Sociologist on “grassroots [support] for hire”

A sociologist discusses his new book about grassroots support that can be bought:

These are consultants that mobilize mass support on behalf of paying clients, and they can be distinguished from conventional insider lobbyists in that they rely less on direct contact with policymakers and more on the activation of third parties. A plurality of them are nonpartisan, and the rest are a roughly even split between those affiliated with the Democrats or Republicans. Their activity is generally unregulated by federal lobbying laws, and so it’s fair to see them, as Tom Edsall does, as “unlobbyists.” They use a wide range of strategies: some that political professionals are well known for using (targeted recruitment for sending letters/e-mails to policymakers, advocacy ads encouraging participation) and some that are less widely recognized (‘intercepts’ that stage seemingly unplanned interactions with legislators, creating third-party or ‘front’ organizations for clients’ causes, ghostwriting blogs, or even helping to stage protest demonstrations)…

Our everyday image of grassroots participation sees it as unprompted, spontaneous, and driven by the authentic moral concerns of local communities rather than by instrumental concerns about gaining resources or political power. Of course, the sociologists and political scientists who study advocacy know that this image has always been something of a myth. Effective organizing generally requires effective organizations, and those organizations need funding, staff, and some degree of structure.

When corporations and other interests hire public affairs consultants to organize on their behalf, what they are doing is often following the script of citizen advocacy: locating sources of public support, studying the opposition, searching out strategic alliances and points of political leverage, and trying to frame their arguments persuasively.  But there are certainly some key differences: the consultants usually have better data, significant funding, and the backing of a heavyweight client. A disadvantage, on the other hand, is that they need to operate with a light touch such that their efforts aren’t discounted as inauthentic “astroturf” (i.e. ersatz grassroots)…

Putting the issue of astroturf aside, an important finding in the book is that the targeting strategies of these consultants have significant consequences. In aggregate, these consultants are reaching out to and mobilizing many millions of Americans every year on behalf of their clients.  These consultants need to turn out numbers for their clients, and so the rational strategy is to target those most likely to acquiesce to their requests, namely, people with a history of political engagement and who are strong political partisans.  Of course, these are the groups that are already overrepresented in the political process, so selectively mobilizing these groups is amplifying inequalities in participation and representation.

This sounds like it raises lots of interesting questions about social movements and what gets counted as “authentic” or not. Large-scale social movements that get many members to physically act are quite rare so it is not surprising that different firms and organizations would want to generate more grassroots activity. Yet, as the author suggests, there is a line where we question the motivations of those organizing or participating in social movements. Are they acting for the right reasons? Are they protesting because there is a legitimate grievance or are they doing it because they are self-interested or getting some kind of renumeration? Should social movements only originate with the public and non-profits (which is practically its own industry these days) or is it okay if corporations and governments also try to get people involved on their behalf? It would then be interesting to look at where Americans draw this symbolic boundary between authentic and inauthentic social action. Perhaps the line would tend to get drawn more harshly for causes you don’t personally agree with as much…

There are some interesting parallels here with action online regarding social movements. If you sign an online petition or like a group or cause, have you become part of the movement? A recent study suggests more private forms of slactivism can lead to deeper engagement with social movements while more public displays don’t do as much. And then what about all of those fake Twitter followers that can be purchased for different causes, whether furthering fame, status, or political interests? While many people may not be aware of the number of less-than-active Twitter accounts, I suspect the public would see these kinds of support as more inauthentic.

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