(See also the series overview for this Hotspot on astroturfing.)
Why do we care about astroturfing? Probably because, as a society that holds up pluralistic democracy as its political ideal, there’s great legitimating power in locating any social movement or political proposal “with the people.” How could anyone not be with the people?
As absurd as it may sound, though, in many ways the question of whether government will be “for the people, by the people” is the defining political question of today. Although political involvement by all the people living in a place has historically been more of an ideal than a reality, political systems worldwide are increasingly losing legitimacy in the eyes of the governed as “for the money, by the money” endeavors. It says something when both young libertarians and Russell Brand see not voting as the most principled political action they can take in regard to the current system. It’s often the case that new methods of organizing society, such as the replacement of people-people with people-corporations, cloak themselves in existing values, even if the new practices actively subvert those values. This is why astroturfing sets many people’s teeth on edge: it validates the values of “politics by the people” while in practice diminishing that very possibility and subverting the practice of democracy.
With that said, I actually don’t think astroturfing is a helpful framework with which to understand and comment on emerging political movements playing the populist card. It focuses us on questions of authenticity rather than content, on “do these people have the right to speak?” rather than “what are they saying?” The image of grassroots politics as bubbling up from average Joes and Janes with no political knowledge, just old fashioned indignation, is just that–an image. Some of the first messages that set Occupy percolating came from the activists of Adbusters; Rosa Parks wasn’t a naive everywoman who one day could no longer stand race-based oppression but a career community organizer and political activist. Pointing this out doesn’t make either Occupy or the Civil Rights movement any less populist: both envisioned and engaged “a people” in their political struggles even as they pursued those struggles with a sustained commitment and subtle understanding of political strategies and tactics.
And in many ways, an obsessive concern with authenticity also undermines the strengths and values of grassroots politics. Once your focus is on looking for heretics, the inherent power of differences of opinion and diverse thought united into one campaign goes out the window. As a concluding example, consider the Occupy Debit Card. Yes, you read that right: some people involved with the alternative banking working group started in Zucotti Park have come together as The Occupy Money Cooperative and launched a low fees pre-paid debit card under the Occupy name. Their goal is to carry on the Occupy mission–as they understand it–by providing an alternative to those financially disenfranchised or exploited by the current system. But many Occupiers object to the use of the movement’s name on astroturfing grounds, arguing it implies a broad agreement about the effort from the Occupy movement itself, agreement which doesn’t exist. They don’t want the end result of the grassroots Occupy movement to be, literally, a piece of plastic. I would argue that the more energy and action happening around the ideas, words, and name of Occupy, the more vital the movement proves itself to be. One group pursuing action under the Occupy name does not prevent others from doing the same; the debate about if a card should be, what the card should be, and how the cooperative should be organized is helpful and necessary. Politics by diversity is a messy project of compromise, negotiation, and debate–not consensus and ideological uniformity. Let’s forget about the grass, plastic or not, and get to the dirt.