The Politics of Astroturf

Ginned-up protests are dominating health care town halls.

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As town hall protests against health care reform intensify, liberal pundits react to the trend of "Astroturfing" -- engineered protests designed to appear grassroots. Are they part of a disturbing trend or a simple reality of political discourse? Are they to be ignored by reform supporters or are they to be co-opted?

Leftward proponent of health care reform Rachel Maddow described the protests as "town hall events being taken over by belligerent anti-health care crowds looking to shut down the events, to stop the talking about health care reform." She argued in the video above that "D.C. lobbying groups with ties to the health care industry" are "turning out the mobs, telling them where to go and giving them their scripts." In a follow-up segment, Maddow connected the town hall protests to "the mob that the GOP sent to stop that count in Miami" during the 2000 presidential election recount.

Josh Marshall thinks that the protests indicate something deeper, calling them  "a sort of civic vigilanteism" and "distressingly telling examples of the authoritarian mentality so often found in right-wing politics."

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn argued for organizing pro-reform counter protests "to start creating a push for reform that can meet, and overwhelm, the push against." Cohn suggested "vivid examples of grassroots energy" such as "rallies where physicians and doctors dump insurance forms" and "marches where patients with chronic disease protest in front of drug companies." He decried reform supporters who balk at ginned-up protests, comparing them to Al Gore's failed strategy during the 2000 Florida recount:

Gore and his supporters tended to take the high road; when they saw the other side playing dirty, they complained. History has arguably vindicated their position. But it doesn't change the fact that George W. Bush ended up in the White House.

The Atlantic's own Marc Ambinder made the case that Astroturfed protests aren't as awful as we might think. "The point is not to question whether conservatives are artificially magnifying their voices -- yes of course they are," he conceded, but said that this is an undeniable, even legitimate, part of political discourse. "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," he wrote. Even if the protests are somewhat fake, he said, they may still represent real dissent:
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.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.