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What Are "Grass Roots"?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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"Grass roots" is typically used to refer to a political movement led by small community based groups and individual constituents rather than large parties or organizations. These movements tend to rely heavily on local volunteers and local activism to build support and momentum for causes they believe in. Politicians who seek the movement’s support must adopt the movement’s cause, emphasizing the government’s role as a true servant of the people.

Any grass roots campaign is centered around an issue concerning the community and triggering a passionate response. Organization occurs at the local level, often beginning with small meetings or informal parties. Activists may use petitions, letter writing campaigns, fundraising events, demonstrations, or a host of other techniques to raise awareness and build support.

The first recorded use of the phrase “grass roots” is credited to Rudyard Kipling in 1901. In his novel, Kim, Kipling does not use the phrase in its modern political context, but gives it a more general meaning as a beginning or source. He says "Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Course of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil."

The phrase gained its more common political overtones a few years later. Senator Albert J. Beveridge was among the first to describe the will of the people in these terms, stating in 1912, "This party comes from the grass roots." "Grass roots" has since been used primarily to describe political action, only occasionally used as Kipling first intended.

Politicians are typically eager to be associated with grass roots movements or with the grass roots mentality in general in an attempt to win overall voter support. Opponents are frequently described as “out of touch”, more concerned with winning the support of wealthy supporters and special interest groups. They offer themselves up as an alternative choice, willing to place the needs of the people ahead of corporations and party politics.

Policies seen to have grass roots support are typically more likely to succeed. In cases where this support is absent, organizations have sometimes attempted to manufacture something resembling a popular movement. This strategy, known as astroturfing, mimics the appearance of a genuine popular movement. It works by orchestrating the actions of special interest advocates who appear to be disparate members of the public. These campaigns can eventually gain true community support, but typically it is the sponsoring group that benefits, rather than the public at large.

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Discussion Comments

By anon261077 — On Apr 13, 2012

This economy has become too big too fast. Rent, prices of housing, food, etc. have risen too fast to keep up with on small salaries.

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