Grassroots passion has always played a pivotal role in galvanizing citizens since people are drawn to pursue a common cause more than any individual agenda. When grassroots political campaigns succeed, it’s because they manage to tap into the undercurrents of widespread dissatisfaction and channel them into a capacity for change.
The most effective grassroots campaigns gain momentum when a group of people who perceive problems select candidates with the character, personal appeal, and political clout to offer solutions. But, to appreciate the kind of electricity a strong grassroots movement can generate, it’s useful to explore the characteristics of history’s most noteworthy grassroots campaigns.
With Kennedy’s death still raw in the American psyche, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for presidency was scorned by Democrats, who supported incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater’s opponents went to great lengths to portray him as an extremist and a warmonger, but his detractors failed to realize that what they considered Goldwater’s most unspeakable affront was also the reason why supporters flocked to his campaign: Goldwater never held his tongue.
While the brashness of Goldwater’s championship of individual liberty was at the time not enough to overpower America’s residual sympathy for Kennedy-era interventionism, his message resonated strongly with a sizeable subset of voters. The historical consensus is that his loss to Johnson was inevitable, but most also agree that Goldwater’s grassroots activism won the future for conservative ideals.
1980 was an uncertain time for American citizens; the Cold War bred fear, and distrust in heavy-handed government policies had reached a boiling point. But no obstacle could faze Ronald Reagan, as he campaigned on a platform of optimism against President Jimmy Carter. It was obvious to anyone who heard him speak that Reagan really believed the government’s economic mismanagement could be curtailed, and that despite its threats and bluster, the Soviet Union would be relegated to “the ash heap of history.”
Ex-political consultant Stuart Spencer noted that Reagan’s “best speeches were the ones he penned himself.” The embodiment of a grassroots candidate, Reagan’s sincerity, leadership, and willingness to buck economic convention earned him the respect of the American people.
As the past’s most impactful grassroots campaigns have demonstrated, when the passions of the masses underpin a political platform, the result is real influence. Candidates would do well to realize how effective grassroots organizing can define a movement for decades to come.