I’m trying to figure out what to make of claims that angry folks showing up at townhall-style events on health care reform are mere “astroturf” activists. If it’s true, it seems like it must be some spectacularly bad astroturfing: My experience is that when seasoned political professionals are really in charge of stage-managing an event, it tends to look rather more… well… professional. Which is to say, more printed signs than crudely hand-lettered ones riddled with misspelled and vaguely embarrassing slogans, and polished talking points rather than crazed ramblings that make ordinary people think your side is a bit unhinged. Manifestly, there are groups like FreedomWorks trying to catalyze or corral opposition to Obama’s policies, but it hardly sounds as though they’re in control—at most, it seems like they’re providing focal points for the kind of genuine, strong sentiment you can’t fake… and that I’d think few political operatives would want to fake.
That said, I think the sharp line between “grassroots” and “astroturf” will probably make less and less sense in the emerging media environment. The Platonic form of a grassroots campaign is, say, a bunch of ordinary parents in Peoria, largely unconnected with and certainly undirected by any larger political entity, banding together to agitate for some change or other. And the Platonic form of astroturf is when Peoria Parents for a Brighter Future turns out to be three bachelors in a K Street office with some letterhead and a fat check from McDonalds or something. But the lines between local and national politics are much blurrier when all the organizing and reporting are taking place online. Candidates for local office routinely try to identify opponents with a hated national figure—both as a convenient shorthand for voters and as a way of attracting a national donor base. (You remember these ads, right? “Stick it to Bush, help send Shlobotnik to the House!”) And of course, local activism makes for good visuals outside the community where it occurs. But this kind of exposure actually makes it a lot harder to run that kind of conventional astroturf campaign where an activist group is a pure front or sham. If PPfaBF is just a couple of dudes on K Street, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly—where’s the web activity? Where’s the Twitter trail? Think of what it took to effectively fake a concerned citizens group circa 1988 versus, say, what it would take to fake the current birther movement.
Any “astroturf” campaign on the modern media landscape is going to require actually ginning up some broad-based activism if it’s going to be effective. And any genuinely spontaneous, bottom-up action that seems even moderately interesting and resonant with national issues is going to find a whole lot of political professionals eager to promote, guide, replicate, or co-opt it. Sure, you can still talk about more or less manufactured movements, but the lines seem a lot blurrier to me. If a few locals decide maybe there should be a rally in the town square, and a high-profile blogger or Twitter user picks it up and promotes it, is that astroturf? What if it’s the big-name activist who has the idea, and the locals decide to pick it up and run with it? In cases like this, the differences just don’t seem nearly as profound anymore.