The Tea Party and Astroturfing

By Chris Mooney | October 26, 2010 1:44 pm

Last night I attended a screening of the documentary (Astro)Turf Wars, which is a very unsettling depiction of the Tea Party and its corporate connections. The film makes the case very strongly that the industry supported Americans for Prosperity has been the spur for a large amount of Tea Party activity, wrapping its corporate agenda in the language of freedom, patriotism, and the battle against “socialism” (as if we have any in this country to speak of).

The film poses some pretty difficult questions, because it’s clear the Tea Partiers are very real people and do believe what they say–quite fervently. But at the same time, what they say on issues like healthcare reform and global warming is not only radically divorced from reality, but also clearly serves somebody else’s interests (and not, if they are average non-wealthy Americans, their own).

In this context, the documentary convinced me to at least take seriously the idea that we’re not just dealing with “grassroots” activists here. But I also feel that there was a great right wing constituency for outrage against Obama, just waiting to be tapped–and that this often happens around the mid term of a presidency. Was the Gingrich Revolution also an astroturf phenomenon?

In any case, here’s a trailer for the film:


Comments (32)

  1. Bigby

    No socialism to speak of? What do you call taking majority interest in the auto industry, healthcare takeover and a controling interest in banking? When the healthcare act actually takes effect the government will control a larger portion of the economy than in France. If you don’t think that’s socialism. Guess what – you’re a socialist. And if you are, fine, admit it. What’s to be ashamed of?
    This movie is clearly liberal propaganda.

  2. Jon

    Reagan bailed out Chrysler. Socialist?

  3. ChH

    Socialism is government ownership of the means of production. To the degree our government owns auto manufacturer, bank shares (banks own much of the means of production), or other producers, it is socialist. Anyone pushing for increased government ownership of production can reasonably be called a socialist. That would include basically all Democrats, plus W, McCain and the 2/3 of Republican senators that voted for TARP.

    All economies are mixed (at least a little socialist, but none 100% so).

    Jon – Reagan bailed out Chrysler? When was that? Maybe you’re thinking of the protective tariffs to help Harley Davidson?

    Bailouts can take many forms. If the government ends up owning part of the bailed out company, it’s socialist. If they grant or guarantee loans or put up trade barriers to aid a company, it’s a bad idea but not socialist.

  4. Jon

    What we’ve had for the past couple years is Lemon Socialism:

    This isn’t real socialism. No one in the Obama administration wants the government to own “the economy’s commanding heights.” This was forced on them. And they want to get out of the bank business as soon as they can.

    The banking system can’t fail, because it is too much in the country’s interest that the banks work. This was partly what the New Deal was about. You set rules of the road for the banking system so you don’t relive the monstrosities of the early 30’s. What happened in recent years, however, is that you had an unregulated shadow banking system that technically weren’t banks but acted like them, so they escaped regs, did things like leverage 30 to one, and collapsed–on top of the rest of us.

    So the federal government again played the role it did in the 30’s. It closely managed the financial sector to restore confidence. TARP’s players are now going to pay the government back–and the taxpayers are actually making money off the situation.

    This isn’t to say this is normal operation of our government, however. The shadow banking system has to be regulated to the point where this doesn’t happen again. News flash: the feds have always had an interest in banks–going back to the founders.

    The auto business is slightly different, but there is precedent. The Chrysler loan guarantee bill was signed in 1979, but Reagan implemented it when he came into office in 1981. The consequences for a dead big three automaker are great. Once those jobs go overseas, they don’t come back. And you bet the overseas automakers would do the same for their automakers–even more than we would.

    But I’m sure the Obama administration is going to get out of owning a stake in GM just as soon as it can…

  5. Chris Mooney

    Thanks Jon. Too bad that even needs to be said.

  6. ThomasL


    If you were around for the Chrysler loanbail-out or are more then passingly familiar with it, you should know that yes, it pretty much led to the same kind of accusations and worries that what is going on now is leading tostirring up again. If you read the literature from the time you will see many viewed it as unprecedented government intervention, the start of very serious “moral hazard” in the market and some serious questioning of the bounds of our governments limits towards intervening in the economy. Many point towards that very act as justification for the current interventions (which just leads those who saw the last round to say “see; now there are no limits to the government’s interference with the market because we let ‘em get away with it the last time…”).

    The only defense the Chrysler loan had at the time was that it produced most of the military vehicles, thus many grudgingly accepted that it was less than ideal, but necessary from the military perspective. I’m sure you can find a copy of the Senate debates, they were every bit as juicy as what is going on today.

    To profess that most were O.K. with it is ‘cause it was Reagan is less than honest, most were deeply uncomfortable with the direction it opened up.

  7. Jon

    I didn’t say the situation is good or uncontroversial. I said the situation has precedent. This isn’t a government setting out to take over the commanding heights of the economy. It’s a government playing defense in a terrible time.

    One thing to think about: South Korea, Japan, Germany. Would they make a similar move to protect one of their big automakers? Yup. They wouldn’t want those jobs permanently moving to the US.

