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Jim Hightower: Raising Astroturf

Political uprisings have become corporate-organized PR efforts that use real folks as a front

“Hey, hey, what do you say? Make some noise, seize the day!” Protests are back! All across America, angry demonstrations are popping up like mushrooms on moldy Astroturf.

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower

Similar to the plastic “grass,” political astroturf is the corporate version of grassroots — instead of ordinary citizens organizing and mobilizing themselves for political action, astroturf campaigns are well-orchestrated PR efforts that put real folks out front, but are instigated, organized and funded by corporate interests and right-wing front groups.

We’ve seen a surge in these plastic uprisings this year, all directed at policy changes being put forth by President Barack Obama. First come the April 15 “teabag” rallies to oppose Obama’s economic recovery package. Billed as a spontaneous people’s rebellion against BGS (Big Government Socialism), the events turned out to have been spawned and coordinated by a corporate-financed anti-government outfit in Washington called Freedom Works, headed by former GOP majority leader Dick Armey.

Next up were this month’s rancorous confrontations at local town halls that had been convened by assorted members of Congress to discuss Obama’s health-care proposals. Various groupings of red-faced, mostly elderly, mostly Republican citizens stormed these discussions, turning them into yell-a-thons. Again, BGS was the core theme of the seniors’ screeds, including numerous versions of this muddled thought: “I don’t want socialized medicine. And don’t touch my Medicare.”

Their talking points (yelling points, actually) were straight out of the litany-of-hokum that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin and Co. chant daily — including repetition of the ludicrous lie that Obama intends to deploy cadres of federal death agents to show up at bingo halls to euthanize granny and gramps.

Coordination and funding of this senior-scare campaign has come from such corporate front groups as Conservatives for Patients’ Rights. CPR was created and financed by Rick Scott, the multimillionaire former CEO of the huge hospital chain Columbia-HCA.

In 1997, Scott was dumped by Columbia because of corporate policies developed on his watch to defraud patients, doctors and Medicare. Columbia pleaded guilty and had to pay $1.7 billion to settle the fraud charges. Now, Scott is bringing this “expertise” to the health-care debate.

The latest line of astroturf, however, is being peddled by an old flim-flammer: Big Oil. In a series of 20 mass rallies during the August congressional recess, a group called Energy Citizens is purporting to be a rebellion of common folks against Obama’s climate change legislation. Who are these rebels? ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other oil giants.

Energy Citizens was created and funded by the industry’s chief lobbying organization, the American Petroleum Institute, which already has spent $3 million this year lobbying to kill the climate-change initiative. “We are about giving citizens a voice,” a spokeswoman said.

But, how many ordinary Joes and Jills really want to rally behind Big Oil? Practically none. No problem, though — in a memo to oil chieftains, API urged them to “put a human face” on the industry’s self-serving opposition by putting their employees out front. Even API recognized the cynicism in this ploy, so it warned executives to “please treat this information as sensitive, (for) we don’t want critics to know our game plan.”

Call it what they will, Energy Citizen was a corporate show from the get-go. API hired an events management company to stage the rallies, put a field coordinator in each state, ran the PR campaign and served as general manager of the game plan. Attendance essentially came from Rent-a-Crowd: Oil company employees in Houston, for example, were “invited” by their bosses to attend, were given paid time off for the event, were bused to and from the rallies, were entertained by corporate-hired performers, were served a free lunch, were given yellow T-shirts to wear and were asked to wave placards declaring, “I’m an Energy Citizen.”

Since Astroturf itself is actually made up of petroleum, there’s a certain poetic symmetry in having Big Oil produce the slickest and silliest astroturf campaign of them all — so far.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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