Election 2004  
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The GOP Stampede

The conservatives don't play politics with real grassroots activism. Their top-down style and "buy the movement" approach is better suited for Astroturf – and this week, they're on the march.
 
 
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Next week, the Republican Party's ground game will be out in full force. Bush strategist Karl Rove will unveil his "72-hour plan" to knock on the door of every last uncommitted voter in America leading up to the election. The strategy for the stretch-drive is unambiguous: red meat for the base, inclusiveness and security for the swing voters and making a mockery of Sen. Kerry. To get there, conservative leadership will mobilize their network of grassroots activists like never before, focusing on key battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Commenting on the push, Arizona GOP chairman Bob Fannin told CNN this August that he hadn't seen anything like it in 40 years of Republican politics. "It's coordinated from the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign in a very, very aggressive way. ... We are right on top of it every week."

The drive to get out the Republican vote will be but one part of a genuine and dangerously effective conservative mass movement that has emerged in recent years. But there's a difference between the right's activism and that of the left. While most progressive movements tend to be organized spontaneously by activists in true bottom-up fashion, the right's grassroots are top-down, disciplined and hierarchical. Many of their ground troops have been professionally inflamed to the point that they've become another powerful media tool for conservative leadership. Beyond a base of dedicated activists within the evangelical community and some other true believers – an estimated 15 million of whom made it to the polls for Bush in 2000 – the right's populism is often a smoke-and-mirrors affair cultivated by GOP operatives, spread with today's easy activist tools and underwritten – sometimes indirectly – by the usual conservative donors.

This approach works. We saw it performed perfectly in Florida in the days after the contested 2000 presidential vote. Pro-Bush protesters marching in the streets of Florida convinced the Miami-Dade canvassing board to shut down its recount before the tally was completed, sending Gore v. Bush to the courts. According to the New York Times, the decision to halt the recount "followed a rapid campaign of public pressure." Republican telephone banks urged voters of all stripes to protest the process and conservative talk-radio hosts echoed the call. According to the Times, one Republican attorney used a bull horn to egg the crowds on, and the gathering protesters became violent, at one point even assaulting a Democratic board member.

Where natural passions seemed inadequate in the Florida mess, an image of popular protest was manufactured by the GOP. The truth would emerge, but only after the first impression of popular unrest had been made. As the Wall Street Journal would report several days later, "Some of the unruly pro-Bush demonstrators who kicked doors and banged on windows of [the] Miami-Dade County election office last week were Capitol Hill aides whose travel expenses are being paid by the Bush campaign." They included staffers of House Majority Leader Tom Delay and Trent Lott. In one photo of a crowd of "angry voters" can be seen an equally angry John Bolton, who became Bush's neoconservative undersecretary of state for arms control. While the media eventually picked up on the artifice, the GOP had successfully constructed the charge – widely repeated – that Vice President Gore was challenging the democratic will of the majority. That's an important point. The emergence of a right wing "grassroots" movement has coincided with the rise of a conservative media that amplifies and reinforces its message.

After all, it may be difficult to spur people to mass action based on the "old right's" promises of deregulation and privatization, but as long as there's a wide belief that the left – with its "activist judges" and positive stances toward women's reproductive rights and same-sex marriage – is trying to destroy America, an increasing number of hard-working folks will be willing to hit the streets – or at least shoot off an angry e-mail to the latest target of conservative anger.

Two generations ago the phrase "conservative grassroots" would have been an oxymoron; nobody had any question which party represented the voting majority in this country. The left was made up of a wide spectrum of America, ranging from the unwashed masses that agitated for social progress to a contented upper-middle class, while conservatives were widely perceived to be the "Wall Street" fat cats – a patrician elite whose political capital kept the lid on those masses and maintained the status quo.

But beginning in the early '70s, a small group of influential conservatives sought to change that dynamic. They brought together lessons learned during hard-fought battles in the '50s and '60s over civil and women's rights and the war in Vietnam. The effort to make middle America believe that it was under attack by a freedom-hating liberal elite at the top, and a fringe of scary, screwy protesters at the bottom had begun. Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation and a member of that old guard, recently wrote:

"...study and application of your opposition's best practices can spur greater innovation and success....Back in the 1970s... we stressed the importance of grass-roots organizing. We took a page from organized labor's playbook, modified it to fit our constituency and purposes, and started winning primaries and elections."

The right's attempt to marry labor-style activism with conservative constituencies and purposes eventually led to what's known as the "fusionist" synthesis of religious and traditional conservatism. Grover Norquist, the D.C.-based founder of Americans for Tax Reform is one of the most influential fusionists. His vision is of a future where anti-choice, anti-immigrant and pro-gun activists combine seamlessly in support of his group's big-business agenda. When asked about the marriage between blueblood and cultural conservatism, Norquist told Reason Magazine:

"I am not concerned that the religious right will run out of things to do... My fear is that if they get their main issues settled, they'll go home. The Christian Coalition represents a lot of white Southerners who used to be quasi-socialists. They used to buy into the whole Democratic Party's class warfare arguments. With a lot of those constituencies, we've brought them along so that they're as good on the tax issue as anyone else."

