The decay of the healthcare debate: astroturfing and Manchurian Provocateurs

Here’s a fun example of astroturfing in its purest form: A woman attending a town hall event for Rep. Steve Kagen (D-WI), and–while loudly raising objections to the Democrats’ health care reform proposal–insisting she’s just a regular concerned citizen. Except, she’s actually a GOP official.

Heather Blish was vice-chairman of the Kewaunee County GOP until 2008. She actually worked for Kagen’s opponent, and, according to her own resume, is affiliated with the Republican National Committee.

via ‘Grassroots Protester’ Actually GOP Official | TPMDC.

Blish is only the latest example in a series of outed GOP/healthcare industry cronies, who are desperately trying to convince the rest of America that it is average citizens – and not corporate interests – who are at the heart of the healthcare reform backlash. Rachel Maddow has done an excellent job of highlighting the most nefarious displays of astroturf, such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP) headed by Tim Phillips. AFP has a rich tradition of creating front groups to fight reform involving global warming policy, labor, and now health care.[youtubevid id=Af_RYTAKEe8]

While appearing on Maddow’s show, Phillips denied the charges that AFP has been actively working to derail health care reform by bussing people across the country to protest against pro-health care reform politicians. I guess those buses are just for display, and no one rides inside. If they aren’t for importing protesters, AFP might as well use the bus money on full-page newspaper ads. At least it would save gas. Ya’ know…since no one is riding inside them. Right, Tim?

But AFP’s most publicized achievement has been its ability to work in concert with right-wing groups and organize all of those town hall spontaneous screamfests we’ve seen on the TV. Phillips and AFP are able to fund these meet-ups of Average Joes because of generous contributions from Koch Industries, a privately held $90 billion oil and gas conglomerate, which may explain how Tim fuels his buses. Other donors include the oil giant Exxon, which lists AFP as a recipient of (in some years) hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Maddow. Although, Phillips claims AFP is not funded by Exxon. Maybe. At least, they haven’t taken Exxon’s money this year. Or rather, Phillips would “be happy to go back and look at the records” just for Rachel’s sake. What a sweetie.

Maddow also exposed that Phillip worked for nine years at Century Strategies, a lobbying firm born from the loins of Ralph Reed of Jack Abramoff fame. For almost a decade, Phillips’s specialty was manipulating Christians into voting Republican. That’s the same base that fears immigrants, any person depicted as a dangerous “other,” (see: Our Kenyan-born, Socialism-loving, terrorist Lord and Master) and has generally been at the beck and call of the Republican Party ever since President Nixon first figured out he could scare white Southerners with the idea of uppity black people.

“Orchestrated outrage” is the term Maddow uses to explain these town hall mob events. To illustrate the “orchestrated” part, Maddow read a memo from a group that calls itself Right Principles first leaked by Think Progress. The  memo details how protesters should behave at town hall events (emphasis mine).

Under the heading “Inside the Hall” it says:

You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses — call him on it, yell back and have someone else tallow-up with a shout-out. The goal is to rattle him.

When the formal Q&A session begins get all your hands up and keep them up…. The balance of the group should applaud when the question is asked, further putting the Rep on the defensive.

Creepy, specific, and the exact behavior of the satellite agents sent forth into town hall meetings to derail any chance of a truly democratic, civil process. The memo was written by Bob MacGuffie, who is associated with an organization called Freedom Works, a Washington DC lobbying firm run by former Republican Majority leader Dick Armey. Smell that astroturf.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman retold a sad example of this Bridge to Misunderstanding built by the healthcare industry:

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

The disconnect comes from propaganda campaigns run by the healthcare industry – from places like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity. As Wendell Potter, the former health executive turned whistleblower, told me in a recent interview, one of the healthcare industry’s favorite reform-busting tactics is to set up front groups they fund, “but that funding is not known to the public, to communicate the industry’s points of view through these front groups,” says Potter. He adds that these groups always have pleasant names (like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity). These groups are used to disseminate propaganda in talking points and scare tactics (like the big, bad threat of Socialist Healthcare).

