Astroturf vs. Grassroots. Now vs. Then?

Summer Politics: Cut and Dried

On the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, people reminisce about large public gatherings in open spaces. Central Park used to be a mecca for such events, not just music, but serious political gatherings. On June 12, 1982, a million people assembled in the park to protest the nuclear arms policies of the Reagan Administration. Each person had traveled by bus, car, or train to offer their voice and show patriotism. A million people all simultaneously caring about the same issue took time off from work to collectively send a message to government -- just like democracies encourage people to do. Shortly after they convened, Reagan opened nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union. The Cold War waned. To date, the 1982 protest remains one of the largest in America's history.

Grassroots Change

Today, we all see very few of these grassroots assemblies. Of course, people explain, there's work and family that get it the way, less leisure time, and entertainment dependent on television "reality" shows. Governments play a role too. They have much less tolerance for public gatherings.

Take Central Park, for instance. After three years of "litigation" over the of the park for peaceful protest by several left wing groups prior to the Republican National Convention, New York City decided to address the question by conducting a formal study on "the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn for large events".

It was a very particular study, though, limited to figuring out how the grass would endure the weight of humans. After careful deliberation, scientific, of course, the study's soil scientists, plant pathologists, and groundskeepers recommended limiting the use of the Great Lawn in Central Park to 55,000 people for 'safety reasons and to protect the grass'.

True, The Great Lawn cost millions to restore, but the decision rankled some people. A lawyer for the Partnership for Civil Justice told the NYT: "We would call it junk science except that it's not science". Rather, she said, the report supports: "a political declaration of intent by the mayor to limit free speech rights by New Yorkers." The decision of belied ideas about the park's original purpose. Central Park historian Sarah Cedar Miller once told a reporter: "Parks are a gathering ground and where democracy happens. Literally, the grassroots happen on the grass." 1

Even the current US President, Barack Obama has often talked about the importance of grassroots action to motivate change. In "Dreams From My Father", he wrote about his decision in 1983 after graduating from Columbia College to become a community organizer:

Said Obama: "....There wasn't much detail to the idea; I didn't know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn't answer them directly.

Obama continued: "Instead, I'd pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots."

Grassroots From the White House?

Twenty-six years later Obama resides in the White House after campaigning on a platform of Change. In his acceptance speech he attributed his victory to a strong "grassroots" campaign. Obama assured his grassroots supporters that corporations wouldn't have all the seats at the table. He urged them to continue their grassroots fight for the causes he would champion during his presidency.

But of course President Barack Obama also won the presidency by effectively implementing well-organized fund-raising to corral not only onesie-twosie grassroots donors, but large donors and bundlers as well. Now, as constituents, stakeholders, and lobbyists wrestle over American healthcare, headlines detail the president's sincere efforts to appease those non grass-roots, large-donor interests.

Last week, we learned of the president's concessions to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The White House will oppose drug importation in return for the hazy promise by PhRMA to cut government and citizen pharmaceutical expenses "up to" $80 billion (that's $0 - $80 billion)

Also, last weekend, Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius declared the public option was not an important component for agreement -- therefore the public option off the table.

Obama promised that pharma wouldn't have the only seats at the table when he campaigned. But now it seems that if there are any other seats for non-pharma, they're rickety chairs in the peanut gallery, and when people dareth speak from those chairs, they're ejected by security.

Obama encouraged his grassroots organization to continue their work when he was in office. But when it comes to healthcare, he'd rather not hear from them. And besides, among Obama's once 13 million strong grassroots supporters, who among them has the time, attention, or money for politicking? Furthermore, if the president's supporters did have time and knew what they were supposed to be rooting for -- not a viable public option, that's not allowed -- how would they express their opinions? Are we even a "grassroots" kind of country anymore?

Is It All Astroturf or Have We Changed?

Public protests and large gatherings of past decades can't be idealized. They've always been contentious affairs, with riot police, shootings, covert and overt suppression. There was a certain community achieved by those Central Park protesters in 1982, who all gathered in one place to express the hope for a less nuclear world. But that was almost three decades ago, in a different place and time. Central Park was overgrown and scary then, and New Yorkers say they invited anyone to the park just to keep the more dangerous criminal elements at bay.

Today, large protests are not necessarily a viable option for petitioning the government. Not only is there a personal inconvenience of taking the day off to march around in a park, there's violent government aggression, arrests. The Department of Defense (DOD) recently labeled protests "low-level terrorism".

