Beware: Astroturfing harmful to democracy

Mob rule sweeps America, Big Insurance hires storm troopers

Athletes complain about it. Astroturf causes injuries.

And now the fake grass spread on many a field across the country has a new meaning.

“Astroturfing” and “Astroturf groups” simulate grassroots organizing. And beware: These far-right ideologically driven groups, like the name “Astroturf” implies, are phony. And they cause injury to the body politic.

At a town hall meeting Aug. 2 in Philadelphia with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter on health care reform, media focused on a handful of “right wingers” who were “aggressive and rude,” according to one of the event’s organizers.

These “right wing groups vastly amplify their small numbers by making a ruckus,” the organizer for Health Care for America Now, Marc Stier, said. And make a ruckus they did, sometimes shouting down the speakers.

According to Peoples World correspondent Ben Sears, “The organized ‘Tell Washington No’ crowd was loud and disruptive enough to get a mention in the New York Times which reported that the secretary and the senator were “booed and heckled”, but that was not the big story of the afternoon. In fact, while the hecklers may occasionally have been louder, the majority of those in attendance including some disabled citizens in wheelchairs, had come to ask serious questions about the legislative work going on in Washington and to show support for universal health insurance.”

But the “spin” coming out of these events makes it sound like there is a grassroots revolt against health care reform, activists charge.

Stier said HCAN “has built the biggest issue campaign in Pennsylvania history” with 20,000 health care activists on their rolls. “We have three-four events everyday” across the state. “People know there is a crisis and things cannot stay the same.”

But a few “lunatics” come to one event and the media makes it sound like there is huge opposition to reform. That’s just not the case, Stier said.

These types of aggressive tactics have been reported across the country, in Colorado, Missouri, New York, Wisconsin, Texas, Maryland and North Carolina.

The groups behind astroturfing are corporate-backed and closely connected with far-right GOP politics. Their main ideological viewpoint is a hatred for the Obama administration, Democrats and so-called “big government.”

After 30 years of far-right politics ruling this country, the new administration is reintroducing a policy which is the anathema to the Bush-Rove-Cheney-Chamber of Commerce types – that government can and should play a role in curbing corporate power.

And in the health care fight, the “public option” where a government-sponsored insurance program would compete side-by-side with private insurance has these economic elites scared.

So they are fighting for their profits and ideology, because a successful “public option” is the death knell to the anti-government, privatize Social Security and Medicare crowd.

The astroturfers are succeeding in setting the parameters of the national debate in the corporate media. According to blogger Litz on Daily Kos, a Nashville CBS affiliate WTVF ran a canned piece provided by CBS about a recent “anti-healthcare reform rally” in Denver.

In the piece, CBS interviewed Jeff Crank, who was identified only as 'a cancer survivor.” Litz writes, “He made the outrageous claim that he would have died had there been government health care during his ordeal.”

However, Litz, exposes that Crank is a “crank.” Crank is “Colorado state director of Americans For Prosperity--as well as a conservative talk radio host, failed Republican candidate for Congress and a lobbyist. AFP is a right-wing group which first made its name--wait for it--fighting workplace smoking regulations.”

Workers Independent News also reports that Americans for Prosperity is a group with direct ties to Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed. Reed is also a former leader of Century Strategies “helped launder money for Jack Abramoff.”

According to WIN, “Americans for Prosperity is currently paying to bus individuals around the country under the guise of an organization called Patients United Now.”

In May, Susan Webb of People’s World, wrote about Patients United Now. “It doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface of the web site “Patients United Now” to see its anti-union, far-right roots,” she wrote. Webb linked this group to far-right billionaires like the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, which is part of the Koch Family Foundations.

According to SourceWatch, Webb wrote, “The Koch brothers control the three family foundations that have 'lavished tens of millions of dollars in the past decade on 'free market' advocacy institutions in and around Washington.' [The Nation, 'What Wouldn't Bob Dole Do for Koch Oil?']

“The foundations are financed via the oil and gas fortunes of Fred G. Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society. David is a libertarian who ‘provides a significant amount of funding for the Cato Institute's $4 million annual budget.’”

