The current debate between Democrats and Republicans as to whether the teabag/health care reform protests are spontaneous “grass roots” events or totally artificial creations of “Astroturf” lobbying firms is now settling down into a familiar pattern of dueling partisan op-ed page commentaries, sound-bites and press releases. It is therefore an opportune moment to consider a somewhat more nuanced version of this question — exactly how are the local protesters and the lobbying firms really related.
On the one hand, since the April 15th Tea Parties it has been obvious that there is indeed a decentralized network of thousands of local conservative activists distributed across several hundred cities around the country. The 300,000 people that Nate Silver estimated participated in Tea Party events on April 15th are a small percentage of the nation’s total population, but they are a politically significant force because of their wide local distribution. After April 15th there was never any real doubt that these local activists would be ready and willing to mobilize around any of a number of conservative political causes.
Only a minority of these activists are directly paid by lobbying firms or are long-term active volunteers in conservative organizations or the Republican Party. In this very specific and limited sense, many individual protesters can indeed be called “authentic” rather than artificial.
But to properly judge the significance of the teabag/anti-health care protesters of today, it is more instructive to compare them with the student protest movement of the 1960’s. There are actually certain major similarities – and one profound difference.
Let’s look at the student protest movement first:
• On the broadest level the “student movement” of the 1960’s was united by opposition to the war in Vietnam but beyond that it was a kaleidoscopic mixture of outlooks, lifestyles and political perspectives. The student movement included straight traditional liberal “politicos”, extreme radicals and hippy-counterculture protesters whose outlook ranged from highly political to largely non-political. The issues that motivated the participants in the student movement — aside from Vietnam — included civil rights, the environment, legalization of drugs, control over the university itself as well as a vast range of other liberal to radical social and political concerns.
• What gave the “student movement” the powerful sense of solidarity and community that it undeniably had was a distinct social and cultural outlook and a sensibility rooted in the environment and culture of the university and the satellite culture of bookstores, coffee houses, music venues, co-op’s and so on that operated around it. There was a profound sense of shared cultural identity as students, youth and rebels against the dominant culture – a clear perception of “us versus “them”
• The student movement and culture created its own information channels – underground newspapers, alternative magazines and “comix” as well as a universally shared, deeply political music – both folk and rock — and an intense appreciation of the few kindred spirits like the Smothers Brothers who existed in the mainstream media.
• The student movement faced constant and deep divisions over tactics – divisions that evolved over the decade – first between peaceful demonstrations versus sit-ins and then between disruptive protests and more radical actions like “shutting down” the universities and the weathermen’s “days of rage”
In these four particular respects, the current teabag/health care protesters do indeed exhibit certain distinct similarities.
• Aside from their common antagonism to a very vaguely defined “socialism” (which, realistically speaking is actually a moderate American version of certain West European social democratic policies) the protesters include advocates of a vast and disparate range of issues, causes and philosophies. The protesters include members of the religious right, anti-immigration activists, anti-gun control protesters and the supporters of various organized right-wing groups – white supremacists, Ayn Randians, Birchers, End-timers and so on.
• Beyond their common distaste for “socialism”, the protesters are tied together by a deep nostalgia for and a desire to defend a small town, traditional outlook and culture that is still majority white and hostile to any deviancy from social norms. This cultural perspective is expressed politically in an ethos that reflects the most conservative elements of that traditional culture.
• The protesters have their own channels of information and communication – a closed information bubble that includes Fox news, talk radio and a stratified set of conservative websites and social networks on the internet.
• Although the teabag/health care protests are at their earliest stages of development, the protesters are already beginning to confront debates over strategy and tactics. Even now some elements among the protesters are beginning to argue for the need for more openly disruptive actions rather than peaceful demonstrations and for broadening the range of issues that the protests confront.
There is, however, one fundamental difference between the student movement of the 1960’s and the teabag/health care reform protesters of today – the student movement of the 1960’s was never co-opted or controlled by any larger social institution. The major national anti-war demonstrations and actions during the 1960’s were coordinated by a complex “steering committee” structure that brought together a broad coalition of local anti-war groups — groups which were themselves organized in several parallel, sometimes overlapping national coalitions — together with traditional pacifist, anti-war and radical organizations. Within this national structure, the hundreds of local anti-war groups involved had formal democratic procedures – they had open meetings, elected their leaders and voted on major decisions about strategy and tactics.
The local teabag/health care reform protesters, in contrast, have now essentially been co-opted and taken over by a set of lobbying firms. After April 15th, many of the local activists who participated in the Tea Party events began to plan a second organizing day on July 4th at which they hoped to begin creating permanent locally-based and locally-controlled organizations. There was at that time a genuine and widespread hostility to the Republican Party and the beltway lobbying interests and a desire to avoid being absorbed into either. Had such local committees actually been formed, they would have created the foundation for an authentic grass-roots movement.
But July 4th came and went, however, with very little action in this direction. On the other hand, the internet- based social networks run by large, well-funded Washington lobbying groups like Freedomworks, Americans for Prosperity and Conservatives for Patients’ Rights — with massive free television advertising provided by Fox — have successfully become the major clearing houses for information about protests, for planning actions and for the distribution of talking points and instructions on strategy and tactics.
Other traditional right wing groups and internet-based organizations –Redstate, Stormfront, John Galt/objectivist groups — have tried to become independent players and clearing houses in their own right, but they have largely been limited to attempts to influence the protests organized by the lobbyist groups. The well-known conservative commentators — Michelle Malkin, Glen Beck and so on — are all enthusiastic supporters of the protesters’ actions, but they are not themselves the actual coordinators or organizers of specific events. Realistically, control over the strategy, tactics, choice of objectives and message of the protests is now almost entirely in the hands of the major lobbying groups.
Thus, the more nuanced answer to the question as to whether the teabag/health care reform protests are “authentic” or “Astroturf” is really as follows: many of the individual teabag/health care reform protesters are indeed “sincere” “authentic” and “spontaneous” in their activism. But until these protesters create local committees across the country that are controlled by no-one but themselves, that hold open meetings, that elect their own officers and that vote on the choice of objectives and strategy to employ, they will not be an authentic grass-roots social movement on the same level as the student anti-war movement of the 1960’s .
Here’s a simple test the teabag/heath care reform protesters should take:
1. Did you elect the person running the website that is giving you your talking points and instructions?
2. Do you even know what his name is or who is paying his salary?
If not, you are not participating in an authentic “bottom-up” grass-roots movement. Your personal sentiments may be quite sincere and “authentic”, but your movement and its leadership is not.
These are also useful questions for reporters to ask the participants in these actions before going on to confuse the protesters willingness to be rude or belligerent with the degree of authenticity or representativeness of their movement.