally view grassroots organizing not as a means, but as an end in and of itself. Founded in the ’80s by community members in Lewiston sitting around a kitchen table, MPA’s issue advocacy is derived from the collective desires of its community chapter members across the state, in a bottom-up structure that is wound into its institutional DNA. MPA members (myself included) show up because we not only see our values reflected in the organization, but also because we as members are the organization.

Gagnon, like many of his right-wing cohorts, wants the power that comes from grassroots organizing without all of the hassle of worrying about the community empowerment that is required to engage at that level, because grassroots empowerment takes the power out of the hands of those few who would monopolize the capacity to make change and gives it to the multitude at the bottom who bear the brunt of their decisions. If your goal is to reinforce–not to change–those structures of power, it simply doesn’t make sense to organize at the grassroots.

But that apparently won’t stop groups like MHPC, desperate for popular legitimacy while pushing an elitist agenda, from continuing to try to have it both ways.

Photo via Flickr/Jussi Mononen

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Grady Burns
Grady Burns 36 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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