These PR firms also set up “third-party advocates” where they’ll look for individuals, and other groups that might have some connection either through business or ideology with the health insurance industry, and they’ll feed those groups and those individuals with talking points to make sure that they have a lot of people and a lot of organizations expressing their points of view.

Sound familiar? By the time an unsuspecting person is through gorging themself stupid on a steady diet of regurgitated private healthcare propaganda from politicians, who are funded by Big Healthcare, right-wing radio and television personalities, and talking points from corporately sponsored satellite groups, they’re whipped up into an absolute frenzy inspired by lies and fear.

Beyond playing the roles of Astroturf Agents, these corporate sponsored reform derailers are also acting as an odd breed of Agent Provocateurs. Traditionally, Agent Provocateurs work for the state. They’re an undercover cop or corporate spy that works to entice or provoke another person or group to commit an illegal act. In this case, the Provocateurs repeat private healthcare talking points (loudly,) which incites a mob reaction. Protesters hang effigies of pro-reform politicians and resort to violence. Politicians shy away from town hall style discussions because the chance at civil discourse has dissolved into death threats being hurled at them from a raving, furious mob.

Then, the healthcare industry gets to point at the mob reaction and say, “See? Americans don’t want reform.” This is a way for Republicans, Moderate Democrats, and Big Health to incite violent reaction without getting any blood on their hands. It’s a sneaky way to plant Manchurian Agent Provocateurs, who have no idea they’re being used to promote corporate agendas, namely to kill any chance of a public option. Not only do they not know they’re being used as shills for corporate interests, but they’re also confused about the issues, as the Krugman example above demonstrates. Most Americans don’t even understand that they’re currently enjoying a large “socialist” program: Medicare. They’ve been — quite simply — brainwashed into believing America is under attack. From what, exactly, no one can tell you. Socialists, maybe. On the other hand, it might be the Kenyans.

This kind of Manchurian Provocateur practice is underhanded, cruel, and the opposite of democracy. And in the words of Rachel Maddow, “it should be reported as such.”


  1. Rachel was brilliant last night, I loved her nailing him on Exxon money!

  2. thesmoots

    good piece, I sure get tired of the so called “liberal” media following every whiny, bitchy, hate mongering, fear dealer’s every word like it was gospel when all of the top guys lie through their teeth, leave out major points and purposely misunderstand anything that is done to help ‘the people’. I just don’t get why being conservative means hating everyone else and thinking that anyone who doesn’t make hundreds of thousands per year is worthless and not help worthy. Are they so scared of people that even getting decent health care is out of bounds. What hate filled fools they are, believing in the good will of insurance company exec’s.

  3. evilito

    I certainly agree with the argument that the lack of civility – and the downright ugliness – of the townhall protests are detrimental to democratic discourse. Moreover, I think such tactics likely end up being counterproductive – these people largely come across as obnoxious, and not unlike the mobs in The Simpsons.

    However, I’m puzzled as to why the “astro-turf” angle is emerging as a line of attack among liberal commentators. Last time I checked, spontaneous displays of political passion were not the only acceptable way to voice one’s concerns about policy, and political advocacy groups have been mobilizing like-minded people as far back as I can remember. Isn’t that what’s generally referred to as, um, community organizing?

  4. Bob Cook

    Of course, all of this stuff going has f***-all to do with health care. The issue for the right — why they’re courting the birthers and the Obama-is-a-racist types — is because the white male hegemony they benefited from is coming to an end, whether they like it or not. As Dick Cheney once called, the death throes. Although he was wrong, and maybe I am, too. But the right could have an intelligent debate about reform, but chooses not to in the name of hanging on to power.

  5. Allison Kilkenny

    I agree. This does have to do with fear, but also money. The GOP and Blue Dogs receive enormous contributions from the healthcare industry. Until the money incentive is removed from the reform debate, private healthcare will continue to win, and the American people will forever lose.

