Grassroots/Grasstops

Some foundations and political organizations prefer to deal with groups that represent the great mass of rank-and-file citizens, rather than the wealthy and powerful and their elite coterie. When social reformers hustle for “grassroots support,” they are using the term in more or less the same sense for which it was coined more than a hundred years ago.

The expression was just starting to appear here and there by 1912, when McClure’s Magazine famously described Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party attempt at a presidential comeback as “a campaign from the grass roots up.” Today, even beyond politics, when modern writers refer to scrappy little organizations with lean budgets, or to passionate leaders who have no fancy credentials or positions of power, they are using GRASSROOTS in much the same way as McClure’s did. (The single, unhyphenated word was rare until the Great Depression; it’s now standard.) GRASSROOTS is a verbal fanfare for the common man, and it hewed close to that humble meaning through most of its history.

Little by little, though, the word’s historical clarity came to be diluted, both in civic affairs and in politics. One now sees “grassroots ideas” “grassroots values,” and “grassroots movements” applied all over the place, sometimes to prestigious organizations run by famous people with gorgeously engraved business cards. I suspect that too many foundations now use “grassroots” to describe “people of whom we approve,” even if those people might take a limo to Central Park if they wanted to see some grass.

As if to acknowledge that not all grassroots movements are all that rooted in the common soil, some foundations and think tanks have seized on a new earthy term for their favorite causes: “Organic” movements, while not necessarily as common as grass, are nonetheless supposedly pure — in the same way, perhaps, as organically grown vegetables. One foundation now supports and promotes “local, organic initiatives to improve mental health and strengthen communities.” The professionalization of civic activities, warns another foundation, can be a threat to “more organic social movement groupings.”

Not all these “organic groupings” evidently need to be “grassroots” in any traditional sense. The same foundation that worried about excessive professionalization also published a report in a different field suggesting the creation of an online information network. In that network, it wrote, “applied and academic content could interact in a flexible, growing, organic entity.” Although non-professionals would presumably be welcome in this “organic entity,” the thick jargon of the 100-page explanatory text suggests that few truly grassroots types would understand a word of what’s going on.

In short, there’s more to the trendy use of ORGANIC than merely a reference to earthy origins. To be organic in the fashionable sense, apparently, it’s necessary to grow the way natural vegetation does: by drawing nutrients as needed from one’s environment and then manufacturing one’s own growing parts. How this actually works in an Internet “entity” — or any other sort of “grouping” for that matter — is anyone’s guess. Yet even if this use of ORGANIC seems to demand knowledge and skills not widely distributed among the grass roots, it does seem to retain some populist overtones. The word is obviously meant to contrast with more privileged movements and organizations whose growth comes in bursts of patronage from wealthy or powerful backers. The self-cultivating movements are “organic” to the extent that they are not artificially fertilized by well-meaning but tainted outsiders.

In any case, the supposed nobility of the grass roots, organic or otherwise, has lately become more honored in theory than in practice. The trouble with grass roots, horticulturalists will tell you, is that, though they are great at multiplying and spreading, they are not very deep. For the truly profound thinkers in the public-interest world, the grass roots sometimes just aren’t profound enough. Nor, in many cases, are they organic enough — since some of them end up being all-too-richly fertilized, often by the same wealthy organizations that employ the profound thinkers. When you can no longer claim to be either GRASSROOTS or ORGANIC, it’s time for a new trendy word. Voilà: GRASSTOPS.

This new coinage came to our attention sometime in 2004, when a specialist in education sent it to my attention with the following definition: “elites who have power, but are also attached to a good cause.” Used in a sample sentence, the word evidently works this way: “This organization brings together people from both the grassroots and grasstops in order to build a commonly held vision for educational change.” Given that the normal distance between the roots and the top of most grass is a matter of an inch or two, it would seem a little peculiar to use grass — bottom, top, or middle — as a yardstick for eliteness. But that is precisely what makes this curious new word so revealing.

The height of the grass, in this imagery, is really beside the point. What makes grass the metaphor of choice here is not its altitude, but its imputed virtue. “The handkerchief of the Lord,” Walt Whitman reverently calls it, in Leaves of Grass (thus giving an unintentionally phlegmy cast to those glistening pearls of dew, but never mind). What turns wealthy and powerful figures into grasstops? The mere fact that we approve of them — nothing more. They need be no more grassy, in the sense of humble and down-to-earth, than the House of Windsor. They are simply our kind of people, and thus they acquire their grasshood the way great university donors acquire their honorary doctorates.

The problem with GRASSTOPS is not just that it’s obviously disingenuous but that it describes only the mind of the writer. If I declare you to be a member of the Noble Order of Grasstops, I might seem to be saying that you have some social kinship with the great, grassy masses of common humanity. Yet in reality I have made no verifiable claim about your social status one way or another. All I’ve really said is that, in my personal firmament, you’re on the side of the angels. Thus the word manages to do what all of the very worst jargon always does: shift the spotlight from the world of regular people and real problems to the personal idiosyncrasies of the commentator.

Leave a Reply