Some kind of grassroots operation, this is not. More examples of astroturfing come from Politico and Think Progress. Politico reported that Democratic members of Congress are increasingly being harassed by “angry, sign-carrying mobs and disruptive behavior” at local town halls.

Some of the harassment has turned violent, the blog reports. “Recently, right-wing demonstrators hung Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) in effigy outside of his office. Missing from the reporting of these stories is the fact that much of these protests are coordinated by public relations firms and lobbyists who have a stake in opposing President Obama’s reforms.”

The lobbyist-run firms are Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which orchestrated the anti-Obama tea parties earlier this year. FreedomWorks is chaired by former Rep. Dick Armey, former Republican House Majority Leader and notorious Bush-supporter. A memo was leaked to the press on the “best practices” to “rock” town hall meetings. The memo was written by Bob MacGuffie, a volunteer with the FreedomWorks website Tea Party Patriots. He wrote “We here in Fairfield County Connecticut conducted an action at Congressman Jim Hime’s Town Hall meeting in May 2009. We believe there are some best practices which emerged from the event and our experience, which could be useful to activists in just about any district where their Congressperson has supported the socialist agenda of the Democrat leadership in Washington.” (Emphasis added).

MacGuffie goes on to list such best practices as “artificially inflate your numbers,” “be disruptive early” and “often and try to rattle him, not have an intelligent debate.”

Think Progress says “The memo above also resembles the talking points being distributed by FreedomWorks for pushing an anti-health reform assault all summer. Patients United, a front group maintained by Americans for Prosperity, is currently busing people all over the country for more protests against Democratic members. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the NRCC, has endorsed the strategy, telling the Politico the days of civil town halls are now ‘over.’”

Apparently the only way they can win is by shouting, heckling and violence. Sounds more borderline fascist than promoting democracy.

Besides sending in storm troopers for Big Insurance to town hall meetings, other reports of using fraudulent letters from organizations like the NAACP and a Virginia-based Latino group Creciendo Juntos have emerged. According to Grist, 12 members of Congress have reported receiving forged letters opposing the climate bill. A coalition with the paradoxical name “American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity” said it had hired Bonner & Associates to do “outreach” on the climate issue.

Bonner & Associates promotes itself as a builder of grassroots campaigns. Some of the forged letters were traced back to a Bonner employee. Groups like Sierra Club and MoveOn are calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the fraud.

Not to be outdone on the anti-government bandwagon, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced in June I would “develop a sweeping national advocacy campaign encompassing advertising, education, political activities, new media and grassroots organizing to defend and advance America’s free enterprise values in the face of rapid government growth and attacks by anti-business activists.”

Targeting “union leaders, environmentalists and a growing force of anti-business activists” the Chamber’s president, Thomas Donohue, said these constituents are “pushing governments at all levels” to among other things “lock down capital markets, expand entitlements and raise taxes.”

The Chamber of Commerce has also helped to create a faux-grassroots campaign against a legislative priority of labor’s, the Employee Free Choice Act. Their fear? A more organized and united multi-racial working class, their free ride will start costing them some of their billions in profit.

It’s clear the ultra-right cabals – from fringe elements to those who enjoy holding the levers of economic power – are united in their efforts to thwart the Obama administration’s mandate and agenda from the American people. Worried about the seismic shift taking place in the American political landscape, these groups and interests are working on all levels to reverse this shift. Reports show the nation has shifted from “center-right” to “center-left” nation on issues like health care.

The economic meltdown from September 2008 rocked the nation’s confidence in capitalism, too. After 30 years of ultra right “trickle down” policies – meaning tax breaks to the super rich and everyone else gets “trickled on” – which has created the largest wealth gap in our nation’s history, the tide has shifted to the election of Barack Obama – and an era of reform. An April Rasmussen poll said that 47 percent of Americans either favored socialism over capitalism or weren’t sure which was better.

These shifts are real among the American people. Not the trumped up politics played on Astroturf.