The Industry Behind Turbotax’s Astroturfing
Written by: Edward T. Walker
A troubling new trend in "grassroots" activism
Through the lens of Tax Day, author Edward Walker demonstrates how elite consultants have deployed new technologies to commercialize mass participation on behalf of powerful corporations and interest groups.
April 15 is a day that most Americans dread, given its associations with taxes, paperwork, and bureaucracy. Now that Tax Day is behind us, one may not want to learn that much of the headache may have been unnecessary. Evidence now exists, in fact, that the IRS could allow return-free filing, given that the government already possesses data on each individual’s income and expected taxes. Other countries such as Spain and Denmark have already taken this route. Doing so would make filing taxes much less of a burden for most filers.
However, one company in particular, Intuit – the maker of Turbotax software – has a strong interest in seeing that such a system is never put into place in the U.S., as their revenues depend heavily on the complicated existing system. And they have been going much further than simply making campaign contributions and sending lobbyists to Washington to fight off the possibility of return-free filing. As a recent report issued by the nonpartisan investigative reporting site ProPublica has explained, Intuit and industry groups associated with it have, with the assistance of public affairs consultants including JCI Worldwide and Hilltop Public Solutions, recruited NAACP officials, religious leaders, and other community members to help echo the firm’s opposition to free filing, largely on the grounds that the change could (they argue) be harmful to disadvantaged groups. As one recruited op-ed piece argued, the writer “shudder[ed] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society.”
Cases like this lead one to ask: How widespread are strategies like these, in which corporate America recruits third parties to support their interests? The need to mobilize mass support for business interests – especially among such “surprising” constituencies – is, it turns out, supported by a fully formed industry of specialists working on behalf of some of the most powerful firms, industries, and other advocacy causes in the U.S.
In my book Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy, I document the rise of the field of public affairs consultants, who are political professionals like JCI Worldwide and Hilltop Public Solutions that provide services to mobilize the public on behalf of paying clients. Consulting firms like these have become, I argue, one of the most dominant forms of political influence-peddling in contemporary American democracy, and they are generally unregulated at the federal level on First Amendment grounds. Working primarily with corporations and industry groups (but also with other advocacy and political causes), they have become many interests’ go-to source when they face major political challenges such threatening pieces of legislation or protests.
In fact, nearly 40% of the Fortune 500 appears on at least one such consultant’s client list.
As in the grassroots lobbying against tax filing reform described above, I have found that consultants often seek out constituencies that one wouldn’t expect to support the client’s interest. It’s intuitive to expect that a company’s managers and shareholders have an interest in taking action to support the firm’s political interests, and members of the public and policymakers often discount such lobbying as rooted in simple self-interest. But it may be much more noteworthy to policymakers if third parties such as representatives of low-income groups, local community organizations, or nonpartisan civic groups mobilize in favor of the client’s cause. One recent study, for example, showed that regulatory decisions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are influenced very heavily by the activism of third-party groups such as pro-agribusiness farmers’ associations like America’s Farmers, and that such groups were often financed, in part, by large firms like Monsanto. Third-party lobbyists can be compelling, and the consultants in this book are specialists in recruiting them, training them, and even creating new organizations to help them take action.
The need to mobilize mass support for business interests – especially among such “surprising” constituencies – is, it turns out, supported by a fully formed industry of specialists working on behalf of some of the most powerful firms, industries, and other advocacy causes in the U.S.
I have found that when business interests are threatened with policy changes that are feared to inflict serious harm on their firm or industry, they often feel the need to go beyond conventional lobbying. And the modern media and communications environment means that firms are both constrained by the close monitoring of critical publics and also empowered to use those same technologies to organize their stakeholders. This environment has helped to spawn what Thomas Edsall has called a new breed of “unlobbyists” who offer a “full service PR-advertising-social media operation” to activate grassroots support for all sorts of powerful interests.
Still, as the Intuit case shows, the most egregious and deceptive kinds of “astroturf” strategies often backfire, as campaigns that lack transparency are at great risk of being revealed by advocacy groups and journalists. Consultants may have specialized training, data, and formidable resources, but their campaigns still need to play by the same rules as those organized by any other advocacy cause.