Plus: Tips on how to tell a phony grassroots phone caller from the real thing.
At first the call sounds like it could be from any obnoxious telemarketer. But this pitch is selling populism. "Hello, my name is ________," says the voice on the other end of the phone. He's calling to stir up opposition to one of this fall's hottest topics: a proposed expansion of the Rio Treaty, a clean air standard meant to reduce global warming. "This issue could cause [you] to pay a lot more for the basic necessity of electricity that [you] use at home and at work. Additionally, it could put many Americans out of work."
Calls just like this one -- which offer the listener a chance to get angry and speak out about those nasty politicians, all without spending a dime -- are being made across America.
This particular call went out last summer to residents of Iowa. The caller reads from a script, asking supporters to sign an "open letter" to Clinton and to Congress opposing this "anti-family" treaty, which cracks down on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, imposing costly restrictions on the coal, oil, and gasoline industries. He invites them to join a "grassroots effort" to help Iowans keep utility costs down in a state where 83 percent of the electricity used is coal-generated. The goal: convince Clinton and the Senate to oppose any attempts to toughen global-warming regulations at a United Nations summit in December in Kyoto, Japan.
Many will sign on, believing they've joined a local grassroots campaign. Maybe they'll even feel a little better for having participated in the democratic process. They will have been had.
When asked, callers say they represent the Western Fuels Association, an innocently named group that's actually a front for the coal industry. And they never reveal who really employs them: a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm called Bonner & Associates, a leader in the growing field of fake grassroots -- or "astroturf" -- lobbying.
It's a lobbying machine destined to keep growing: By 1995 astroturf lobbying had become an $800 million industry, according to Campaigns and Elections magazine. And the industry received encouragement in 1995 when Congress exempted grassroots lobbyists from new disclosure requirements, after conservative groups, led by the Christian Coalition, argued that they would amount to an assault on free speech.
That can only mean more of the kind of free speech employed by the phone operators at Bonner & Associates, who, according to a stack of company documents obtained by Mother Jones, have mobilized thousands of people to speak up -- without having any idea they're actually speaking up for blue chip corporate giants, such as Philip Morris, Northrop Grumman, Ford, McDonald's, and Browning-Ferris.