Misunderstanding the ‘grassroots’ concept

MISUNDERSTANDING THE ‘GRASSROOTS’ CONCEPT…. Media Matters’ Karl Frisch notes Glenn Beck’s role in this week’s Tea-bagging events. It points to a larger truth that often goes overlooked.

Beck isn’t just helping with turnout. Discussing his participation in the upcoming protest at the Alamo in San Antonio on his syndicated radio program, Beck announced, “I’m going to do a fundraiser for them” to help defray costs. “So you can come and you can have lunch with me. … I don’t know any of the details, but I’ve heard it’s like $500 a plate or something like that.”

While the notion of someone paying $500 to have lunch near Glenn Beck is itself amusing, I think Oliver Willis captures the broader significance: “When people were protesting the Iraq War, they didn’t have $500 a plate fundraisers. Then again, they didn’t have sponsorship from Fox News, the backing of corporate lobbyists and the attendance of prominent conspiracy theorists like Alan Keyes.”

Right. Even after all the teaching moments of the last decade or so, it seems the right still doesn’t quite get the meaning of the word “grassroots.” Conservatives still seem wedded to a top-down model.

We’ve seen this play out several times of late. Remember “Freedom’s Watch”? Conservatives decided they needed their own version of MoveOn.org, so some loyal Bushies went to a right-wing billionaire for seed money, and the top-down game was in motion. The result, despite considerable hype, was a bust, and the far-right group has already folded.

There’s some evidence to suggest the Tea Parties are following a similar trajectory. These right-wing events aren’t just coming together naturally; they’re the product of Fox News and corporate lobbyists. This is practically a textbook example of “astroturf.” That Glenn Beck is charging $500 a plate to have lunch with him, to help subsidize the effort, only helps reinforce the larger dynamic.

Conservatives too often think, “We’ll get some money together, deliver a right-wing message, and the grassroots will come together. It’ll be awesome.” Except, it never is.

This isn’t to say turnout will necessarily be low on Wednesday; I wouldn’t be surprised if far-right voters turned out in substantial numbers. The point is, corporate-sponsored events, thrown together with no clear purpose or specific aims, are not the foundation for a political movement or effective activism.