Beyond Astroturf

There's a well-traveled saying, generally attributed to social theorist Eric Hoffer, that goes like this: Every great movement starts out as a cause, turns into a business, and eventually devolves into a racket. Well it looks like some folks are finding new and innovative ways to make the Tea Party a part of their business. Consider the story of Gibson Guitars, which was recently raided by the feds as part of an investigation into the illegal importation of endangered woods, and then made itself into a Tea Party hero. John Boehner invited the company's CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, to sit with him at President Obama's jobs speech, and Juszkiewicz has made his case all over Fox News, in The Wall Street Journal, and on conservative radio programs. Tea Partiers are even planning a rally next month in support of the company, portraying it as an innocent victim of a tyrannical Obama administration.

Over at Grist, Glenn Hurowitz is in the midst of a multi-part series on how Gibson managed to enlist this grassroots help. Here's where the business angle comes in:

What was Juszkiewicz's secret to getting his company's narrow message so quickly and widely amplified? In part, the groundwork had already been laid for him by a series of Tea Party groups that back an agenda closely aligned with that of large Asian timber companies eager to import wood and paper into the United States from legally and environmentally questionable sources.

At the nexus of these organizations is prominent Tea Party operative Andrew Langer, who played a critical role in organizing many of the original anti-Obama Tea Party rallies. In 2009, Langer started diverting members of his organizations (notably the Institute for Liberty and Frontiers of Freedom) away from the standard array of conservative issues and toward ones narrowly affecting the interests of Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian logging companies. He also established a new organization, the Orwellian-sounding "Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity," dedicated primarily to attacking a coalition of environmental groups, unions, and businesses that supports rainforest conservation policies. Chief targets included the Lacey Act, which prohibits imports of illegally logged wood and paper, and which Gibson Guitar is now accused of breaking.

It's a wonder nobody figured this out before. You've got hundreds of thousands of Tea Party activists out there just waiting to be energized. So any company that has a beef with the federal government can hire somebody like Langer to create grassroots pressure to free them of their shackles. It's an even better version of what's come to be known as "astroturf" lobbying, which is when corporations simulate grassroots support. In this case, the roots really are in the grass. Even if the people being used don't really get that they're really just part of a lobbying campaign for one corporation's interests.

Or maybe they do. That's what Juszkiewicz thinks, anyway. He told the L.A. Times, "Sure, I'm being used by the tea party. I'm using them too. It's mutual."