Astroturfing on the Left

By David Swanson

We’ve grown accustomed to recognizing astroturfing on the right. A corporate lobbyist sends letters to congress members forging the signatures and letterhead of local grassroots groups. Oil corporations create front groups to generate town-hall presence against legislation that could slow climate change. Health insurance companies fund “grassroots” activists to speak for them. Fox News encourages and exaggerates support for whatever the Republican Party tells it is needed. Astroturf is a good name for all of this because it is grassroots flipped upside down. It’s people being organized to rally in demand of exactly what Republican congress members want them to demand.

But what about astroturfing on the left? How do we feel about that? Here’s an example.

Last week AFSCME, the national labor union which has no presence in my town, contacted me about helping to organize a rally for healthcare. I knew that AFSCME would only want to rally for the “public option” but I also knew that coalitions can create larger rallies if they include all appropriate allies. So I drafted the following announcement with three demands in it for the event and asked AFSCME to approve it:


We need you! Health Care Reform rally, Monday August 24th, Charlottesville, VA at the Downtown Mall, 12 pm to 2 pm.

Join us at the pavilion near City Hall with three demands:

-Vote Yes on the Weiner amendment for single-payer healthcare.
-Keep the Kucinich amendment for states’ right to single-payer in the bill.
-Include a strong immediate public option.

Who: YOU and hundreds of community organizers, grassroots activists, and local politicians will gather to demand REAL health care reform. . .now!
What: Highway to Health Care RV Tour Stop: A Rally in Charlottesville, VA
When: Monday, August 24th, 2009, 12 pm – 2 pm
Where: Downtown Mall, Across from City Hall, at the Pavilion (605 E. Main Street)
Why: Americans need comprehensive health care reform. . .now! Therefore AFSCME’s been driving an RV cross country, creating dozens of rallies for comprehensive health care reform
How: We intend to pull off this last minute rally with a little help from our friends like you


AFSCME approved this, and I sent it out to local lists of activists. I asked a number of local and national organizations to send it to their local lists, and they did so. I agreed to speak at the rally, as did some other good speakers from this area. But come Sunday night we were all disinvited: anyone who had ever been a supporter of single-payer. We were told that single-payer could not be mentioned at the rally, and that only the public option could be discussed. Or, rather, this was the new list of demands: “public option, no taxation of benefits (especially for the middle class), and shared responsibility.” No joke. “Shared responsibility.” Can I get a side of earmarks with that?

I told the AFSCME staffer that I was disappointed by her procedure of approving of a more inclusive message as a means to bait people to come, and then switching to a policy of self-censorship for the event itself. I told her that I thought we should all unite against the insurance companies, which would only delight in our divided and weakened movement. I told her that a labor union must know that the push for single-payer makes the public option a compromise, whereas demanding only the public option makes something less than that the compromise. I told her that there was not any conflict between passing a public option and leaving states their constitutional right to do better if they choose to. She told me she agreed “110 percent” with everything but that she was following her instructions. I said that I understood, but that she undoubtedly had known AFSCME’s policies last week when she approved my announcements, and she had no reply. In fact, I had discussed the three demands with a more senior colleague of hers on the phone last week, and he hadn’t raised any concern either.

What makes this more than a silly mistake is the fact that those at AFSCME giving this staffer her orders were almost certainly themselves taking their orders from Democrats in Congress. It’s not as if they surveyed AFSCME’s membership and came up with the ban on mentioning single-payer healthcare. AFSCME nationally “endorses” HR 676 (a bill to create single-payer) as do at least 22 AFSCME locals that I know of. I’m willing to bet that AFSCME’s membership would be outraged at the tactics funded by its money. These are union members. They know that people who want single-payer and people who want a baby step in that direction are united against the insurance companies and the corporate media and the party leadership. And they know that you don’t begin a negotiation asking for the least you’ll take. No, the orders come down from the Democrats. So people are being organized to rally Democrats in Congress to do what the Democrats in Congress have already approved being asked to do. How is this not astroturfing? How is this different from what the right does (I mean other than the absence of guns and outright lunatics)?

By self-censoring, we don’t just shrink our crowds at rallies. We don’t just divide people (I’ve heard single-payer supporters say they are going to protest this rally, when they should have been invited to be there in support of better healthcare.) By self-censoring we risk short-term and long-term failure. Our local right-leaning Democratic congress member here in Charlottesville has told me that he approves of leaving in the bill the language to permit states to create single-payer. He opposes national single-payer and probably the public option – depending on the details. So what are we doing? We’re banning any mention of the one demand we might be able to get him to act on. Is he likely to put in a word with the Rules Committee or the leadership about states’ rights to single-payer if we don’t even mention it? And we’re turning the public option into the extreme-left position, making it exceedingly unlikely he’ll support that. If the progressives in Congress stand firm for the public option, but we have not pressured other congress members to come around, we’ll end up with no bill at all. This will be much better than a counter-productive bill. And it will set a very useful precedent for the progressives to have taken a stand for the first time. But then what?

We could then build a strong movement for single-payer healthcare, for healthcare as a basic human right. We could build it very well at this moment and force a better bill through Congress in the near future. After all, allowing everyone to have Medicare is simple and easy and clear. It saves money over the current wasteful system. And it does not create new entities that can be falsely labeled “death panels” or anything else. Of course, the reaction from the right will be exactly the same, but that’s the point. If you’re going to be attacked as murderers of old people when you propose a bailout for health insurance companies with a teeny bit of reform tacked on, why not get attacked as murderers of old people for insisting on healthcare for all?

I asked Tim Carpenter, the National Director of Progressive Democrats of America, one of the national groups that was generous enough to send my event announcement out last week, what he thought of the latest development, and he said, “This is a time when we need more honest discussions and debate, not censorship.”

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