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Aug. 19 2009 - 8:43 am | 6 views | 3 recommendations | 14 comments

NYT: Keep Off the Astroturf

Gaius Julius Caesar.

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In today’s NYT, I’ve got an op-ed on “Astroturf” in the health care debate (expanding on what I discussed here on Neuroworld last week):

WITH the “public option” part of President Obama’s health care reform plan looking dead in the water, many of its supporters are taking issue with the legitimacy of its opposition. “We call it ‘Astroturf,’ ” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said of the protesters at town-hall meetings. “It’s not really a grass-roots movement.”

What exactly is Astroturf supposed to mean? Typically, that, in the absence of widespread support for a position, some unseen entity manufactures the appearance of it. But is that really what’s happening here?

Here’s a rule: Organizing isn’t cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics. If they believe what they’re saying, no matter who helped organize them, they’re citizens and activists. The language at the town halls may get ugly and rough. But it’s not Astroturf.

I go into the history of Astroturf, from Julius Caesar to Samuel Adams to the coal industry. Some astroturfing is genuinely over the line — fake letters from constituents, for instance. But what the Democrats have been complaining about — essentially, getting people out to protests — is simply what politics is about.

For the cognitive reasons discussed in last week’s post linked above, creating the impression of “consensus” is one of the most important things you can do in politics. You can’t cry foul just because the other side’s doing a better job of it.


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  1. collapse expand

    I would agree with you, except for one tiny little detail. You forgot to mention that the protest organizers roused their “activists” by using malicious and preposterous lies.

    Paying doctors to counsel citizens who have voluntarily decided to think about end-of-life options is Euthanasia? (Weren’t most of the neocon politicians who are stirring up the protests- in favor of this planning before they were against it?) Where are the “death panels” in the House bill?

    And the House bill takes billions from Medicare to give to illegal immigrants? It would be amusing if it wasn’t so pathetic that neocons who on the one hand adamently oppose government involvement in health care- suddenly become the staunch defenders of a single-payer, government-run heath-care program.

    When health-care reform advocates hold up Medicare as a example of something good that government has done, the neocons complain that Medicare is wrought with waste and fraud. Then, when the President says that he will save billions by reducing waste and fraud in Medicare to help pay for health-care reform, the neocons warn seniors that there benefits will be slashed, waiting lines will be long, and treatment for serious diseases will be delayed.

    It’s cynical hypocrisy at a level seldom seen.

    • collapse expand


      I agree with you on the lying — it’s been brazen and preposterous. But lying and “astroturf” are two very different concepts that are getting conflated in this debate.

      People on both sides of the aisle lie constantly. The Democrats acted similarly back in 2005 as regards social security privatization (and they “astroturfed” back then, too). The teachers unions in NYC lie constantly and about everything. They do plenty of “astroturfing,” too.

      The point is you call them on the lies. You don’t say the opposition is invalid because they’re cheating by bringing too many people to the rallies.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    The public option is not dead. I’m still amazed at after one of the longest primary seasons in history and one of the most heavily covered people still don’t have a clue as to how this president operates.

  3. collapse expand

    I’m totally creeped out by the favorable comparisons to Brutus and Sam Adams when there are people bringing AR-15 to see Obama speak about friggin’ sensible health care reform legislation. So it’s rude to call it Astroturf? What should we call these Larouchie thugs? Also you forgot to mention the Fox News angle. I don’t remember a major news network doing that kind of 24/7 favorable P.R. work for Code Pink or A.N.S.W.E.R. (or teacher’s unions or social security protestors) do you?

  4. collapse expand

    Here’s another rule: Organizing by lying is fascism. I have no interest in debating people who feel the need to bring firearms to their protests – doing so assumes some commitment to “Enlightenment” values, and the organizers of the ill-illuminated come from the darkest regions of consciousness, appealing to that darkness in others. There’s no pointing up the lies to people who “know” what they know …

    I mean really – I watched Joe the Plummer on C-SPAN last evening at some blogger event. Do you really believe you can convince him of anything he doesn’t already “know”?

    The Greedy Warrior God Party takes no prisoners. Unless and until the Dems learn that lesson, the Greedy Warrior God Party will shape ALL future policy debates. Pointing out the lies will be singing to the choir ….

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Sager, your attack on the word astroturf hinges on this assertion: “With voters split fairly evenly down the middle on health care reform, it seems presumptuous to label your side ‘real’ and the other synthetic.”

    Yet you fail to offer any polling data indicating that voters are “split fairly evenly” – perhaps because polls clearly indicate that a majority of Americans is in favor of substantial health care reform.

