Brief Note on the Soda Ban, Astroturf, and Subsidizing Political Participation

Late last week, I caught an advertisement at my local movie theater for a New York city coalition devoted to preserving beverage choices for consumers. The advertisement was rather surprising to me, as I’ve never seen an advertisement in a movie theater that could be described as politically contentious (plenty of films, yes, but not an advertisement). The target, of course, was New York city’s new initiative to ban chain restaurants from selling sugared drinks in extremely large serving sizes. At the Huffington Post, Nancy Huehnergarth, a public health activist, observes that New Yorkers for Beverage Choices was essentially created by the American Beverage Association and an issue advocacy firm it has under contract. The implication is that this is a shady maneuver, and that New Yorkers for Beverage Choices isn’t properly understood as a grassroots organization. Indeed, Huehnergarth repeatedly refers to as “a ‘grassroots’ coalition” and she makes reference to “astroturf.”

But another way of looking at this conflict is that while there really are New Yorkers who are outraged by the so-called “soda ban,” and while there isn’t exactly a popular rebellion in favor the ban, this kind of political contestation necessarily involves narrow elites that seek to rally different segments of the public to their side of the argument. Why is that? Well, rallying the large, diffuse population that finds the soda ban somewhat creepy is really difficult, as it is a low-salience issue and organizing is expensive. The smaller, concentrated class of public health experts in New York city’s bureaucracy, in contrast, is very easy to rally, as it consists of like-minded people who are exposed to the same scholarship and who literally work in the same organization, which is charged with launching new public health initiatives.

So it is safe to say that we’re dealing with a fairly serious asymmetry in the absence of some other interested party — in this case the American Beverage Association — getting involved “on behalf” of the large, diffuse would-be anti-ban coalition. Essentially, people with cultural capital and institutional power (the public health community) is rumbling with people with economic capital (the movie theater and fast food chains) over who will shape the media narrative which in turn will influence the broader public. This brings to mind Rafe Sagarin’s notion of the news media as the selective agent driving which problems we obsess over and how we try to solve them. 

Gabriel Rossman kindly introduced me to the work of Edward Walker, a sociologist at UCLA who works on grassroots mobilization. In an article published in the Spring 2010 issue of Contexts, he considered the debate over coverage expansion in light of his research:

We tend to think of grassroots tactics like canvassing, mass letter-writing, building community coalitions, and protest as weapons of the weak, in that those who are kept out of a government or organization’s decision-making processes are forced to adopt strategies that fall outside of traditional avenues of influence. Why, then, would powerful interests like health insurers and pharmaceuticals find it worthwhile to go grassroots?

Part of the answer speaks directly to questions of power and influence. In certain situations or for certain debates, these seemingly powerful organizations are, in fact, relatively weak or poorly positioned. Evidence suggests that organized advocates resort to these techniques when the existing political configuration advantages their opponents and can only be offset by expanding the audience of supporters will help correct that imbalance. Given the stakes in health care reform and the fact that the initial energy seemed to be on the side of reformers, the mobilization efforts of the industry are thus not surprising. (Conversely, if a corporation or industry can get what it wants without mobilizing the public, it’s more likely to keep things under wraps.)

As institutions without voluntary “members,” health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and medical device manufacturers face challenges in influencing public opinion and shaping public policy. Organizational research shows that these tactics not only build public support for certain approaches, they help companies “put a human face” on issues, personalizing matters for elite decision-makers.

In light of the fact that there really are large numbers of people who oppose the soda ban yet who don’t care enough to do anything about it, it seems that organized advocates are trying to subsidize the cost of political participation. Yet as Walker notes in an essay on “Privatizing Participation,” organized advocates are very careful and focused about the kinds of political participation they subsidize, presumably because they don’t care about spillover benefits and they want to be sure the subsidies help them achieve their limited objectives. 

Huehnergarth thinks that she’s come up with damning evidence about the inauthenticity of the anti-ban campaign. But the underlying truth is pretty banal: people who hate the soda ban don’t hate it enough to actually do something about it, which makes them vulnerable to people who want to impose a ban and who have the power to do so. Trade associations can level the playing field. How we feel about the role of trade associations seems to depend on whether or not we think they are actually manufacturing public opinion — i.e., whether or not they are turning people against a soda ban they would otherwise support — or if they are capitalizing on existing sentiment for their own ends.

My sense is that the anti-”astroturf” critique rests heavily on the notion that, in this case, people would naturally realize that a soda ban is a good thing because public health experts are wise and deserve our trust, yet trade associations are getting in the way. We certainly encounter arguments of this kind in debates over the president’s health law, e.g., the familiar notion that if people simply understood what was in the law, they would be for it.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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