COMMENTARY: Grassroots in Politics

Editor’s Note: This timeless commentary first circulated in April 2019. We apologize for not posting it earlier. We’re spending the summer trying to get back to the … grassroots.

There is a great deal of talk about ‘grassroots’ in modern politics, but what exactly does the word mean? The term ‘grassroots’ is actually a mining term that dates back to the 1870s, and refers to the soil just beneath the ground’s surface.
 During the Gold Rush, advertisers would often tell potential speculators that gold could be found “at the grassroots” with the most basic of tools. ‘Grassroots’ came to mean getting back to the basics.

The Oklahoma Roots of “Grassroots”

The term ‘grassroots’ in the political arena has Oklahoma origins. Adolphus Edward Perry, a Canadian by birth, served as the Vice Chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party in 1907. Known as ‘Dynamite Ed because he would toss lighted sticks of dynamite from a moving train to call attention to his political cause, Perry made a fortune in mining, real estate and agriculture in the days before statehood.

“’I am for a square deal, grass root representation, for keeping close to the people, against ring rule and for fair treatment,” Perry famously said when asked his political philosophy. To Perry, ‘grassroots’ meant square dealing, fair treatment and representation close to the people.

Every contemporary politician and candidate (in both major Parties) claim they are from the “grassroots.” They profess undying support of a “bottom up” approach to government decision making and denounce those who support top down governing. They pledge to always listen to the people, be accessible, available, reachable, approachable, and always have their door open.
But try and come through that open door and see just how approachable that elected official really is after taking office. Most employ gate-keepers and staff charged with insuring that only certain people get through that “open door” and enforce the price of admission (contribution) to gain access.

Once Upon a Time 

There was a time when the term “grassroots” meant those who labored in politics to educate their fellow citizens on the issues. The “grassroots” worked on campaigns which were run on a shoestring budget, and engaged in retail (face-to-face) politics. The “grassroots” didn’t berate elected officials who wouldn’t listen to them — they beat ’em at the ballot box.

Those “grassroots” often lost, but they faithfully continued on the path. They kept showing up. They didn’t claim they were cheated because they lost — they just rolled up their sleeves and kept working. 

Those “grassroots” of yesteryear changed Oklahoma. They turned Oklahoma from a Democrat Party stronghold to a reliable Republican state.

Sadly, many of today’s self-proclaimed “grassroots” believe they were cheated if they lose. They work to censure elected leaders rather than conquer them. They unmercifully attack those who disagree with them, and regularly engage in name-calling and nasty rhetoric.
Like “Dynamite Ed,” they lob bombs to call attention to themselves and their cause (which is always just). Disruption, disrespect, and situational ethics are regularly used tactics, but always with an appropriate scripture reference.

Ed Perry filed to run for Lt. Governor in Oklahoma in 1926, but withdrew because the state wouldn’t let him appear on the ballot as “Dynamite” Ed Perry. 
Today, Perry is a footnote in Oklahoma history in spite of his bomb throwing. 

That will be the fate of the bomb throwing modern “grassroots” movement because it is ego and not ethic driven.

Steve Fair is Chairman of the 4th district got the Oklahoma Republican Party. He can be reached by phone at 580.252.6284 or by email at His blog is