Norquist is one of the leading players in popular conservatism. Every Wednesday he hosts an inside-the-Beltway meeting of grassroots activists, policy wonks, congressional staffers and friendly journalists to shape strategy and hone conservative talking points. The Wednesday meetings are now networked with groups in as many as 44 states, projecting a consistent message to a broad, nationwide coalition. It is a message fed to the rank-and-file from the very top of the conservative power structure and cynically designed to incite popular passions. And, as Norquist's statement makes clear, it is not in the interests of the coalition's leaders for the cultural conservatives – many of whom are working class citizens who get hurt badly by the right's economic policies – to make progress on the issues that drive their activism.

Beyond the Base, Toward the Future

Creating impressions is an imperative in the age of electronic politics. And nowhere has the right's grassroots had a greater impact than on the mainstream media. The most prominent of a number of 'citizens' groups dedicated to fighting supposed liberal bias in the news is the Media Research Center (MRC), headed by L. Brent Bozell III, a conservative in a constant state of anger who Media Transparency, a watchdog group, calls "a zealot of impeccable right-wing pedigree ... the nephew of columnist William F. Buckley and the son of L. Brent Bozell, Jr., who assisted Barry Goldwater with the writing of 'Conscience of a Conservative.'"

Flush with cash from right wing foundations and Republican donors, the MRC, and similar groups, are able to generate tens of thousands of calls and e-mails to editors and reporters whose coverage they deem unsuitable. Bozell's group was pivotal in CBS's decision to cancel its unflattering Reagan biopic.

During a recent panel discussion at Harvard University, the four major network news anchors discussed media activism, and three admitted that massive public pressure from the right had a significant impact on the way they do business. The lone dissenter? Dan Rather. It's ironic because, according to the Chicago Tribune, it was a Republican activist, Mike Krempasky, who soon after that discussion started a Web site that fueled much of the "Rathergate" scandal. Krempasky's day job is political director for American Target Advertising, a Virginia PR firm run by right wing direct mail legend Richard A. Viguerie, a co-founder of the Moral Majority.

Public relations firms like Viguerie's have played an important and growing role in the popular conservative movement – you might call it corporate populism. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Move America Forward – the campaign that mobilized thousands of letter writers to urge theaters to drop "Fahrenheit 9/11" – and no less than a dozen "popular" ballot initiatives have been linked to PR firms with deep ties to the Republican Party in the past two years.

Creating a movement is becoming easy; with today's activist tools, anyone with adequate funding can launch a credible "grassroots" campaign. In fact, it can be as easy as hiring a company like Strategic Internet Campaign Management (SICM), which specializes in "political and corporate grassroots activism using the Internet." Its Web site asks: "Is your organization looking for a cost-effective way to get tens of thousands of activists contacting Congress on your focus issues? Is your corporation looking for a high-response method of grassroots activism to move a bill in your favor?"

SICM's president is William Greene, who was a VP at ConservativeHQ.com, an activist site run by Richard Viguerie. Greene also runs RightMarch.com, where disgruntled Republicans can click on "action links" with headings like: "Stand Up for Sinclair's right to air Kerry documentary (Fight Back Against Censorship by MoveOn.org!); Protest "Fahrenheit 9/11"! (Fight the socialist Michael Moore's LIES with the TRUTH!) and, of course, "Support the Freedom Flat Tax!"

The Internet plays as vital a role in organizing the right as it does the left, and there are dozens of websites that spur pissed off conservatives to action. Townhall.com, a project of the Heritage Foundation, bills itself as "the first truly interactive community on the Internet to bring Internet users, conservative public policy organizations, congressional staff, and political activists together...." While conservative protests and counter-protests are generally small (with the exception of right-to-life rallies) they get significant news play. Just 5,000 people showed up for FreeRepublic.com's "March for Justice" demonstration against Clinton in 1999, but the event garnered roughly as much media attention as we saw during the major Iraq war protests.

Last year, pro-Iraq war rallies were organized in New York by Powerline.com, a site run by two fellows from the Claremont Institute – an anti-tax think tank – and a lawyer for Akin Gump, a powerhouse national law firm that's gained attention for its union-busting work for Starbucks and its lobbying for military aid on behalf of the Columbian government. Another Web site, Protestwarrior.com, coordinates counter-demonstrations against the peace movement, acting as media parasites on the real rallies, and getting disproportional news coverage in relation to their turnout. The media seem to keep falling for this "activism" in their search to present political balance at every step.

That's why it would be a great error to underestimate the effectiveness of grassroots conservatism. Whether a movement is an authentic expression of issues of concern in our communities or a product of a PR firm cynically "channeling" cultural issues that people are passionate about into a populist call for an ultra-regressive flat-tax, politicians, the media and ordinary people take it seriously. Just ask any baseball fan; they'll tell you how hard it is to distinguish between natural grass and Astroturf.

Joshua Holland is a fair trade activist, a student of international relations at the University of Southern California and Editor-in-Chief of the Trojan Horse, USC's lefty muckraker.