  6. Allison Kilkenny

    Community organizing implies that it’s a true grassroots efforts which has formed within a community. It’s bottom-up growth. Astroturfing is the opposite (top-down growth.) Corporations that stand to financially gain from killing healthcare reform pours enormous funds into efforts to make these outbursts look both spontaneous and grassroots. Of course, they’re neither. That’s why it’s important to distinguish astroturfing from grassroots. Astroturfing is created by a small coterie of financially and politically-connected, elite puppeteers and grassroots protests are created by many average, hardworking Americans.

  7. Allison Kilkenny

    She’s been fantastic on this issue, and deserves much praise for this coverage.

  8. Laurie Essig

    Great post Allison- as always. The orchestration of the anti-health care “movement” hit home when I got an emergency email to show up at a town hall meeting in Vermont at which Bernie Sanders will be speaking. Vermont? In VT, the vast majority support socialized medicine- hell- we may even end up with our own single payer program- so who exactly is protesting in VT? I can only assume there are people being brought in.

  9. Allison Kilkenny

    Thanks, Laurie. Wow, very telling. My favorite part of the Phillips-Maddow debate was when Phillips compared himself to a community organizer. Ya’ know, the kind of community organizer that’s backed by one of the largest privately-owned oil companies in the world. He’s truly a man of the people.

  10. briano

    Where were all of these people when the previous administration was engaging in excessive spending? That is the problem that I have with this. This is how the tea bag protests got corrupted. It seemed that those protests began as railings against the “Bush bailouts” from moderates on both sides, but the GOP hijacked them and turned them into “anti-Obama” campaigns. What a crock of shit. Pisses me off when democracy gets corrupted like that.

    There are legitimate arguments to be made against some of the proposed health care reforms, but people like this ruin it completely and it all becomes a laughingstock.

    As for Medicare, isn’t it true that most people covered under that plan also need to pay out of pocket for a private supplemental plan? Nobody is talking about that, but it needs to be addressed. That doesn’t sound like great coverage to me.

  11. sirnate

    I love how this organizing is driving the other party crazy. Getting a taste of their own medicine. How do I know? Because I see every effort to discredit these protests. Approach used in past. Attacking probably 20% or so of the questionable town hall attendees to discredit all of the opposing voices including the legitimate ones like mine. Then desperation reaches a point when the race card has to be pulled out.

    You state the front groups as if they do not exit in both parties. I could list many more on both sides. Now the government is providing support pamphlets not much different than that you displayed. And pumping out a bunch of sites like and for health care propaganda. Take a look at the lobbyists and campaign administrators in these sites promoting “facts” that conflict the current state of the house bill. That’s top down rallying. Now the government backed unions have organized their own retaliation, busing in their own people and blocking the town hall meetings. The violence didn’t start till union bullies arrived.

    This all really sad though; as it shows the demise of both of the primary parties. It shows government and politics is not capable of doing anything well, as the government cannot appease to all citizens or completely ignore almost half if it’s citizens. There is so much disinformation out there on both sides, including from the president, it’s becoming very difficult to decipher the truth. When CBO says one thing, Obama says another, house bill says yet another, and senate changing their views daily. How could anything get passed through? It’s got so bad Obama had to hire a “dis”-information czar/dictator.

  12. Pingback: Allison Kilkenny - Unreported – New report shows media botched ACORN story - True/Slant

    [...] One of the earliest internet efforts against ACORN, a website called, is a good example of astro-turfing behind the smear campaign. Rottenacorn is sponsored by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI,) a front group created by Washington, D.C.‐based Berman & Co., which specializes in “Astroturf lobbying.” According to, “EPI’s mission is to keep the minimum wage low so Berman’s clients can continue to pay their workers as little as possible.” Dreler and Martin state that “part of EPI’s job is to churn an ever‐present information campaign against ACORN for its clients in the restaurant and bar industry, like Outback Steakhouse.” This is not unlike the astro-turfing efforts by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks to derail healthcare reform. [...]

  13. cultofzoidberg

    mellow yellow

    they call me mellow yellow….

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