For the better part of a year, I’ve been wondering how Unity08 could have mustered the arrogance needed to refer to itself as a “grassroots organization” without bursting into laughter. After all, the Random House dictionary defines the adjective “grassroots” as “of, pertaining to, or involving the common people, esp. as contrasted with or separable from an elite.” The leadership of Unity08 is elite all the way, consisting of DC beltway lobbyists, lawyers, public relations executives, media consultants and investment fund managers. That’s not what the dictionary would call “grassroots.”
This morning, I’ve come to understand why Unity 08 may have chosen to use the word “grassroots.” The Unity08 organization, staffed by public relations professionals, is going to relate to the world from a public relations standpoint. And in the public relations world, the word “grassroots organization” doesn’t refer to an organization made up of grassroots people. It refers to an organization dedicated to manipulating the grassroots.
Unity08 is best understood as an organization in the line of Grassroots Enterprises, which describes its business as to use “the Internet to create movements around causes, companies and products.” This is a company that sold its P.R. expertise to the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, and then worked under contract to whip up public opinion and prod citizens of the provinces to write letters demanding that their provinces be given a bigger portion of national oil revenues. A similar P.R. firm, OnPoint Advocacy, describes itself as a player in the professional “grassroots marketplace” and was hired by the Business Roundtable to use internet ads to manipulate citizens into contacting Congress in support of free trade pacts with Central America and in favor of the privatization of social security accounts. One of the scarier tools in skills in OnPoint’s “grassroots marketplace” tool set is “advocate development”:
The advocate development team can:
* Keep advocates abreast of important issues and primed for action through ongoing communications that make them feel as though they are part of a valuable, tangible group, and show them that their actions have a real impact.
* Ascertain why advocates have become involved, provide more information on the issues, and encourage advocates to do moreâ€”all by reaching out and developing one-on-one dialogs with advocates that help weed out one-time participants, identify opportunities for growth, and increase the value of your efforts.
* Upsell articulate advocates with compelling reasons for becoming involved in increased, higher-impact activity. OnPoint’s advocate development team identifies which individuals are willing to take additional action or engage in higher-level activity, and can mobilize them individually or as a group, at your direction. Because they are personally or professionally affected by an issue, their stories and support can add depth to your efforts.
In short, they’ll find some useful chumps, make them feel like they matter, and manipulate them into creating the semblance of popular political sentiment for their corporate paymasters. This is exactly the sort of activity carried out by the tobacco industry, which created an entire fake-front social movement called the “National Smokers Alliance” in the 1990s to carry its water.
Placed in this context, the use of the “grassroots” moniker by Unity08 makes complete, unfortunate, sense. The use of “grassroots” by Unity08 marks another step in the inversion of the term toward the exact opposite of what it used to mean.