The Real “Astroturf” Lobbyists

Over the years, supporters of speech regulation have been extremely successful at using language to shape the terms of debate.  Their very success in having the issue perpetually identified as campaign finance "reform" (even when they are fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo) is evidence of that prowess with language.  They successfully convinced the press and public that the "express advocacy" test adopted by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo was "magic words," though no court had ever adopted a "magic words" test or limited "express advocacy" to any set of "magic words."  They successfully branded citizen speech about candidates and issues as "sham" speech.  And so I tip my hat again and again to these abusers of the English language for their prowess in shaping the debate.

Their latest language grab is "astroturf lobbying."  But who are the real "astroturf" lobbyists? 

By "astroturf" lobbying, so-called "reform" groups mean efforts by both individuals and organizations – corporations, unions, non-profits – to communicate with the public on an issue, and urge the public to contact their representatives.  But as CCP Associate Director Paul Sherman notes, "There’s nothing ‘fake’ about asking people to get involved in the political process.  Regardless of who alerts citizens to a political issue, the choice to contact their legislator ultimately rests with the individual.  If they do, that’s ‘real’ grassroots by any measure."  And as CCP Executive Director Steve Hoersting points out, "Lobbying disclosure requirements are supposed to combat government corruption.  But in ‘grassroots lobbying’ there is no possibility of corruption.  It is simply citizens talking to other citizens.  The danger in disclosure of this kind is that skilled lobbyists would be driven away from representing unpopular causes."  Which appears to be what the so-called "reform community" wants.

But who are the real "Astroturf" lobbyists?

This press release, arguing in favor of regulating grassroots lobbying, uses the term "astroturf" 65 times.  It is issued by Democracy 21, a "group" that has no members – none.  D21 and its founder/president, Fred Wertheimer, are registered lobbyists.  The bulk of Democracy 21’s funding comes from the Pew, Carnegie, Joyce and Open Society (George Soros) Foundations, which themselves have no broad membership to whom to be accountable, and which operate with no accountability to the general public.  We point out that we don’t have a problem with this, per se – it’s basically how we operate here at CCP, except that, unlike D21, we do not engage in any lobbying on the Hill.  And we lack the gumption to go around Capitol Hill ridiculing Congress’s constituents as "fake" and "astroturf" while claiming to speak for "the American people,"  as does Democracy 21 and some of their other unelected, memberless, cohorts. 

We do, though, speak for what we consider a proper interpretation of the First Amendment, to protect the rights of individuals, and for what we believe to be sound public policy.  We do not hold voters in contempt as "fake" and "astroturf." 

Meanwhile, you can bet that you will continue to hear the term "astroturf" applied to communications made to citizens to encourage their direct political involvement.  But the real "astroturf" lobbyists will be those hurling the accusation.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.