Shocked. SHOCKED. Astoturfing Exists. ... Now What?

In eight years of writing about politics, nothing gets people angrier than when I try to make the case that most activists and most journalists practice politics differently, have different worldviews, and are both forces for good in the democracy. 3....2....

It is easy and comfortable to assume that because you've discovered the presence of Astroturf activism, there is no there there, or there is nothing that sustains or nourishes the Astroturfing. The point is not to question whether conservatives are artificially magnifying their voices -- yes of course they are, predictably and not in secret -- it's that real anxiety and real enthusiasm provide a catalyst for the Astroturfing to work -- and the Astroturfing provides a catalyst for the anxiety and enthusiasm to manifest.

Peter Daou makes some provocative arguments here -- the liberal base is a bit disillusioned with Obama, Republicans sense opportunity, etc, and I think he is right. And I think that other liberals who assume that somehow because they associate THEIR side with reasoned argument and the OTHER side with blatant demagoguery, the argument ought to be closed -- well, they're replicating the mistake that disillusioned partisans tend to make: if it ain't going right, it MUST be because some outside factor -- usually the media -- is screwing up. Sometimes the media does screw it up. Sometimes, it's just screwed up.

Democrats were able to defeat President Bush on Social Security because they found a way to capitalize on inherent skepticism about forcing that cherished institution to change. Make no mistake, the effort to defeat Social Security reform won because of a mix of organic anxiety, inorganic organizing, focus grouped-messaging and wealthy people and interests writing large checks. Today, we're at a similar juncture, except for the fact that the wealthy, organized/organic/inorganic protesters are on the other side of an issue. Democrats may have used different tactics -- protesting outside of places as opposed to inside of them -- but that's not terribly germane. It's true that health care reform in general is more popular than Social Security reform was, but that fact is not mutually exclusive with the fact that, because Democrats have to get to 60 votes in the Senate, there are meaningful and relevant anxieties too. The point is that, in terms of enthusiasm, on health care the right is capitalizing on a weak "pro" side and actual anxiety in the same way that the left capitalized on an weak "pro" side and actual anxiety on Social Security. Even if you think that the Dems have the right policy on both issues, the strategic analogy is, I think, valid. Social Security privatization failed because it was not popular, because Democrats out-gamed Republicans, and the because the Bush administration failed to find an effective argument that outgamed the gamers. And for a few other reasons too.

Astroturfing strikes us -- and me -- as dishonest because it masks real motivations, like the desire of industries to maintain the status quo. It allows powerful interests to magnify their voices at the expense of those without a megaphone. Be skeptical of Astrotufing. Totally. But technological change has very quickly shrunk the blade of grass, because it's much less expensive and much easier to start and sustain a movement. Sometimes, as in the case of health care, both sides Astroturf. What begats success? The Astroturfing? Or the underlying anxieties? I'll posit that Astroturfing tends to fail when there is nothing to sustain it, and it has a better chance of succeeding when the opposition can't figure out how to Astroturf their way into the same enthusiasm channel.

It is just not easy to figure out the absolute truth of every value-laden political claim that one associates with the health care debate.

Take, for example, the question of whether people would have to change their policies or their doctors as the result of a robust public plan. Obama says no -- and he makes a credible argument for it. Many real people -- regardless of their motives -- have legitimate and credible reasons to believe that the answer is yes. In cases like this, maybe there is no middle ground -- ya just believe it or you don't. But empirical data-gathering and analysis isn't set up to answer questions like these, because they derive their power from emotion and gut feelings.  Will the iMAC proposal lead to reduced health care costs over the long-term? Anyone who says they KNOW it will cannot possibly be telling the truth: there is no way to know whether lobbyists will be successful in getting the 50 members of the Senate, say, to overturn a particular provision. We can make a reasonable guess that by changing the context and forcing Congress to vote "no" on something billed as a cost-cutting measure, it'll be tougher for lobbyists to work their charms. But we don't know.

Where do you draw the line? It depends on the issue and the context. For example: evolution is true and supported by evidence, and enough evidence so as to overwhelm whatever value-laden arguments its opponents muster. I think journalists can call evolution "true" without compromising their duty; indeed, I think that our duty demands it. But that question is categorically different than asking journalists to come down on the side of a policy option where the truth cannot be known until the experiments are run. Taking the truth seriously means, I think, being able to know when and where the truth can be discerned. Sometimes, journalists do this better than activists; sometimes, activists do this better than journalists.

It is not intellectually dishonest for conservatives to contend that Obama's health care principles would increase the government's involvement in their health care decisions. It IS intellectually dishonest -- and completely witless -- to believe that the birthers have a reasonable case. They don't. Even if you can't precisely locate the line that separates truth from doubt, you've got a reasonable idea where it ought to lie.

There is a logical error in assuming that because a line of argument is associated with something you don't like -- like, say, conservative activists, --that anyone who uses that line of argument has less pure motives than you do, or is a yahoo, or is being bamboozled. Sometimes, this is the case. Sometimes it isn't. Association itself is not proof of the absence of anything real.

In accusing me of giving credence to the town-hall meeting Astroturf and treating it as if it represented legitimate anxiety, some liberals are making a second logical mistake they assume I am committing: they are conflating the video evidence of all the "Republican mob rule" with everyone who goes to the town hall meetings.

They -- not me -- are hearing the loudest voices and imputing to an entire town hall meeting the motivations of the sponsors of the loud voices.

When you find Astroturfing, the next question ought to be: but does it reflect anything real? If it does, then you've got work to do.