Some of you are doubtless old enough to recall a time when the only argument over Astroturf was whether or not it would forever ruin the National Football League.
The silliness of this debate was best exemplified by comedian Larry Miller in his classic riff on the five stages of drinking. While the introduction of the dubious ground cover at the Houston Astrodome in 1966 failed to spell doom for the Oilers, the word took on a permanent connotation of something inauthentic, falling short of perceived, ideal purity.
In the political arena, Astroturfing has come to mean “formal political, advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous ‘grassroots’ behavior.” This is further amplified by an assumption that such efforts seek to disguise the efforts of political or commercial entities in organizing and orchestrating events related to the movement.
Today the phrase is receiving yet another injection of public interest as we examine the question of whether or not protests by so-called Tea Party Patriots and other conservative activists at health care reform town halls are “genuine” in nature. Are they the product of random concerned citizens speaking out on a pressing issue of personal concern or the orchestrated, Machiavellian schemes of shadowy power brokers? The short answer is, of course they are astroturfed.
The days are long gone when voters in a single district would randomly collide at the pub, the library, or the PTA meeting and decide to take to the streets. We live in the era of talk radio, blogs, online discussion forums, and Twitter. These tools, particularly in the fast-paced world of politics, are simply too useful and ubiquitous to ignore and have become the life’s blood of movements of all stripes. If you don’t organize, you don’t make an impact, which means the media will ignore you and your voice is lost on the wind.
Unfortunately, if you want to accuse the other side of Astroturf tactics, you then open yourself up to the same charge. The problem is compounded when you then attempt an injured, damp-eyed “Who, us?” defense, claiming that no such artificial planning, orchestration, and inflation of crowd numbers is going on. We saw this recently in a Weekly Standard article by Mary Katharine Ham, a wonderful author and frequent guest of ours on the Ed Morrissey Show.
In it, Ms. Ham derides liberal accusations of Republican shenanigans, pointing out that the “smoking gun” of GOP strategizing for these town hall disruptions came from a conservative PAC named Right Principles. Given that the organization had, at the time, a Facebook group with 23 members and a whopping five followers on Twitter, she made a compelling argument that the conspiracy charges were massively trumped up.
That only works, of course, if her premise that Right Principles was the sole — or at least chief — culprit in the faux grassroots organizational efforts. Sadly, this was hardly the case, as multiple, high profile communicators were feeding into the public grist mill across the internet. These included such luminaries as Michelle Malkin, who described the scenes of near town hall anarchy as the “counterinsurgency” and directed her readers to a full index of these events so they could “get in the game.” When last I checked, Ms. Malkin had a bit more than five followers.
Speaking to the definitional issue of “disguising organizational efforts,” the entire goal of such a counter protest is undermined when participants are caught on film in blatant lies. This was on display in the case of Heather Blish, who showed up at a town hall held by Congressman Steve Kagen (D-Wisconsin) to heckle the speaker and then informed a local television reporter that she was “just a mom from the neighborhood” with no political affiliations. It must have taken astute observers all of two minutes on Google to discover that she had been the vice chair of the county Republican Party until last year and a worker on several past and present GOP campaigns. Such attempts at subterfuge do nothing but reinforce the public perception that Astroturfing is alive and well in the health care debate.
Perhaps the more important question before us, though, is the precise nature of the sort of activities being endorsed. The debate is clearly one of the more important issues of the day. Not only will some of the Democratic proposals currently under discussion be ruinous to the insurance industry, and the economy in general, but they will likely degrade the options and quality of care available to the roughly 80% of Americans who currently have — and generally approve of — their own private health insurance policies. But as is so often the case, how you get your message across is equally important as the argument itself.
Are we attending these meetings to ask intelligent, incisive questions of our elected representatives or just to grab headlines and shut down the public discourse? Winning the public debate relies on the projection of an image of the responsible adults stepping in to prevent government folly, and informing supporters of ObamaCare exactly what they are signing on for if such a massive disruption of the system is allowed. That’s not what we seem to be getting for our investment of time and effort.
The issuing of “best practice memos” instructing attendees to disrupt events, use “shout outs,” and put the speaker “on the defensive” doesn’t exactly encourage mature debate. And of course, the more heated the participants become, the greater the risk that encounters will flare up into violence. This has already resulted in incidents of fisticuffs in St. Louis, people being hospitalized in Tampa, and phoned in threats of gun violence against ObamaCare supporters.
Of course, it’s happening on both sides, with opponents of the proposed legislation being beaten up by liberal protesters. This is informed discourse? It leads to the tempting response of saying, “But … but … the other guys are. …”
Spare us the protestations. What liberal supporters of these initiatives do is none of your affair. If they wish to play the fool in front of the media and resort to violence rather than reasoned argument, let them. It will serve their opponents far more than themselves.
This is a debate which should be easily won on the facts of the matter. Anyone tracking the arc of current polling can see that the public is becoming more and more well informed on the topic, with 41% agreeing with opponents of health care reform as opposed to only 35% who side with supporters. A staggering 81% now believe that controlling runaway government spending — a hallmark of the current administration and congressional majority, typified in the health care reform proposals — is of significant interest and appeal for them. Finally, a clear majority of 52% register disapproval of Obama’s approach to the health care question.
This debate not only can be won, it is being won. And it can be done in a civil, adult fashion without resorting to thuggish tactics or “shouting down” elected representatives when they actually have a chance to hear from their constituents in person. There is no need to astroturf your way to victory or resort to insults and violence when the finish line is already in sight. That way lays madness and a backlash from the voters just when you’re getting them on your side.