  8. Jim

    Wah!!!! Waaaaaah!!!! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!

    Disconnected from reality? I love global warming and I could care less if it is man caused, but it isn’t. Other solar and geological forces have greater impact on the climate than Man. What is man but a product of the environment anyways. How can he, in the long run, do harm to the Universe.

    The elites among us believe we are all powerful. Wait until the 8.3 hits San Francisco and see who really is in charge.

    The Tea Party is a grassroots movement. It is the other organizations that are glomming on to it. But, I doubt that thought ever occurred. And no, I am not a piad shill. Just an upset Libertarian who wants to live freely and pass on a freer America to his children.

  9. ChH

    First, the Chrysler bailout was signed into law by Carter in January 1980, and Chrysler started issuing government-guaranteed bonds at lower rates a few months later. Reagan inherited this bailout a year later. I have problems with many of the things Reagan did, but you have improperly pinned this one on him.

    Second, call it whatever kind of socialism you want – it’s still socialism. If you support those socialist actions, there’s no reason to hide it – be proud of who and what you are!

    When companies know they are considered “too big to fail”, it removes any internal incentive to act responsibly – they can chase the big profits (such as from high interest sub-prime loans) knowing that the associated high risks are really no risk at all to them.

    We need to get out of the habit of bailing companies and industries out and let some large companies fail to provide incentive for the rest to act responsibly. That would remove the supposed need for all these intrusive new regulations being proposed to prevent another round of irresponsible business behavior.

    Finally, Jon, I’m glad you brought up the example of Japan. Their government has been much more protective and proactively involved in ther businesses, and where has that gotten them? Complete stagnation of their economy.

    The way to attract jobs here is to get rid of the absurd tax penalties levied on companies doing business here. Maybe if we quit punishing such activity there’d be more of it. The FairTax handles this problem beautifully.

  10. Jon

    This is a nice summary:

    “Most of these bodies call themselves “free-market thinktanks”, but their trick – as (Astro)Turf Wars points out – is to conflate crony capitalism with free enterprise, and free enterprise with personal liberty.

    Between them they have constructed the philosophy that informs the Tea Party movement: its members mobilise for freedom, unaware that the freedom they demand is freedom for corporations to trample them into the dirt.”

  11. Jon

    ChH . If you support those socialist actions, there’s no reason to hide it – be proud of who and what you are!

    I don’t support socialism, especially Lemon Socialism (which peeves me as much as it does the tea partiers). But I also don’t support corporate lawlessness and anarchy, and making profits that loot innocent parties–whether they’re in the larger economy, or they’re future generations living in a damaged climate. With banking, I agree with Bill Buckley, the only thing to do is sensibly regulate. I think the same applies with climate, the same applies with traffic on the highway.

    It’s not that hard to understand, really.

  12. ChH

    Jon, it sounds like we agree more than I initially realized. Government’s role should be to prevent people from harming each other – either through force or fraud. I just prefer good incentives for proper business behavior over regulations that can be gotten around.

  13. Jon

    I think with this problem you need both carrots and sticks.

    I agree with Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias. Doing nothing about climate change is not conservative, unless you think conservative principles are irrelevant and certain rich conservatives’, shall we say, capricious views are the only things that matter:

  14. I’m glad you brought up the example of Japan. Their government has been much more protective and proactively involved in their businesses, and where has that gotten them?

    Well it got them to be the number 3 economy in the world within 40 years after WWII. They have a highly educated and relatively well off middle class, not too shabby even if the economy has been stagnant for the last 10 years. China, which is even more protective and proactive in their business community has seen incredible gains as well.

  15. cray

    “socialism”(as if we have any in this country to speak of) That pretty much sums up the delusional Democrat mind. And when Republicans annihilate you on November 2, just blame “foreign money”. It’s what our “brilliant” Commander-in-Chief has been doing.

  16. Gimlet

    This isn’t what “Astroturf” means. “Astroturfing is a form of propaganda whose techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific cause. In the UK this technique is better known as “rent-a-crowd” after the successful “rent-a-crate” business.”

    What you seem to be describing is corporate sponsorship of think tanks, which is something else; or perhaps corporate manipulation of a grass-roots movement, which is also something else.

    (NB: unless the documentary really claims that corporate interests are actually organizing the tea parties and making them appear to have more support than they do – I haven’t seen it, and am just going on the descriptions here).

  17. Brad H

    “6. Chris Mooney Says:
    October 26th, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks Jon. Too bad that even needs to be said.”

    Oh but it does. Much of this current conservative revolution is being fed by getting people angry about Socialism, while most of them can’t even define the term. Ask them to the next time they start blathering about it.

    “13. ChH Says:

    Government’s role should be to prevent people from harming each other – either through force or fraud.”

    Well said! Very much in line with my views and why I tend to vote Democrat, even if I don’t agree with a lot of their policies. I find Republicans so out of touch with this reality, all they ever want to talk about is their perfect vision of free markets.

