America's Founders were concerned that their fledging government might be taken over by “factions,” groups of individuals with similar economic interests, or what are nowadays termed term special interest groups. The Founders' solution was to encourage the formation of and competition between numerous groups for influence in government. An “invisible hand,” a concept the Founders borrowed from Adam Smith ( 1723-1790 ), would then guide interest-group competition toward the best outcomes for society.
Modern public discourse suggests the Founders' hope was naïve, and that special interest groups with deep pockets control much of the political process in Washington, DC. These groups often cannot credibly communicate to the public or to policy makers because their positions are so obviously self-serving. One of the strategies they adopt in this case is funding “astroturf” groups, or artificial grassroots campaigns, which are also referred to as front groups. The term was coined by Lloyd Bentsen ( 1921–2006 ), a long-time senator from Texas, to describe campaigns created by public relations firms like that of the disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff ( b. 1958 Walker 2009 ). These firms attempt to simulate a genuine grassroots social movement by generating many seemingly independent letters, phone calls, and emails from a politician's constituents. One common technique is to phone large numbers of individuals and offer to write letters on their behalf, tailoring each to make it look authentic, using different stationery and stamps depending on whether the “writer” is a retired widow or businessman. Another technique is to phone citizens and coach them on a message, then switch them over to the phone number of a congressman's office.
A key feature of astroturf lobbying is its secretive nature. Because most citizens do not make the effort to communicate with officeholders, politicians assume that letter writers have strongly held views, and that each letter represents the views of many other “silent” constituents who did not take the time to write or call. When communications are subsidized by special interests, however, they no longer signify effort on the part of the writer, and they lose their meaning. Hence, special interests must hide their role in astroturfing.
Astroturf groups are of two main types: a short-term response to specific political threats that is disbanded after the threat abates, and a longer-term effort often taking the form of a think tank, which may spur efforts to create groups of the first type. The creation of astroturf groups is more common among firms with strong brands and public visibility and firms particularly concerned with taxation, government appropriations, and economic development. Firms that engage in astroturf lobbying also tend to engage in insider lobbying and make political contributions exclusively to Republican candidates. ( Walker 2009 ).
The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the first major US legislation on lobbying in nearly fifty years, established new registration and reporting requirements for lobbyists. Although early drafts of the act included provisions requiring the registration of firms engaged in astroturf lobbying and the reporting of expenditures made on those actions, those provisions failed to make it out of committee. Thus this particular lobbying technique remained obscured from public view.
Mandating disclosure of expenditures on astroturfing would be socially beneficial but would not be a panacea because of alternative strategies available in many cases to accomplish the same outcomes as astroturf lobbying.
SEE ALSO Interest Groups .
Lyon, Thomas P., and John W. Maxwell. “Astroturf: Interest Group Lobbying and Corporate Strategy.” Journal of Economics and Management Strategy 13, no. 4 (2004): 561–97.
Walker, Edward T. “Privatizing Participation: Civic Change and the Organizational Dynamics of Grassroots Lobbying Firms.” American Sociological Review 74, no. 1 (2009): 83-105. doi: 10.1177/000312240907400105.
Walker, Edward T. “Putting a Face on the Issue: Corporate Stakeholder Mobilization in Professional Grassroots Lobbying Campaigns.” Business & Society 51, no. 4 (2012): 561–601.
Thomas P. Lyon
Ross School of Business University of Michigan