Of Course There's Astroturfing by the GOP

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.