Businesses surrounding Central Park, the ones that contributed to Obama's campaign, have no use for a bunch of protesters agitating outside their windows, challenging the very premises of their businesses. They may want the park to serve as their private conference room backdrop. For all those frenzied deal negotiations, a lush, peaceful, untrammeled million-dollar-grass lawn, as far as the eye can see.

Perhaps a manicured lawn is not an asset to be trifled with. Even Obama wasn't explicit about which turf he wants grass-roots activism to happen on. Protestors can always be routed by riot police to cement, or the unkempt DC mall. Or, perhaps, if in 2009 public protests are limited on Central Park's Great Lawn, they will continue to flourish at "town halls".

Townhalls -- "A Dip In A Cool Stream?""

Town halls, after all, can idealistically be an idyllic way to exchange ideas. Obama wrote about his experience when he was an Illinois State Senator in the book: "The Audacity of Hope":

"One of my favorite tasks of being a senator is hosting town hall meetings....And as I look out over the crowd, I somehow feel encouraged. In their bearing I see hard work. In the way they handle their children I see hope. My time with them is like a dip in a cool stream. I feel cleansed afterward, glad for the work I have chosen"

You may say that today's town halls are a quite different brand of love-in than Obama's. Sure, there may be some heart-felt questioning, but too often that's drowned out by individuals ferociously confronting their representatives with apparitions they've concocted in their heads about government. This week they're yelling about the scurvy of government-run healthcare. Next week the topic will be the upcoming the energy bill.

Fox News insists that this brand of town hall "anger is not 'manufactured' it's REAL". Others say that corporations, are helping manufacture the town-hallers' messages against change, that is, townhalls aren't "grassroots" at all, they're corporatized astroturfing. Either way, it's certainly a different beast from the "cool stream" Obama described. Some representatives probably want to shower after their events.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says the Democrats running town halls can handle it, but they need to "know the difference between grassroots and astroturf." While elected officials may be able to distinguish between astroturf and grassroots; however, the broader audience is reached by TV. And television news does not necessarily differentiate between astroturf and grassroots protests, it duly broadcasts discontent. Unfortunately but importantly, whatever the source of townhall agitation, even if it's astroturfing, everyone's paying attention to it.

TV Cameras on the Ruckus -- The Limits of Technology

The internet remains an alternative grassroots medium mobilized to good effect by and the Obama campaign. But even if Obama's grassroots organization were to see fit to mobilize and use the internet to its previously powerful effect, it would be a very quiet effort.

As Obama said last week "TV loves a ruckus". Email campaigns don't attract television cameras the way even the smallest collection of agitated people waving scrawled signs do, email campaigns are quiet click, click, clicks. Which is why businesses vigorously oppose 200,000 people gathering in Central Park, and it's why they send their own messengers to town halls.

A million emails don't make a televise-able ruckus. Perhaps the literal grassroots protest is a bygone era and nothing is lost by limiting people's right to protest on public greens. Perhaps email is not only quieter but better suited to our "service economy", no tiring marching, exposure to the elements...

Woodstock is overrated, NYT columnist Gail Collins writes, forty years later. Too much mud; not enough sandwiches; mind-boggling traffic jams. She describes her experience with detached amusement, as if obliged to watch youthful antics on a scratchy home video pulled from a trunk at a family gathering.

But can we trivialize a whole era that way? And how will the current brand of town hall protests look forty years from now? If pundits and participants don't think back fondly on Woodstock today, how will they recall the shouted, spit-laden confrontations from people insisting that healthcare reform is facism, death panels, and communism all wrapped up in one ideologically impossible hairball of anti-reform? Not "Change" or "No Nukes" -- but "NO-CHANGE!", ie: "Long-Live the Uninsured!" -- delivered with a swagger that only a pistol strapped to one's leg can assure.

I'm not trying to idealize the old, flowers in your hair days that I didn't even live through. But does an insistence on pretty, well-kempt lawns discourage the public's inclinations to join a peaceable protest? To express views about the government? Isn't something lost if we've reached an age when the TV news will never again televise over a million individual people (not organized by business, gathered in a park with a vision of a changed and better world? When "Astroturf" -- always capitalized for the always capitalist world striving to prevent change and progress -- is for all intents and purposes the only "grassroots" we know?

1 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 17, 2005

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