The art of Astroturfing

This is a great time to be living in California. With less than two months before the election, we’re about to go deep into Astroturf Season. Behold the radio and TV entertainment that awaits you.

“Astroturf” is short-hand for cynical, misleading political ads that use actors to portray just plain folks—i.e., synthetic grass roots. The term surfaced in the mid-90s after the health-insurance industry used kitchen table “discussions” between a Yuppie couple, “Harry” and “Louise,” to bludgeon the Clinton Administration’s proposal for a Canadian-style health care system.

Harry and Louise talked anxiously and skeptically about their fears of losing the freedom to pick their own physicians. The actual guts of the Clinton plan were never addressed. The health care industry, which had spent decades deriding any federal intrusion as “socialized medicine,” was able to hide behind the fears of these artfully created straw people.

With 13 propositions on the November ballot, we’ll be enjoying countless lessons in Astroturfing, always featuring “average”-sounding, tax-fearing, government-hating heroes. Just the other night I heard a brilliant Republican Party-funded radio assault on Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who is running for attorney general. The stars were a quartet of glib voters who were astrounded that such a liberal thinker should even be considered. They took turns impressing each other with bitter reflections on Brown’s opposition to the death penalty and his pledge to cut Oakland’s crime rate. Elegant demonizing, connecting with any listener who vows no "politician" will ever put on over on him again.

Astroturfing requires certain key phrases. When a no-nonsense-looking woman begins talking to you about why she fears Proposition 87, which would pay for alternative energy projects by taxing oil producers about $400 million a year, she doesn’t tell you what it would do: create California’s first severance tax on oil production, a technique used by other states. She complains about another TAX HIKE (never mentioning that this is a tax on oil companies, which are paying for this ad) that will give billions to an UNACCOUNTABLE BUREAUCRACY. This comes straight out of the playbook that capsized Rob Reiner’s universal-pre-school initiative last June. That, too, involved a TAX HIKE (albeit only on California’s wealthiest).

Astroturfing sometimes requires labeling your opponent with an epithet that more accurately describes you. The tobacco industry is spending millions against Proposition 86, which would raise the cigarette tax and use the money to improve hospital emergency rooms, provide health insurance to California children and fund a variety of other health causes.

The major financial backer of Proposition 86 is the hospital industry. So when tobacco companies drew up their attack ads, they made sure to describe the hospital industry as nothing more than a SPECIAL INTEREST. Cue the everywoman actress, who complains in this TV spot against Proposition 86: “Hundreds of millions go into the pockets of big hospitals and millions to HMOs. It’s just more taxpayer dollars to help special interests get richer.”

Sometimes you have to listen carefully because two sides can be simultaneously Astroturfing. Three years ago, advocates of cloning in medical research ran commercials with the same actors who’d played Harry and Louise.

“What’s with this stem cell research debate?” Harry asked Louise. She told him that a wrong-headed bill in Congress would put scientists in jail for working to cure the couple’s diabetes.” Harry asked: “But isn’t that cloning?” Louise: “Nooo...uses an unfertilized egg and a skin cell.”

In response, an anti-cloning group ran the same kind of commercial with characters they called Harriet and Louis. Said Louis of the pro-cloning ad: “But their ad says they’re only using a human egg and a skin cell.” Harriet: “Well, that’s how you make a clone.”

Where will this end? A friend of mine imagines a crafty Big Business ballot proposition to prevent the state from ever levying a tax on oxygen (i.e. the air we breathe). His scenario:

The tobacco companies, car companies and power companies get together and
form the Clear the Air Alliance and put a proposition entitled
"Breathe Free!" on the ballot. Their secret agenda: Hey, if you can't tax
the air, you can't tax what's IN the air. Like cigarette smoke.
Like pollution from a power plant. Like exhaust from a car.

The suburban couple in the inevitable TV ad would go like this:

Him (going through a stack of bills): “They tax everything! What's
next? The air we breathe!”

His wife glances out the window. An official truck is pulling up to the curb. Menacing music rises. On the side of the truck: "Inhalation Revenue Service."
A brutal looking man in what appears to be a Nazi uniform emerges. A
knock on the door. They open it gingerly. It's the Oxygen Nazi. He
has a device in his hand. He thrusts it forward as if it were a
weapon: “'We've come to install the air meter.”

“You can't do that,” the husband cries. “We've got our rights. The government will come to our rescue!”

“'Don't hold your breath,” the Oxygen Nazi snarls.

Then the announcer’s foreboding voice:

"First, they tax our air. Then, they ration our air. Finally, they cut off
our air. Don't let them take that first step! Vote for Prop 77!"

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