Why the new type of conservative activism is doomed to backfire horrendously

Published August 12, 2009 8:51PM (EDT)

Randy Hook, 50, of Hopewell, Pa., yells at Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., during a town hall meeting on health care in a Penn State University ballroom in State College, Pa, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009. More than 400 attended. Opponents occasionally drowned out the Republican-turned-Democrat.
Randy Hook, 50, of Hopewell, Pa., yells at Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., during a town hall meeting on health care in a Penn State University ballroom in State College, Pa, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009. More than 400 attended. Opponents occasionally drowned out the Republican-turned-Democrat.

All of this craziness occurring at healthcare town halls has convinced me that we are witnessing a new form of public participation, borne of the media and Internet age, that might best be described as “astroweed lobbying." Let me explain what I mean.

Grass-roots activism derives from citizens, as they organize and mobilize around a central cause or argument. Participants may or may not have special legitimacy or credibility on the subject beyond their core authority as citizens, and they may boast no specific training in the means of political persuasion beyond what they can teach themselves or learn from each other. But because grass roots is bottom-up, it is truly, small-d democratic advocacy. It may get messy, but at least it’s authentic. And a great deal of the rhetorical power of grass-roots activism derives from that authenticity.

By contrast, so-called astroturf lobbying is directed top-down by elites, who coordinate from above and often with ample resources the organization and mobilization of citizens. Political professionals create the themes and messages, and recruit specific advocates because they have a compelling story (like a woman who has lost her medical coverage) or have special legitimacy to lend to a debate (like a small-business owner worried about how she will provide coverage for her employees). These citizens are often brought to Washington, trained and briefed, then sent out with scheduled appointments to meet with their elected representatives. Though astroturfing is still democratic in the most general sense, because it is well-funded, professionalized and often slick, its rhetorical power must be discounted somewhat because of its origins.

If those are the two poles, what we are seeing falls somewhere between, and essentially combines the worst part of both grass-roots activism and astroturfing -- that is, it pairs the slick coordination of elites coupled with the raw, unfiltered advocacy of the masses. What happens when a set of elites coordinate, fund and foment public expression, but encourage just about anyone -- whether informed or not, whether skilled communicators or not, whether dedicated to the particular issue under discussion or merely dedicated to resistance for "Waterloo"-style resistance’s sake -- and send them into the public arena to express their opinions? We get ugly signs, incoherent questions and blood-curdling screams about the coming end of America as we know it. These are not the fine arts of persuasion, folks, whether in the realm of national healthcare politics or anywhere else.

I argue that what we are seeing across the country in these town halls thus can be aptly called "astroweeds lobbying." You take oil industry money and throw it behind Americans for Prosperity, you get Glenn Beck and Michael Savage and other radio talkers ratcheting up the calls for action, and then you urge a ragtag troop of rabid opponents to attend public events to scream and shout. These handful of front-line fighters may or may not represent the views of most American conservatives, but that’s really beside the point because what they are most definitely not doing is representing those views well. If I’m a thoughtful, informed conservative with legitimate concerns about President Obama’s healthcare proposal -- and I’m sure there are millions of such people, many of whom are turning out for these town halls and behaving appropriately -- I’d be infuriated right now because my measured voice and thoughtful objections are being lumped together with the fevered, incoherent complaints of a few. If these reasonable opponents are wondering why their political lawn looks like hell, they can thank the astroweeders.

Conservatives like to say freedom isn’t free. By neither is freedom of expression free: It comes with costs, too, most notably the penalty one pays for expressing oneself poorly or incoherently. When, as the New York Times reports today, people are showing up not because they necessarily know much or care much about healthcare reform, but because they want to vent about other issues -- and when even some of those who arrived to oppose healthcare reform stand up and offer empty, angry, uniformed, platitudinous shouts, replete with references to socialism or fascism -- they are hurting their own cause. And when this type of public participation grows from a few isolated cases into a coordinated public riot, we have astroweeds lobbying at its finest (which is to say its worst), for it is a form of expression that is a top-down and organized, yet painfully unsophisticated and ultimately counterproductive to whatever is being advocated.

I think astroweed activism will ultimately backfire on the protesters involved, as well as those who are backing them with their microphones and dollars, and, sadly and by extension, even those thoughtful citizens and reasonable groups who oppose healthcare on the merits. Grass-roots activism may fill the lawn of democracy in a patchy, erratic manner, and astroturf lobbying may make that lawn look uniform, if a bit hard and discomfiting. But astroweeding creates an ugly eyesore as it chokes off the flowering of democracy.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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