Of Grassroots And Astroturf

During this seemingly-endless month of August, as the health care debate rages at full boil across America, there’s been a lot of talk about two terms, grassroots and astroturf. The first term is probably familiar to you, even if you’ve never considered yourself a political activist or even that much of a political person. Grassroots is the term used to describe “bottom-up” (i.e. – grassroots) political activism: a political sentiment which starts amongst the people and grows into an authentic people-powered movement or idea. A great, unambiguous example of this would be Cesar Chavez’s work organizing migrant workers in California and the southwest in the 50s and 60s.

The other term you’re probably also familiar with, but not in the political context. Everyone knows that Astroturf is a manufactured product that substitutes for real grass in some stadiums, etc. And that’s precisely why the term was co-opted for use in the political realm: because it describes the polar-opposite of a genuine grassroots movement; in other words, one which is not authentically a sentiment which arose among the people and assumed its own momentum which increased until it became a genuine political force. It’s the term used to describe movements which are more or less cleverly designed to appear as if they’re “people-powered,” but which in fact are the carefully-orchestrated work of some very powerful, very traditional political interests who are trying to cloak their own political agendas in the mantle of nobility and populism.

Unfortunately, neither term was or is 100% accurate. If you read any good history of the UFW movement, you will discover that although Cesar Chavez deserves every bit of the credit he’s usually given for galvanizing both the passion and the activism of the long-oppressed farm workers, his moment did not happen in a vacuum. In the same way that you could drop a caveman with a 190 IQ down in a nuclear lab and he would not learn anything except possibly “red lights mean danger” even though he had the intellectual horsepower to be the equal of any of the scientists who worked there, so you can’t expect the seeds of political organization to take root among a people who’ve never had any instruction or experience in how to do such things. In fact, if you read the opening lines of the foreword of Cesar Chavez’s autobiography, Cesar says

I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross.

Who is Fred Ross? A life-long community organizer, who studied directly under the master himself, Saul Alinsky, in the hardscrabble “back of the yards” districts in Chicago where Alinsky developed what remain to this day the modern organizer’s textbooks. It was Fred who first saw the vast potential in a young Cesar Chavez and knew that, in him, the exploited farm workers of California’s vast central valley’s agribusiness empire had found their true champion. If Ross was such a great organizer, though, why couldn’t he himself have become their champion? Why could he not have simply worked with the farm workers himself? The answer is that he did work with them…but, like a lot of insular or foreign-born communities, an outsider like Ross would never have come to be as trusted as one of their own. Chavez was one of them. And though he was a diamond in the rough when Ross met him, Fred Ross knew very quickly that he could be the man and the leader that he did – with Ross’ tutelage – grow up to be.

My point here is not to try to suggest that Fred Ross is really the person responsible for all the successes of the farm workers’ movement, or for Cesar Chavez himself. He’s not. Had Chavez not been the person he was, he would not have been capable of becoming what he did, no matter how much time Ross spent with him. I do not mean to take anything at all away from Cesar Chavez or his justly-deserved place in history. But without Fred Ross, Chavez might have remained forever a diamond in the rough, or a pile of dry kindling ever in search of a spark. Fred Ross had the tools and the experience necessary not only to recognize Chavez’s potential, but to draw it out of him, and to teach and guide him. Does that make Chavez’s work with the UFW and the movement he created somehow not an authentically grassroots movement? Of course not. It can scarcely get MORE grassroots than organizing fruit-pickers in the hot sun to organize for improvements like longer hoes that don’t force workers to remain stooped over for hours in order to pick strawberries. But it does mean that every movement needs an organizer, and every organizer needs a teacher. No one learns simply by trial and error, all on their own. Or, if they do, they will either fail outright or not become nearly what they could have been under the care and development of someone experienced. But it’s simply false to suggest that no movement can be authentic unless it’s completely sui generis, with no outside aid or instruction of any kind.

