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Astroturf Politics

The term “astroturf” was coined to refer to “grass-roots” events that are faked — typically organized and financed secretly by a hidden organization to promote their political goals.

One of the most famous examples of astroturfing was the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that succeeded in stopping the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election. That somewhat violent riot was designed to appear to be spontaneous, but was actually organized by Republican congressman John Sweeney, and the protestors were Republican congressional staffers who were flown in specifically for the event.

teabaggerToday, on Tax Day, we are seeing essentially the same thing in the “Tea Bagging” parties that are being promoted by various well-financed conservative organizations, including Fox News. What makes these events particularly ironic is that they are being organized and paid for by the very people that the tea baggers should actually be protesting.  As Matt Taibbi puts it “You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit.”

Doubly ironic is that the “tea bagging” parties are supposedly protesting high taxes, but a new Gallup poll shows that more Americans say that their tax rate is “about right” than say that it is “too high”. In other words, there is no groundswell of protest against tax rates, other than perhaps among the rich — who of course are the people financing the tea bag events. Not only that, but the tea parties are targeting their rage at Obama, even though he is actually cutting taxes for anyone making less than $250,000 per year.

But those events are just practice for what might turn out to be the largest astroturf in history — the coming sham “grass-roots” campaign against the reform of the health insurance industry. Already, health insurance lobbyists have hired a PR firm to send phoney letters to the editor. In fact, the PR firm is sending in letters using the names of actual senior citizens, without their consent or even knowledge. The PR firm even called up a newspaper to see if a letter supposedly sent by Gloria Gosselin was going to be printed, and pretended to be her grandson. Except Gosselin didn’t write a letter, and the caller wasn’t her grandson.

The health insurance industry was able to derail reform during the Clinton administration, and as a result we now pay more for health care than any other nation, and get less in return. Will we get fooled again?

UPDATE: PopCrunch has a list of some of the worst examples of Astroturfing that is worth a read.



  1. Hal wrote:

    I thought the tea parties were more about the mass amount of bailout spending and rising spending by government, not the current taxes?

    The “common” people I’ve heard talking about it are more concerned over the future and what the current spending is going to do to taxes and life in America then their current tax situation.

    My impression of them doing a tax day tea party is just capitalizing on the national day and what it symbolizes.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    I dunno, Hal. Are you saying that Fox News got the caption in that screen shot — “Anti-Tax Tea Party” — wrong?

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Zenne wrote:

    There seems to be mixed reasons for the tea parties – here’s one organized near me:

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  4. Sammy wrote:

    I’m all for gov’t protests. I’m all for tax protests. I actually agree with the crux of the argument that the government wastes tax dollars. And I’m in agreement with the protesters who say that a stimulus package that WASN’T READ by the Democrats who signed it should never have been passed.

    But don’t tell me this was some spontaneous uprising when the websites to to initiate the protests were up and running three months before the election. And don’t tell me it’s a grass roots movement when the parties have largely been organized and paid for by billionaires who stand to lose the most from tax increases.

    And damn it, don’t throw out the word “fascist” if your definition of the word “fascist” is “fascist”. And when asked by a reporter how Obama is a fascist, don’t answer, “He just is.”

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Sammy wrote:

    And where were the tax protests when the government was wasting 8 billion dollars a month paying for a bogus war in Iraq?

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  6. Am I the only person following this who thinks that the astroturfers *really* needed to make sure that their slang wasn’t already taken? NSFW

    I just keep laughing….

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Kevin wrote:

    Sammy: I believe that was during the “You’re either with us or against us” days. A lot of people were afraid to speak out against the Iraq war there for a while, and the ones who did were ridiculed/harassed as anti-American. People only really started protesting once it became obvious to anyone with even half a brain that we’d been lied to about the reasons for the war.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  8. starluna wrote:

    I was thinking the same thing as Thought Dancer.

    What I find interesting is the historical parallel. The ostensible reason behind the Boston Tea Party was to protest the Townshend tax which paid the salaries of the government officials in the colonies. Basically the argument was that the colonists didn’t want to pay any taxes, even those that kept the government running. And of course, there was also the argument that the Tea Tax, and other taxes, were impositions on the colonists who did not have a vote in the British Parliament.

    But, the Tea Tax actually reduced the price of imported tea because the Tea Tax Act allowed the East India Co. to sell directly to retailers. So the Tea Tax protests were actually organized by local midddlemen merchants who were going to lose revenue. Even the argument that the Tax was an example of “taxation without representation” was really a frame used by the organizers to rile up people who felt that their “rights as colonists” were being violated because they had no direct representative in the Parliament. Of course, that isn’t how Parliament worked at the time, but that did not stop the colonist, particularly the elite and merchant class, from making the argument.

    So, in so many ways, the parallels are actually uncanny.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  9. Starluna.

    Good points, all of them. My background in early American history is pretty piss-poor, but I do also remember that the anger over the Tea Tax was also used to justify other smuggling. Have you read Lessig’s “Free Culture” by any chance? Somewhere in his first chapters, he discusses the beneficial impact of piracy/smuggling on early American development, including the smuggling of tea.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  10. starluna wrote:

    I had the privilege of teaching US History as a tutor to “behaviorally challenged” children some years ago. I started with the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” and then went from there.

    Thanks for the reference. I have not read that. Another book to add to my summer reading list.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 6:24 am | Permalink
  11. Oh, and I had forgotten that “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was supposed to be on my reading list. Thanks Starluna!

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  12. Iron Knee wrote:

    I just wanted to say that I love seeing thoughtful and interesting comments like these. The work I put into this blog is more than worth it when I learn new things in return from the community.

    Early on, I made a decision to not require people to sign up before they comment, or even answer a captcha or verify their email address, and not to moderate comments before they go live — hoping that if I trusted and respected my readers they might live up to that respect. I worried that I would have to institute safeguards, as so many other blogs have been forced to do, if things got out of hand (as they so often do on the web).

    I am happy to report that in the year I have been doing this, I have only had to delete a small handful of offensive or abusive comments, and have attracted only a couple of internet trolls.

    Thank you!

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  13. Iron Knee. I’ve actually been wondering about that. I fear–not know, just fear–that you happen to have not been spotted by the trolls yet.

    But as a political site that has been mentioned in other excellent political sites (I found you through Tannenbaum’s, I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

    And at some point someone is going to digg you, or reddit you, or fark you: are you ready? And what if fivethirtyeight makes a major mention of you?

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  14. Iron Knee wrote:

    Naw, Thought Dancer, all that stuff has happened. I’ve been spotted by trolls several times, and I’ve been Dugg, Reddited, and even Farked (not to mention StumbledUpon). Very early on, Andy (Tannenbaum) mentioned me on his front page and it crashed my server, but I’ve had no problems since then. I can’t remember if I’ve been mentioned on fivethirtyeight, but I’ve been mentioned by Glenn Greenwald on Salon, and even on Stephen Colbert’s site, among others. One of my posts went viral (through email), and that one post alone brought in 3 1/2 million visits.

    Speaking of that email, I’ve never actually seen it. If someone has a copy of the email that sent several million people to Political Irony, I’d love to see a copy of it. It was for a video of Robin Williams giving a performance in England.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  15. Oh, that would be interesting. Will you repost the email when you get it?

    And, wow… I’m probably one of the people who helped crash your server. 🙂

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Permalink