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If you can fake spontaneity you have it made: Five key questions about the grassroots industry

- June 2, 2014

Edward Walker is an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles (image courtesy of UCLA).
Edward Walker’s new book, “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy,” describes how the grassroots industry – public consultancy firms that try to mobilize public support for specific policy positions – came into being and how it works today. Edward is an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA. I asked him five questions about his book.
Henry Farrell: “Grassroots For Hire” talks about how a specific group of lobbyists try to create and mobilize public support for their clients’ policy positions. How did this industry come into being, and how exactly does it do its work?
Edward Walker: 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).
The industry came into being in the 1970s and had more substantial growth in the 80s and 90s, with new firms in the 2000s focused on digital participation and micro-targeting. A number of forces came together to support the field’s initial rise: the massive explosion of new citizen advocacy during the Nader era, the well-documented political mobilization of business as new regulations were perceived as threats to corporate America, and a more politically partisan citizenry. The interest group explosion showed the power of organizing the mass public, and contested businesses (especially in areas like nuclear power, tobacco, and other highly regulated industries like telecom) found ways to imitate the citizen groups through working with these consultants. Today, nearly 40 percent of the Fortune 500 appear on their client lists.
What are the differences, if any, between ‘traditional’ grassroots organizing, and the kind of organizing done on behalf e.g. of large corporate interests?
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).
You suggest that ‘astroturfing’ (the creation of largely imaginary grassroots groups) is actually pretty ineffective, when compared to helping organize people with real issues. Why is this so?
Astroturfing involves one of three features: heavily incentivized participation (sometimes through material compensation), when a campaign masquerades as having mass support without disclosing that the campaign has a sole or small group of sponsors, or, most egregiously, when campaigns use forgery, fraud, or misrepresentation.
It’s certainly true that some of the campaigns in the book fit this definition, especially the 2005-era creation of Working Families for Wal-Mart, which actively misrepresented that the firm was the sole funder of the front group. While I acknowledge that these campaigns are at times effective – they do, after all, give plausible deniability to policymakers who want to support an interest’s cause while appearing to simply be accountable to constituents – astroturfing comes with some big risks. Efforts like these are very often exposed by watchdog groups or opposing interests, thus leaving the campaign worse off than at the outset.  What’s more effective is when consultants do two things to preempt the accusation of astroturf: locate arms-length sources of support who have an independent interest in the cause, and be transparent about the client and funding. Doing things this way isn’t just more ethical, it’s more strategic.
You worry that grassroots for hire might damage democracy, but not in the obvious ways. How might paid grassroots organizing subtly democracy and equal representation?
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.
On the other hand, the book also reveals that frequent secondary targets in consultants’ campaigns are racial and ethnic minority groups. This may expand participation among such groups, but it also seems clear that such constituencies are often recruited to serve in a tokenistic role to show a broad and diverse base of support. A recent campaign by Intuit to defend its Turbotax software, for example, recruited local NAACP groups to show that opposition to an IRS reform proposal had broader-than-expected support.
One of the surprises for me in the book was that government agencies sometimes use grassroots for hire firms to organize interests on their behalf. How does this work, and how might it affect government accountability to citizens?
This is a surprising part of the story. Although my estimates show that only around 7 percent of the aggregate client base of consultants is comprised of government agencies, this still amounts to a substantial amount of work.  Interestingly, it’s primarily local government agencies like water districts lobbying for increased federal appropriations and school districts seeking new bond issues in states where they require voter approval. They also do some work for federal agencies, but this is usually only on the messaging side. Consultants often shy away from government clients because there is usually a more extensive RFP process in order to land the work, they pay less on an hour-by-hour basis, and then they can be slow to pay. It’s also more likely to land the consultant’s name in the paper with unwelcome disclosures about their fees.
There are, of course, laws about what gets called “taxpayer-funded lobbying,” and the consultants are generally careful about compliance issues.  Still, there are cases that raise questions about how government hiring of such consultants challenges public accountability.  A good example is a 2011 case in which a Marina, Calif. water authority sought to hire Davies Public Affairs to support its campaign for a new desalination plant, which met with considerable backlash and made some ask, justifiably, whether government should be engaging in these kinds of activities at all.