By JONATHAN RAUCH, National Journal
Though headless, the tea party movement is not mindless. Its collective brain meets every Monday night.
More than 200 leaders of local tea parties — coordinators, as they usually call themselves — join a conference call organized by an umbrella group called the Tea Party Patriots, the largest national tea party organization. Organizers estimate that membership totals about 15 million.
On one Monday recently, three national coordinators began the session with a rundown on plans for upcoming rallies. The group was polled on whether to hold a second round of house parties throughout the country. A coordinator gave an update on an iPhone app for tea partiers who will be going door to door this fall to talk to voters.
The floor was then opened. Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighed in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization.”
"Essentially what we're doing is crowd-sourcing," says Meckler, whose vocabulary betrays his background as a lawyer specializing in Internet law. "I use the term open-source politics. This is an open-source movement." Every day, anyone and everyone is modifying the code. "The movement as a whole is smart."
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And, as was apparent in Delaware on Tuesday, the movement is gaining power. Christine O’Donnell’s upset victory in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, coming on the heels of insurgent candidates backed by the tea party winning in GOP Senate primaries in Alaska, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah, has made the tea party movement a force.
The question now is whether a grassroots movement that is, by design, leaderless can sustain itself after this election cycle.
In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on so large a scale. Tea party activists believe that their hivelike structure is their signal innovation and secret weapon, the key to outlasting and outmaneuvering traditional political organizations and interest groups. They intend to rewrite the rule book for political organizing, turning decades of established practice upside down. If they succeed, or even half succeed, the tea party's most important legacy may be organizational, not political.
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From Washington's who's-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems downright bizarre. Perplexed journalists keep looking for the movement's leaders, which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet. Baffled politicians and lobbyists can't find anyone to negotiate with.
"There's such a uniqueness to every one of these groups, just as there's an individuality to every person," says Dawn Wildman, a national coordinator based in San Diego. "It has this bizarre organic flow, a little bit like lava. It heats up in some places and catches on fire; it moves more slowly in other places."
Lava is a pretty good analogy. Ask the activists to characterize their organizational structure, however, and usually they will say it is a starfish.
"The Starfish and the Spider," a business book by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, was published in 2006 to no attention at all in the political world. The subtitle, however, explains its relevance to the tea party model: "The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations."
Traditional thinking, the book contends, holds that hierarchies are most efficient at getting things done. Hierarchies, such as corporations, have leaders who can make decisions and set priorities and chains of command to hold everyone accountable. This type of system has a central command, like a spider's brain. Like the spider, it dies if you thump it on the head.
The rise of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous, interpersonal interaction, however, has broken the spider monopoly, Brafman and Beckstrom argue. Radically decentralized networks — everything from illicit music-sharing systems to Wikipedia — can direct resources and adapt ("mutate") far faster than corporations can. "The absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset," the authors write. "Seemingly chaotic groups have challenged and defeated established institutions. The rules of the game have changed."
In decentralized networks, knowledge and power are distributed throughout the system. As a result, the network is impervious to decapitation. No foolish or self-serving boss can wreck it, because it has no boss. Fragmentation, the bane of traditional organizations, actually makes the network stronger. It is like a starfish: Cut off an arm, and it grows (in some species) into a new starfish. Result: two starfish, where before there was just one.
"We're a starfish organization," says Scott Boston, the Tea Party Patriots' educational coordinator, and a rare paid staffer.
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Will it work?
Answering the skeptics, tea partiers point out that bygone efforts at radical decentralization lacked Internet-age networking and communications technologies — without which, of course, the tea party movement could not have arisen in the first place. The Tea Party Patriots' very existence suggests that something new is afoot. One coordinator notes that Facebook alone allows the movement to communicate with up to 2 million people simultaneously.
Listening to tea partiers talk about their ambitions, one hears echoes of leftist movements. Raise consciousness. Change hearts, not just votes. Attack corruption in society, not just on Capitol Hill. In America, right-wing movements have tended to focus on taking over politics, left-wing ones on changing the culture. Like its leftist precursors, the Tea Party Patriots thinks of itself as a social movement, not a political one.
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Centerless swarms are bad at deal-making practical politics. But they may be pretty good at cultural reform. In any case, the experiment begins.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer for National Journal.
To read an extended version of this story, click here.