A long-time reader CR

February 28, 2002 12:48 p.m.

A long-time reader (CR) writes in to ask, just what is this “astroturf” or phony grass-roots organizing you keep talking about?

Good question. Let me see if I can answer it.

Start with the premise that any organized interest group or corporation can hire some shark who served a few terms in the House and have him go to the Hill and lobby. But what really gets Reps’ and Senators’ attention is when the issue being discussed is one that people care about back home. One that can get the switchboard humming with calls from the district.

That matters.

If angry voters are pissed because Senator X isn’t supporting or opposing amendment Y, that matters a helluva lot more than the lobbyist’s $2000 suit, manicured fingernails, and gaudy watch.

Astroturf organizing begins with the following question, why can’t we buy that kind of support too?

Well, it turns out you can! Or at least, sorta. Astroturf organizing describes a series of services consultants provide to simulate the existence of grass-roots interest or concern with an issue. It’s fake grass-roots, thus ‘astroturf.’

So how is it down? Basically, with a mix of phone-banking, setting up of front groups meant to imitate citizen groups, media campaigns, and the like. Perhaps even demonstrations if a sufficient number of rent-a-protestors can be assembled. On top of this, mix in some clever new angles for your message… like maybe pollution actually counts as paid speech and is thus constitutionally protected! These guys are very creative.

In any case, astroturf originated in the field operations run by the tobacco companies and the gun lobby. Again, phony groups, paid-rabble-rousing, and so forth. But obviously this wasn’t all phony. With guns at least, there obviously is a very real constituency for anti-gun-control activism. (Much less with tobacco, of course. And that’s where the art was really developed. More on this later.) But the folks who originated the skills got them down to such an art that they started selling them to other organized interests. The health care industry. Energy deregulators. Microsoft. And on and on.

A typical ‘astroturf’ effort might have a given turfster receiving a certain amount of cash for delivering X number of citizen calls to a certain congressperson, yelling at them to oppose this or that piece of legislation.

Don’t place caps on my electricity prices! I WON’T STAND FOR IT!!!!!!!!

There’s also something called ‘grass-tops’ organizing. This is what Ralph Reed got in trouble for when he was allegedly lobbying candidate Bush on Microsoft’s behalf, while also working for candidate Bush. (I have some doubts whether this was the whole story, but we’ll get to that later.) Grass-tops is when you get a certain number of community leaders, bigwigs and so forth to contact a candidate or office-holder on behalf of some issue. So this is the tops not the roots; you get the idea.

The key to the ‘astroturf’ world is that pols are continually getting wiser and wiser to the turfsters’ games. A good staffer can spot turf a mile away and once it’s identified as such it loses all its value. So the turfsters are constantly developing more and more subtle ways to imitate and fake citizen interest.

More later on how American politics is becoming more and more like 1970s baseball, with astroturf crowding out natural grass.

Masthead Masthead
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