Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Sunday, 13 September 2009 03:07 UK

Are US healthcare protests genuine?

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

An anti-healthcare reform protestor carries a placard saying "Your plan makes me sick"
Anti-reform campaigners have been protesting across America

Grassroots or astroturf? Real or fake?

Those are the questions being asked about the rash of protests taking place all over the country against the president's plans to reform the nation's healthcare.

Many Congressional Democrats are facing angry constituents at "town hall" meetings.

What is meant to be an opportunity to exchange views and listen has turned into something more like a bar-room fight.

At one such meeting, the police were called in to restore order. One Congressman has received death threats, another has faced an effigy hanging by a rope.

Placards warn of "health rationing" and "socialised medicine"; chants of "Just Say No!" are commonplace.

Tiny rump?

So are the "grassroots" genuinely angry, or are the protests simply manufactured "astroturf"?

That depends largely on your politics - or whether you watch the liberal MSNBC or conservative Fox News.

If you are an Obama Democrat, you will find reason to be suspicious.

Why, for example, are the protesters filming the meetings and then posting video on the internet?

The Democrats say the protests are the reaction of a tiny rump of right-wing Republicans, still sore about losing the election.

The protesters, Democrats claim, are the same people who question whether Barack Obama was even born in America - the so-called "birthers". The whole phenomenon is a conspiracy of fringe protesters and wealthy special interest groups opposed to changing the status quo, liberals insist.

Democratic video targeting healthcare opponents - courtesy YouTube

A recent advert from the Democratic National Committee accuses the protesters of mob tactics.

Ryan Ellis, of conservative pressure group Americans for Tax Reform, says there are only two possible explanations for the protests.

Either they are a genuine response, or there is a "secret, evil conspirator hiding somewhere in a mountain" who is organising it all, Mr Ellis says. It is no surprise as to which one he thinks is true.

Republicans are genuinely opposed to healthcare reform. Their opposition is largely born of a belief that anything involving more government will lead to disaster: "small government good, big government bad" is the Republican motto.

Without much pressing, Ryan Ellis admits that his organisation is helping protesters by posting a list of town-hall meetings on its website, and suggesting possible questions for reform opponents to ask.

But he still insists the protests are fuelled by real anger and denies claims that some of the demonstrators are being paid.


Republicans will also make the point that "organising" protests is hardly anything new to the left.

Ryan Ellis points to the way that some trade unions will pay the homeless to chant outside offices and factories that employ non-unionised labour.

And then think of the anti-war movement. Genuine, yes. But completely spontaneous - no. You need to organise demonstrations.

And how exactly did Barack Obama defeat Hillary Clinton and John McCain? In politics organising the grassroots has always been a key to success.

Sarah Palin
Mrs Palin accused the president of attempting to set up "Death Panels"

There is no doubt that these protests have breathed new life into the Republican Party at a critical time.

It has largely been in disarray since losing the election, but now feels it has traction.

For the first time, a series of opinion polls suggest that President Obama is losing support.

But there is a recognition that some of the tactics might backfire.

In her latest post on Facebook, the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, says "people must not get sidetracked by the tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation and harassment".

That might sound a bit rich given that only a few days ago she denounced the Obama healthcare plans as "evil" and claimed that the president wanted to create "death panels" - doctors deciding which patient should receive treatment.

It is the rhetoric, as well as the tactics, that has shed more heat than light.

Phony war

President Obama and the White House are not entirely blameless either.

They have given credence to the claims that these protests have been orchestrated by a few disgruntled Republicans and by special interest groups with deep pockets.

The president has also added to the confusion about what his health reforms will actually entail.

He has set out broad principles - everyone should have access to health insurance, and costs must come down. But he has asked Congress to work out the all-important details.

The stakes are high for the president and the Republicans.

And the debate about whether these protests are "grassroots" or "astroturf" is just the phony war; the prelude to a vote which has not yet taken place.

But if President Obama and the Democrats lose this round, they might never recover.

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