  18. kenshin

    haven’t seen the doc yet, but it probably does not go far enough. u know how lobbying firms work, right? corporations hire lawyers to lobby to our reps, sometimes they drop off some money for their campaign, stuffed in an envelope with their special interests’ “talking points.”

    well, astroturfing is there to cover the rest. after all, the money is nice but they need the votes, right? so, the same corporations hire PR firms to “pretend” to be constituents, and comment (spam) online. yes this time they’ve gotten in some people who say they aren’t being paid, but a whole lot are, and many who blog/comment/troll are paid, practically by the post. they probably got the idea from the same tactic they use against each other, trashing your competition’s brand by having people pretend they bought their product but it sucks, then posting all over reviews on the internet.

    we used to be able to track their ip addys, these firms are all around the english speaking world–london, toronto, north carolina, new zealand. a friend noticed a new one in denmark i think. but then they started using a server out of russia, and it’s more difficult to find them (but i don’t think impossible).

    one blogger friend lost her job. she posted “i may be gone a few weeks, but don’t worry i’ll be back”. she came back a totally different person, raving about sarah palin, calling obama a muslim terrorist, and spamming glenn beck videos. it simply was not her anymore–she had sold her handle to a PR firm, who posted for her, so admins wouldn’t think she was a troll.

    i’m sorry that this is the new politics–it shouldn’t be like this. we haven’t figured out how to get the lobbyists out of here, now there’s astroturfing and god knows what else the citizen’s united case will bring in.

  19. Matteo

    You’re this obtuse about something eminently simple like politics, and yet we’re supposed to trust you about “climate change”?


  20. james

    It’s a generational thing that drives the fear of socialism. Most kids just see socialism as another choice for government–neither good nor bad.


  21. JMW

    I’d be willing to believe that various forces are trying to harness the Tea Party movement, for two reasons – one to profit (electorally or monetarily or both) on the movement’s force; and second to try to control the Tea Party’s agenda so that it mirrors the agenda of the forces trying to control.

  22. TTT

    ….it took you 2 years to realize that the baggers are a corporate con job?

  23. Sorbit

    Most of the Tea Partiers, when asked to actually explain what their problem is, have no more than sound bytes to throw at you (socialism! government takeover! death panels!). And let’s not even get started on whether they actually have some policy recommendations of substance as solutions. The main problem is not that we disagree with them, the problem is that even they themselves don’t really know what we should disagree with them about. Their “movement” is primarily driven by fear, funding and groupthink. And they are supported by people who think they are really cool simply because they oppose Obama, actual reasons be damned.

    Again, Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stones article nails it.

  24. Doug

    The general stance of the tea partiers (and the faux conservative republicans in general) reminds me of the Time Bandits.

    Step 1) Cut taxes, eliminate government

    Step 2) ?

    Step 3) Utopia!

  25. Jon

    Their “movement” is primarily driven by fear, funding and groupthink.

    That’s a keeper.

  26. Jon

    This was an interesting recent article on the tea party:

    You can’t dismiss the fear–the fear is real. Unfortunately, as George Packer observes, the right is now light years more “advanced” than the 1930s’ Liberty League:

  27. PatriotGames

    My Oxford healthcared premiums increased this month by $3,200 per yer… for my wife and myself. No additional coverage, just a couple of goofy Mastercard debit cards to track payments and lots of fine print with the IRS mentioned at least 50 times. Are you friggin’ kidding me… Obamacare is already a nightmare for my wife and me and cost us thousands of more dollars per year… Now, I’m angry.

  28. Jon

    This TNR author disagrees with the Washington Post piece above:

    (Although I’m not sure I agree that the tea partiers “descend” from the Perot voters–maybe they’re related, but are they “descendants?”)

  29. Obamacare is already a nightmare for my wife and me and cost us thousands of more dollars per year

    His insurance company raises his rates on a whim and he blames Obamacare, which doesn’t kick in for another 4 years.

    Those guys love people like you, PG.

  30. Brian Too

    Outsider perspective here, and a modest proposal. Not sure I believe it myself yet.

    Obama was brought to power by a wave of public discontent with the past. OK, he had a positive message too. All good. Now let’s just stipulate that he has disappointed many. It may be unfair but there it is.

    Now the Tea Party/Sarah Palin are basically doing the same thing. A wave of public discontent with the past. Imagine they get everything they are after, more even.

    Does anyone really believe that the political right will put the country “on the right track”, that their policies will “make sense”, and that they will “bring the people’s agenda to Washington”?

    I mean, seriously, they are going to learn from the left’s mistakes? And the right’s mistakes as well? Everything will be better this time? For how many decades now has Mr. Smith been Going to Washington?

    This isn’t a screed against the right, not this time. The truth is that Washington politics is the way it is for some very good and long-standing reasons. Neither party has done anything to really change that, nor will they. U.S. Federal politics works, in a mutant sort of way, for the rich and powerful. Both party’s destiny, in the main, is to disappoint their respective bases and outrage their opponents. The odd exception notwithstanding.

    Sounds pretty bleak even to me.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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