So what distinguishes a grassroots movement which had instruction or help from outside from an astroturfed movement which is largely or entirely an ersatz movement that is primarily a construct of the money and ideas of powerful traditional forces? I think it’s not always 100% clear. But I think it brings us directly to the current struggle over health care reform. One of the complaints we keep hearing from both sides in this struggle are that the other side is “astroturf,” and that their own movement is “grassroots.” Whom to believe? Either? Neither? Both? I think the way to figure it out is to look more closely at who’s involved in both sides, and who’s behind them. Recently, much hay has been made (or at least attempted) by the right-wing, anti-reform side in regard to member of both ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now) and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) being in attendance at various representatives’ town hall meetings throughout the country in the month of August. These right-wing objections increase to fever-pitch when it’s observed that sometimes, the members of these groups arrive on buses. “Astroturf!!” scream the anti-reform forces.

Their argument – which they’ve quickly picked up from having the same charges leveled at some of their own efforts, and learned to co-opt and throw right back at those who’ve used the term on them – is that if either ACORN or SEIU or both are using buses to bring members or volunteers to a town hall, it must be a manufactured (and therefore “astroturf” and non-authentic) show of support for health care reform. Numerous right-wing websites (which I won’t link to because there’s no need to give them the traffic; if you’re interested, you can Google “ACORN bus town hall” and see what you get) have glommed on to these images – some photos, a bit of video – as proof that the support for health care reform is manufactured and orchestrated. But, if you bother to look at any of the photos themselves, or watch the videos, you’ll see that this is what the buses used by ACORN and SEIU look like:

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a thirty-year-old former school bus to me. That is the sort of transportation that perpetually-broke groups like ACORN and other community organizing groups always tend to use, out of necessity. Before I continue my thoughts, let me offer, for contrast, a picture of one of the buses being used by a group called “Americans for Prosperity” (again, no link, for the same reasons):

It’s a little difficult to see in that picture, but this is the latest in cruising, touring bus technology, handsomely screen-painted with large red hand-prints and lettering which spells out “Hands Off Our Health Care.” It’s quite the brand-spanking new sight, as it rolls down the street and into the town halls of various districts this August.

So what, they’re just buses, right? Well, yes. But the comparison is worthwhile, because it gives you a sense of the resources and – to some degree, anyway – the interests of the groups involved. That’s not to say that you can tell everything about either group of supporters by the buses they drive, far from it. But you ought to get at least some sense of things from this. I sure did, at any rate. The important thing, as always, is to find out what you can about these groups who support various positions: who funds them, to the tune of how much money, what are the interests of those funders, what are the interests of the people involved in the front-line stuff, etc. And once you start doing that sort of research with regard to these health care debaters and bus-owners, you quickly start to see the initial impression confirmed.

The group I mentioned briefly above, Americans for Prosperity, is a relatively new group on the scene (by contrast, both ACORN and SEIU have been around for decades. People may have varying opinions about both groups, but their existence and general raison d’etre have been known for some time). Americans for Prosperity is an umbrella group which founds and fully funds other organizations like “Patients First.” Patients First serves as an information gateway and an organizing hub to get people involved in and riled up about the “threat” of health care reform. But their funding comes directly and completely from Americans for Prosperity. Go to the Patients First web site, scroll down to the bottom, and you’ll see the “project of Americans for Prosperity” disclaimer. Follow that to AFP, and you’ll find that under the “about us” section, the list of directors is here. Not much to see. But that’s because AFP is actually two organizations: the one you see with the fancy buses that does the out-in-the-community work, and AFP Foundation, which is where all the actual money comes from. Not long ago, the two used to share a web site, and if you went to that web site (same URL as today) back then, you would find that one of the directors of the AFP foundation is a man named David Koch. So? Who’s he?

