Health Fight is About Organizing

The volume on the healthcare debate has been turned up to 10. A concerted effort by people on the right has disrupted local healthcare forums, helping drive down public support for a public insurance option being included in proposed healthcare reform.

And it has some on the left questioning the legitimacy of the protesters — most of whom come armed with a range of lies and distortions — as nothing but the unwitting dupes of the corporate interests. The shouters, they say, are an example of “astroturfing,” or manufactured public opinion created by corporate interests.

Sourcewatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, distinguishes what it calls “genuine grassroots activism” from “astroturfing” this way:

“Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client’s cause.”

The question is whether it is fair to describe opposition to the Obama health plan and the public option as “Astroturf.” The answer depends, I think, on your partisan beliefs — sort of like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first.

There always has been a significant portion of the public — even before the lobbyists got involved — suspicious of Barack Obama on health care, even if skeptics had been a minority. The money and strategizing coming from the right, in particular the money coming in from the insurance lobby, has only increased the skepticism.

Does that mean that the current opponents, the ones shouting most loudly at the healthcare forums, represent a fake movement? I don’t think so.

Consider this from William Greider’s 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People, which outlined how various intersecting strands — campaign contributions, voter apathy, and what he called “democracy for hire” — were leaving our democracy weakened and ineffective.

Grieder describes a targeted, PR-industry-run campaign in 1990 designed to kill clean-air legislation. The PR firm, Bonner & Associates (the same firm tied to the forged NAACP letters), “persuaded” an array of otherwise apolitical civic organizations in auto-industry states “to take a stand” against tougher fuel standards by convincing the group’s leaders that higher mileage requirements “would make it impossible to manufacture any vehicles larger than a Ford Escort or a Honda Civic.” (Greider, p. 37)

Greider writes that Bonner was paid “somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million” (in 1990) for “scouring six states for potential grassroots voices, coaching them on the ‘facts’ of the issue, paying for the phone calls and plane fares to Washington and hiring the hall for a joint press conference.” (Greider, p. 37)

The point of all of this is to lend a different look to the argument, to put a human face on what otherwise is a corporate campaign.

Bonner told Greider (pp. 37-38), “It’s farm groups worrying about small trucks. It’s people who need station wagons to drive kids to Little-League games. These are the groups with political juice and they’re white hot.”

Greider doesn’t view this as a true grassroots effort or particularly democratic. (p. 38)

“In actuality, earnest citizens are being skillfully manipulated by powerful interests — using ‘facts’ that are debatable at best — in a context designed to serve narrow corporate lobbying strategies, not free debate,” he writes.

The problem with describing the current efforts as “astroturfing” is that — even with the concerted corporate effort behind it — the shouters appear to have come before the corporate money and are plugging into some real fears.

Progressives have allowed themselves to be out-organized by the right at a time when progressives should have had the ear of the people in power. What the right has done on health care is what the left should have been doing. Conservative blogger Ryan Sager, defending the grassroots nature of the town-hall shouters, wrote in the New York Times that the “ties” to corporate groups are not much different than liberal efforts.

“(T)he Obama administration has been doing its own stage managing,” he wrote in August. “At a town hall in Virginia (in July), the president took questions from members of organizations with close ties to the administration, including the Service Employees International Union and Organizing for America, which is a part of the Democratic National Committee. The Web site of another liberal group, Health Care for America Now, instructs counter-protesters to “bring enough people to drown’ out the Tea Partiers.”

What’s the difference? Not much, really.

“Organizing isn’t cheating,” Sager writes. “Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics. If they believe what they’re saying, no matter who helped organize them, they’re citizens and activists.”

The left — or a portion of it, anyway — allowed Obama too long of a honeymoon period, which left a political vacuum. Obama and Congress have seen little pressure from his left, and much from his right, creating an imbalance that plays into the outmoded political narrative that the news media has had difficulty moving beyond.

The reality is that the Democrats have spent the better part of the last six months backpedaling on healthcare reform, trying to appease Republicans and conservatives with a weak and likely ineffectual plan that the GOP is not going to support anyway. That’s a sucker’s bet.

If Democrats were serious about reform, they’d follow the example of US Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and be bold and unapologetic in their support for a competing public insurance plan, even if they refuse to go all the way to single-payer.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper group. Email; blog

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2009

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