According to The Wikipedia article on the United States Tea Party movement (emphasis mine), TeaParty.org defines the Tea Party as "a grassroots movement that calls awareness to any issue which challenges the security, sovereignty, or domestic tranquility of our the United States of America.".
A grassroots movement as defined by Wikipedia:
A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Grassroots movements are often at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party. For instance, a grassroots movement can lead to significant voter registration for a political party, which in turn helps the state and national parties.
Whereas astroturfing is described as:
Astroturfing refers to political, advertising or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source's financial connection. The term is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.
Through this blog article on climaterocks.com a study was brought to my attention that claims that the Tea Party is rather astroturf than grassroots:
Amanda Fallin, Rachel Grana, and Stanton A Glantz, To quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts’: the tobacco industry and the Tea Party. Tobacco Control, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2012-050815.
From the abstract:
Rather than being a purely grassroots movement that spontaneously developed in 2009, the Tea Party has developed over time, in part through decades of work by the tobacco industry and other corporate interests. It is important for tobacco control advocates in the USA and internationally, to anticipate and counter Tea Party opposition to tobacco control policies and ensure that policymakers, the media and the public understand the longstanding connection between the tobacco industry, the Tea Party and its associated organisations.
The study documents in detail Connections between the tobacco industry, third-party allies and the Tea Party.
But in an article on Fox News:
Tea Party leaders, though, roundly rejected the findings. They argued that the groups the study focused on do not compose the entirety of the movement, and that the tobacco issue is a relatively minor aspect of the present-day small-government agenda.
and quotes Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin:
"If you're going to have a conspiracy theory, at least try to make it pass the laugh test ... and this one doesn't even do that," AFP President Tim Phillips told FoxNews.com. Further, he said opposing tobacco taxes is "probably point-00001 percent of the effort" today.
The aforementioned blog article on climaterocks.com summarises the story from a Tea Party-critical perspective, whereas the Fox News article (perhaps unsurprisingly) has some focus on defending the claim that the Tea Party, is, in fact, a grassroots movement.
This is not the first time the claim is being made. From this Paul Krugman column, New York Times, 13 April 2009:
Last but not least: it turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.
But that’s nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the “spontaneous” riot back in 2000 — actually orchestrated by G.O.P. strategists — that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.
I consider that these sources are not really authoritative, nor is the Tea Party itself, because they will have an interest in presenting themselves as a grassroots movement whether they are or not. Considering historical evidence, what can we say about the claim? Is the US Tea Party a grassroots or an astroturf movement?