In its report on why Arizona Senator Jeff Flake changed his mind and called for an FBI investigation into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, The New York Times cited his confrontation with “two angry and tearful women” in a Senate elevator just before his Judiciary Committee vote. The Atlantic followed up with an interview with Flake, asking him about the incident with the “sexual-assault survivors.”
Flake described it as a “poignant moment” that “certainly struck a chord.”
The confrontation with Flake is a vivid example of a larger trend in American politics. As American society embraces more direct forms of democracy, even the most established interests must cultivate at least a perception of grassroots engagement to generate legitimacy for their arguments. A recent Lobbyists.info report found that “overwhelming majority of lobbyists” cite grassroots involvement as a “key determinant of access.”
The reason, as George Washington University political management professor Alan Rosenblatt explains, is that the image of a grassroots campaign allows decision-markers to “claim a mandate from the people”—an “unstoppable movement of people who have risen up” on their behalf.
While grassroots campaigns in their purest sense are organic, the most influential campaigns today are often a hybrid of advocacy groups, donors, and activists.
More cynical commentators go as far as to predict that advanced technologies will ultimately supplant genuine grassroots democracy with “Astroturf” that “gum-up online conversations among activists or political opposition” and employ communications strategies that “amplify or suppress political information through lies and confusion.” But as seen by the animated protests against Kavanaugh, organized campaigns are not necessarily manufacturing outrage; they are amplifying and channeling genuine emotion into concrete outcomes.
Whether or not they ultimately sink Kavanaugh’s nomination, the two activists confronting Senator Flake can claim credit for galvanizing a movement that brought Washington to a standstill and will likely reshape perceptions on identity and the law for a generation.
On issues big and small, the example of anti-Kavanaugh activists shows how influencers can achieve their goals by matching their agenda with the right voices in the right forums at the right moments.