    With this reality in mind, the astroturf label does not seem so off-base after all. The “outcry” against health care reform is coming from a vocal minority largely motivated my scare tactics and misinformation. While these people have a right to their opinion, it is disingenuous to imply that roughly half of Americans voters agree with them.

    from the NBC/Wall Street Journal health care poll, August 2009:

    Do you think the American health care system needs a complete overhaul, major reform, minor reform, or is there no need for change?
    A complete overhaul 21%
    Major reform 39%
    Minor reform: 31%
    No need for change: 7%
    Not sure: 2%

    Do you generally approve or disapprove of the way that Republicans in Congress are handling the issue of health care reform?
    Approve: 21%
    Disapprove: 62%
    Not sure: 17%

    complete poll here: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/NBC-WSJ_Poll.pdf

    • collapse expand

      While people generally support *some* form of health care reform, when you poll them on an Obama or Democratic plan, things are, indeed, split pretty well down the middle — with the momentum moving against the president:


      I’d urge you to look at the polling from the link above, at Nate Silver’s site.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Agreed, the public is not wild over the plans getting most of the attention in the press. But I think this is because the public recognizes that these plans keep insurance companies in the game, and therefore these plans fail to actually solve the problem of out-of-control costs.

        However, when polls focus on single-payer solutions – such as HR 676, which would extend Medicare to all Americans – we learn how Americans really feel. For example, from a July ‘09 Kaiser Family Foundation poll:

        “Do you favor or oppose having a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance through an expanded, universal form of Medicare-for all?”
        Favor 58%
        Oppose 38%
        NA/DK 3%
        (source: http://www.wpasinglepayer.org/PollResults.html)

        So while many Americans are justifiably wary of the reform proposals getting most of the attention on Capitol Hill, a clear majority of Americans is in favor of single payer, which is the solution that would actually solve the problems of patchy coverage and out-of-control costs.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    In order to fully understand why “Astroturf” is appropriate to describe the Conservative Republicans and other anti-health care reformers is to really listen to Hannity and Boortz on WSB Radio.

    These two are still receiving calls from their listeners to take back THEIR country. And, to oust the current administration by any means necessary, today. This mindset is being feed with streams of mis-information on radio 8 hours a day, five days a week.

    In between the regular drivel spewed by Hannity and Boortz the news stations conduct news updates. Almost 99.9% of the time the 3 minute radio station spots completely contradicts the 8 hours of opinions from these two. Hannity is currently giving a little speech on how he does not advocate the killing of President Obama for any reason by anyone. This he is not doing on a voluntary basis. This little speech began on the second day of the mob stormed town hall meetings, and continues today.

    It is not so much what they say as much as it what they do not. And, that is an ear full.

    It is almost akin to Orsen Wells on radio back in the day.

  7. collapse expand

    Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA executive, wrote that he himself used to plant the seeds of astroturf:

    “So the next time you hear someone warning against a “government takeover” of our health care system, or that the creation of a public health insurance option would send us down the “slippery slope toward socialism,” know that someone like I used to be wrote those terms, knowing it might turn many of the very people who would benefit most from meaningful reform into unwitting spokespeople for the industry.”


  8. collapse expand

    Ryan, you can’t legitimize corporate mimicry of real grassroots political organizing by comparing the tactics of Astroturfing to tactics used by political parties and unions.

    Sure, they’re classic community organizing techniques, no matter who uses them. But tactics are not what differentiate Astroturf from grassroots activism.

    People found corporations, and corporations pour money into lobbying and PR, to deliver a steady profit to their owners.

    People found political parties and unions specifically to represent their best interests in the political and economic arenas, where they might otherwise be ignored, and to get more influence over the matters that directly affect their lives…like powerful corporations.

    Corporations have the monetary and manpower resources to drown out political speech by public interest groups and citizen groups, as which usually have much smaller budgets, as well as individuals. But corporate political speech is given equal protection with individual political speech, as if it’s an even playing field.

    And finally, it’s Astroturf when corporations try to hide their role in turning out “average citizens” for political purposes, so that their campaign will have a surface gloss of grassroots authenticity.

    Here’s the comparison I posted yesterday on my Stop Global Warming blog:

    “The US Climate Action Partnership is transparently an alliance between corporations and advocacy groups; the list of members is right at the top of the home page.

    “To grasp that the powerful oil industry PR group American Petroleum Institute is behind Energy Citizens, you’d have to recognize the modest acronym “API” on the group’s list of participants, Then, you’d have to intuit that an organization that includes many of the world’s biggest oil companies as members is likely to be calling more shots than, say, online retailer Gourmet Seed International.”

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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