I’m glad you asked. And how do I know this, if it’s not on the web site any more? Because of a nifty little tool called the Archive Project, which has been taking snapshots of web pages, just like Google has – but for a lot longer. And unlike Google, they keep them forever, and make them searchable by date. So you can go to archive.org and enter any URL into their “Wayback Machine” text field, and get a list of every dated version of that page in the archives. It’s interesting to see how some websites change over time. It’s also useful if you need to find information about a site that’s been scrubbed from their current web site, such as the fact of David Koch’s association with Americans For Prosperity. Here’s the same “about us” directors page from Americans for Prosperity, but from October 10, 2007. Not all that long ago…but before the big “grassroots-y” push by AFP. And, whaddaya know? There’s David Koch’s name under “Directors.” Specifically, the page lists him as DIRECTOR of the foundation, and his bio states that:

David Koch is the executive vice president and a member of the board of directors for Koch Industries, Inc., based in Wichita, Kansas. He helped found Americans For Prosperity, and also serves on the board of directors for the Reason Foundation and the CATO Institute.

So? Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, sure….except that Koch Industries is notorious for pouring absolute TONS of money into right-wing causes, most of it behind-the-scenes — sometimes even illegally so. Koch Industries funnels most of its money – or used to – through another for-profit shell company called Triad Management. Bill Moyer at Frontline did an expose on them years ago. It’s quite enlightening. It details the illegalities and network of shell organizations that Koch used to evade both the FEC restrictions on political advertising AND the limits on individual political contributions. You can also read the court judgement against Triad at the FEC’s web site. For the best overview, however, it’d be a good idea to look into the Center for Public Integrity’s thorough study of Koch’s tentacles.

Similarly, former disgraced hospital executive Rick Scott – who holds the record for highest fine EVER paid for a company to the federal government ($1.7 BILLION dollars, mostly Medicare fraud) – is the man, and the money, behind Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. If you go to that link, you’ll see where they’re operating as yet another clearing house for getting people riled up and out to town hall events. But if you’re the kind of person who’d be angry if you heard that Medicare is a “government program” that has “tons of fraud,” and that would potentially cause you to not want any further government role in health care, then you might want to take note that the company Rick Scott helmed was – literally – the largest single source of all that consciously planned fraud. And you might want to follow up that thought by asking yourself: why are Rick Scott and I now on the same side of this issue? Why is Rick Scott – someone whose company systematically defrauded Medicare for uncounted piles of taxpayer money, now spending his own money to create “grassroots” groups and websites where he’s urging people exactly like you to “get involved” and “fight this health care bill?”

Answer: because he’s engaging in Astroturfing, just like the Koch brothers are. These spiffy new organization which have sprung up in just the last few years don’t represent a genuine people’s movement in any legitimate way. Yes, they’ve now managed to attract some actual “real people” to them, people who will show up at their representatives’ town hall meetings and shout down other citizens or pepper the Senator or Representative with angry, provocative, shouted questions. But these groups began in almost the exact opposite way that genuine grassroots movements like Chavez’s and virtually all other truly people-powered, grassroots movements began. Real grassroots movements like the UFW movement arise out of intolerable conditions. There is a great dissatisfaction with poor conditions experienced first-hand by a great number of people – such as bending over with a short hoe in the hot sun for twelve hours a day for near-slave wages, or being uninsured (or insured but suddenly denied reimbursement or cancelled by insurance companies). When a large enough group of people have experienced such treatment all at the same time, they are ripe to become a movement. It may require the tutelage of a community organizer like a Cesar Chavez, a Fred Ross or – yes – a Barack Obama to light the fuse. But that’s the other everpresent characteristic of true grassroots movements: once the fuse is lit, it catches fire and spreads.

