So, what is “astroturf”? As with most politically sensitive terms, it appears to have somewhat floating boundaries depending on the needs of the person using it. Generally, it simply refers to activism that appears to be grassroots but is really supported by political organizations. The boundaries, obviously, have to do with the necessary purity of the activity.
The early RI Tea Party activities were a classic example. The national idea for a Tea Party movement spread organically, as far as I could tell. In our state, Colleen Conley was not an activist. She contacted the Ocean State Policy Research Institute (OSPRI), which offered some organizational support (as a totally local and not exactly flush-with-cash operation), but most of the speakers (like me) were active people, but mostly not in a paid “professional capacity.”
Recent anti-Trump rallies seem considerably different, certainly in the extent to which there were professional activists behind it, both after the election and through professional preparation and organization behind the post-inaugural events.
Paul Sperry notes the involvement of former-President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action group, which includes a training manual for activists. For example:
A script advises callers to complain: “I’m honestly scared that a known racist and anti-Semite will be working just feet from the Oval Office … It is everyone’s business if a man who promoted white supremacy is serving as an adviser to the president.”
I’m almost positive I’ve heard nearly that exact same phrasing from somebody, either in comments, on Facebook, or elsewhere recently, although I can’t find it now. Whatever the case, to hear folks like Phil Eil talk, one gets the impression that left-wing “astroturf” qualification would require that every person in attendance must be receiving a paycheck.
With any group involved in popular sentiment, there will be some mix of financial backers, professional advocates, and people who are just believers in the cause. I’d argue that the core quality of “grassroots” is that the believers turn to backers as needed to get things rolling, whereas with “astroturf,” the impetus goes in the other direction, with the established players deliberately riling up the crowds. (One thinks of a complaint [language warning] from an activist/rioter, in which he notes that being arrested wasn’t a big deal because their “backers” covered bail.)