Is the Tea Party Corporate Astroturfing?

AstroTurf Wars is an independent documentary that exposes corporate puppeteering in the Tea Party movement. The movie presents convincing evidence that the Tea Party is little more than a corporate astroturfing campaign. Genuine participants are being duped, Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham argues. Oldham exposes a network of think tanks, PR firms and large corporations with a long history of astroturfing everything from cigarette smokers to “clean” coal in order to move the levers of state power in its direction. The cruelest part of this corrupt complex is that it has manipulated people into agitating against their own interests. Whilst Tea Partiers ostensibly advocate for liberty and the common man, the corporations whose hand they strengthen lobby behind closed doors for even greater disparities of power that shortchange that same common man.

Astroturfing is the practice of disguising artificial and self-serving political campaigns as genuine grassroots movements. In 1995, tobacco corporation Philip Morris astroturfed against congressional plans to discourage teen smoking. They phoned individuals urging them to call or write congress in opposition to the proposed laws. Today, coal companies stage rallies and run advertising campaigns under cover of genuine grassroots activism in the name of “clean coal.” Don’t you always wonder who’s paying for all those billboards?

A “clean” coal billboard in Pennsylvania.

AstroTurf Wars outs advocacy groups Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks as main forces behind Tea Party astroturfing. The film shows members of these groups claiming credit for organizing and leading Tea Parties all over the nation. Known employees of corporate-sponsored advocacy groups formed the Facebook group that launched the Tea Party. Film of the Washington DC Tea Party is especially damning. Obvious astroturfers like “clean coal”, “Hands off my Health Care” and Freedom Works dominate the stage. Bus tour Tea Party Express is the creation of a Republican Party PR firm that has done other conservative-themed bus tours. It’s that obvious.

Who funds these advocacy groups? Large corporations in controversial sectors like oil and gas, tobacco and pharmaceuticals. Large corporations that might lose money or even disappear without continued state support of their products and business practices – on their terms. While it’s obviously wrong for the state to interfere in the trade of these controversial products, the state is a battleground because it can (and often does) absolve corporations of their misdeeds. Oldham is oblivious to the sustaining role the state plays in corporations. All of this becomes nefarious when you consider that the Tea Party message of individual rights and liberty for all is effectively a smokescreen for corporate abuse, special privileges and fascism.

An early example of corporate propaganda.

Corporate propaganda got its start during World War I. The United States government leveraged it to sell enlistment, war bonds, patriotism and xenophobia to an unwilling public. Later, corporations used these tactics to wrap pro-corporation ideas in the flag. You probably saw some of these patriotic cartoons and the like on Saturday mornings. I did. And they shaped my early worldview. Oldham contextualizes astroturfing as the latest generation of these advanced PR ploys. They are still used to promote corporate interests, they’re still wrapped in the flag and they’re still selling corporatism as patriotic and populist.

The film also builds a case for corporate astroturfing against state-run healthcare and state CO2-reduction schemes. Oldham gets shrill on the topic of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW). While he trotted out a list of right-wing think-tanks with uncannily similar names as evidence of astroturfing, he also trots out a list of scientific associations with uncannily similar names as evidence of their expertise on the topic of AGW. It’s the argument from authority. More scientific evidence from skeptics was presented in the film than from proponents of AGW. One noteworthy scene, however, showed AGW critic Christopher Monckton in a NASCAR hat addressing a crowd of West Virginians at a “clean” coal rally. That particular, and utterly bizarre, scene lent credibility to the film.

True to form, Oldham parrots the party line on health care. In response to an emotional health care town hall meeting he says, “Either people really loved the health care system [as it is] or I was missing something”. That’s a strawman. Those who opposed government health care at town hall meetings weren’t necessarily thrilled with government health care as it is now. They just don’t want more government control of the health care industry. There is a failure to empathize with people and too much partisan bashing in evidence here.

Learn how to astroturf the douchebag way.

Several scenes detracted from the documentary. For example, it opens with a reverent clip of hopeful individuals crying at an Obama speech. Later we see people crying at a Tea Party rally as patriotic music plays. Oldham fails to note the analogy. In both cases, people who genuinely care are being cynically manipulated for someone else’s gain. At another point, an interviewee refers to Tea Partiers as “teabaggers”. This eviscerated the speaker’s credibility. Oldham claims elsewhere that corporate astroturfers went so far as to shape even the anti-tax and anti-government messages of the Tea Party. That doesn’t hold water. Those are foundational issues with the conservatives and right libertarians who fill the ranks of genuine Tea Partiers. Oldham claims the Tea Parties replaced rational arguments “with emotional appeals to nationalism” but that doesn’t just apply to the right. Obama himself manipulated people’s emotions on his way to the oval office.

As the film notes, the biggest indicator that something is wrong is the money put into these things. That’s a question I’ve long meditated on with respect to mainstream business-apologia libertarianism. Where do they get all their money? Why do they get it? I’m looking at operations like the Cato Institute, Freedom Works, the Mises Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Independent Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Mercatus Centre, the Future of Freedom Foundation and others advocacy groups who talk about liberty but actually support corporations and states. It is infuriating to see the astroturfed Tea Party Express make such an impact in the mainstream media when genuine grassroots libertarian activism like Liberty on Tour has to scrimp and struggle.

“Propaganda tries to go around the mind and straight to the nervous system” – Mark Crispin Miller

As long as the state exists and is doling out corporate subsidies, astroturfed efforts will dominate genuine activism. They simply have more money! The Citizens United supreme court ruling that corporations can pay for political ads only exacerbates this situation. Take a look at liberty.com and libertarianism.com, two online assets critical to the enunciation of libertarian principles online. But they’re controlled by deep-pocketed advocacy groups. How is the real grassroots supposed to compete? Consider Liberty.com. It’s supposed to be about liberty but actually it’s another astroturfing campaign run by Eric Odom. Politico confirms that Liberty.com would not exist if not for the Citizens United ruling. The website is dominated by Tea Party Express, Dump Harry Reid and anti-Obama media. Libertarianism is about resisting illegitimate power, NOT favoring one illegitimate power over another.

Is this why no prominent spokesperson has emerged from the Tea Party? Because it’s all a bunch of followers who don’t have the sense to recognize astroturfing and ostracize it? Movements usually have leaders or prominent spokespeople. They don’t have to but it usually shakes out that way. Do such people exist in the Tea Party? Am I just missing it? Or is the Tea Party truly suffering from follower syndrome?

Complete liberty frowned on at Tea Party.

Government regulation of corporations is a red herring issue. Government creates corporations and nurtures them with limited liability and favorable statutes. Some get subsidies. A lot get away with murder. In fact, the state makes this possible. The state more often than not protects corporations from being held accountable for their crimes. That’s why government regulation is a sham. True market regulation of business, the ability to hold individual business executives accountable for their decisions, is the most effective form of accountability. But that can not happen in the statist paradigm.

If these free market advocacy groups are actually just astroturf then that cuts both ways. It delegitimizes these groups and the corporations that sponsor them. But it legitimizes libertarianism as a message that resonates. And most importantly it discredits these front groups as spokesmen for libertarianism. They don’t represent me, that’s for sure.

The film may not represent the whole picture but it is insightful. Have any Tea Partiers commented on it? Any members of these “free market” advocacy groups? I look forward to coherent and serious rebuttals. The Tea Partiers don’t consider themselves astroturfers but the unfortunate truth is that their failure to ask tough questions, think through their philosophy and take personal charge of their movement is strengthening the hands of those who tread on them. This is one reason why they have moved us closer to fascism. Watch the documentary AstroTurf Wars for yourself for $1.99.

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