In contrast, “movements” like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks’ (Dick Armey’s group) don’t follow this evolutionary pattern. If grassroots movements start with a genuine hardship or problem experienced by many and are sparked by a small group of activists into a vibrant, larger movement which gains momentum, an Astroturf movement’s evolution is very different. Groups like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks start out with a pile of industry-funded money and the skills and know-how to best utilize it deployed from Washington and conservative think-tanks. This is where the ideas also come from. They don’t grow organically but steadily like grassroots movements; instead, they are suddenly everywhere, all at once – much like the tea party nonsense that sprung up after Obama was elected, and the health care protests of today. They have slickly produced fact sheets and organizing tips, and they spend money to train people to go into their own communities and start spreading the word. That money also pays for the snazzy buses to drive people around to these various spots, and to put up well-designed, complex websites which tell people where to go and what to think and say when they get there. You never hear rumors of astroturf events or organizations, never hear that there’s a quite but growing whisper of discontent among this or that population over longstanding grievances related to ______. You merely wake up one morning and see the flashy “Americans for Prosperity” bus rolling by your house on the way to the local town-hall meeting, as if it sprang, fully-formed, into being just that morning. In a way, it did. These astroturf groups are merely the latest incarnation of years of efforts by small numbers of very wealthy and very active leaders of industry and conservative ideologues. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was think-tanks: previously unknown “research centers” like the Heritage foundation or the American Enterprise Institute which sprang up overnight, doling out tons of research grants to any young and ambitious conservative who wanted to get paid to sharpen messages to bring down social programs and Democrats or liberals at the polls.

In a grassroots group, the need or the yearning for something comes first, then the organizing starts and eventually a message and a method is crafted. In astroturf groups, the message is already known, as are the goals, at the beginning: lower capital gains taxes. No health care reform. No increase in minimum wage, etc. Then money is funneled by deep-pocketed interests who have a personal financial stake in spreading this message and having it win the day into figuring out how that message can be adapted to attract at least some of the public, whose own interests the goals of “the message” usually runs counter to. The the buses are bought and the fliers made up, and the word goes out through the Internet and through FOX news and various other channels, and people who are not certain where they stand, or who are fearful of things getting worse, or who simply don’t like one thing or another about the people currently in power, are recruited. And voila! Instant “protest.” Only, as you can see, it bears as little resemblance to an authentic movement as the plastic food that restaurants sometimes put on plates in their windows to attract customers inside bears to the actual food served from the kitchen: it LOOKS very similar…but it’s not. Not at all. I have no doubt that the majority of the people waving signs and shouting down fellow citizens and their own representatives about health care and other topics this month are “real people” (though in some cases, they are actually employees of the corporate interests themselves, who’ve been “asked” to participate in the demonstrations). But they are “real people” who are being unwittingly used – most of them – as mouthpieces for exactly what the well-monied interests who formed these ostensibly “grassroots” groups want them to say. They began as people who either didn’t know much about the history and current state of health care reform efforts or simply as people who were somewhat frightened about all the talk they were hearing, and they wound up coming into contact with a very well-aimed message which tells them every fear-inducing falsehood imaginable, from “death panels” to kill old people, to loss of Medicare benefits, to “government takeovers,” to rationing of care…. You get the idea. If you don’t already know a little about things, or you don’t know where to look for any alternative information; if your source of information is a combination of FOX News and these sorts of consciously-propagated (and false) smears, it wouldn’t take long before you, too, might be very against the sort of health care reform which the rest of the industrialized world already implemented years – often decades – ago, with little or none of those dire predictions having come true. And presto! There are your “real people” at these town halls, improperly mad as hell – at what, they’re not often completely sure – and not going to take it anymore.

But, despite the efforts of the very interests which funded these groups and developed and honed their message, let’s not lose sight of the fact that although there may be plenty of “real people” at these events, people who aren’t Washington lobbyists and haven’t been paid to appear and hold signs, that in no way makes this movement an authentic grassroots movement. The real grassroots movement is the one being quietly but determinedly waged by the same groups that always show up to try to get a better deal for the workers and the poor and the middle class: unions, community organizing groups, traditional mainstream religious organizations. They’re the ones on the thirty-year old bus. The ones saying things that, if you step back, don’t sound odd at all: “health care for all,” “people before profits,” that sort of thing. So the next time you see these folks, go over and talk to them. Find out what they’re about. Hey….maybe even put your name in and join them. Because for every manufactured story of health care troubles in Canada which has been ferreted out by research paid for by these large, monied interests which have a financial incentive to keep things the way they are, don’t forget that there are a dozen real-life stories right in your own community – maybe even your own family – of people who lost everything because of a catastrophic illness and being denied coverage or cancelled by their insurance company.