In D.C. circles, you often hear pundits and organizers talk about the difference between an actual “grassroots” movement and its evil cousin, “astroturf”—a manufactured facsimile meant to advance a top-down agenda. Halfway between artifice and authenticity you might come across the “bonsai trees,” prized specimens painstakingly manicured to give just the right effect. At a hearing or lunchtime panel, you might hear from a low-income mom who benefited from a tax credit program being pushed by an advocacy organization, or a farmer whose daily concerns are shoehorned into a discussion about agriculture subsidies.
To be sure, these are real people whose stories genuinely intersect with various facets of public policy. But when working-class Americans receive a platform in policy circles, they too often tend to be props flown in for a hearing, carefully positioned next to the podium at a rally or quoted in sound bites served up by an interest group with an agenda of its own. Their perspectives are sanitized and pre-packaged, not taken for what they are—messy and at times contradictory, but more than just a stand-in for a pre-existing agenda.
As the editor of the Edgerton Essays project published by American Compass in partnership with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, I naively thought our task would be a fairly simple one. We sought out working-class Americans, typically without a four-year college degree, who felt distant from the political discourse and invited them to tell politicians about the challenges facing their communities.