Don't Follow Leaders (Tea Party Edition)


Jonathan Rauch has a smart piece in the National Journal on the radically decentralized structure of the most important Tea Party organization, the Tea Party Patriots. An excerpt:

So the queen said, "Off with his head!" And I thought to myself, "OK, we'll overthrow her with a headless political movement." Have some tea.

Strange though it may seem, this is a coordinated network, not a hierarchy. There is no chain of command. No group or person is subordinate to any other. The tea parties are jealously independent and suspicious of any efforts at central control, which they see as a sure path to domination by outside interests. "There's such a uniqueness to every one of these groups, just as there's an individuality to every person," [Tea Party activist Dawn] Wildman says. "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."…

From Washington's who's-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems, to use Wildman's word, 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. "We can be hard to work with, because we're confusing," Meckler acknowledges. "We're constantly fighting against the traditional societal pressure to become a top-down organization." So why would anyone want to form this kind of group, or network, or hive, or starfish, or lava flow, or whatever it is?

First, radical decentralization embodies and expresses tea partiers' mistrust of overcentralized authority, which is the very problem they set out to solve. They worry that external co-option, internal corruption, and gradual calcification—the viruses they believe ruined Washington—might in time infect them. Decentralization, they say, is inherently resistant to all three diseases.

Free the Knave of Hearts!

Second, the system is self-propelling and self-guiding. "People seem to know what the right thing to do is at the right time," Dallas's Emanuelson says. "As times change, then our focus will change, because we're so bottom-up driven. As everyone decides there's a different agenda, that's where things will go."

If a good or popular idea surfaces in Dallas, activists talk it up and other groups copy it. Bad and unpopular ideas, on the other hand, just fizzle. Better yet, the movement lives on even as people come and go. "The message is important," Wildman says, "but people are expendable."

Third, the network is unbelievably cheap. With only a handful of exceptions, everyone is a volunteer. Local groups bring their own resources. Coordinators provide support and communication, but they make a point of pushing most projects back down to the grassroots.

Finally, localism means that there is no waiting for someone up the chain to give a green light. Groups can act fast and capitalize on spontaneity. Equally important, the network is self-scaling. The network never outgrows the infrastructure, because each tea party is self-reliant. And the groups make it their business to seed more groups, producing sometimes dizzying growth.

One important point: This sort of structure has been evolving for a while, and not just in a single segment of the political spectrum. The Bush-era Netroots were a remarkably decentralized movement, as anyone who remembers the early days of the Howard Dean campaign can attest. But the Tea Party Patriots make the best-known Netroots group look like a stuffy bureaucracy. "In more than a few ways, MoveOn.org resembles the tea party movement," Rauch writes. "But here is a difference: In addition to its thousands of volunteers…MoveOn has a core staff of about 20, including a national political director, plus another 20 field staffers—all paid professionals." The Tea Party Patriots may not be as decentered as Anonymous or the Black Bloc, but when it comes to activists engaged in electoral politics, they've become the cutting edge.

NEXT: Money Is Not What Schools Need

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  1. “….which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet.”
    I’m right here…what’da you want?
    Oh, while your here make yourself useful and get me a chocolate donut (and by that I don’t me bizarre sexual shennanigans) and a scotch.

    1. You and Mr. Gore must be pretty tight then. Does that extend to mutual massages?

      1. I’m just saying I’m the boss – didn’t say I invented it. I didn massage his wife – I like ’em curvy. And surprizingly, she seemed very comfortable with dirty words.
        BTW I don’t see any donuts, and I don’t see any scotch.

    2. a chocolate donut and a scotch.

      That could never taste.

  2. They remind me of the theory of why a huge flock of birds can act as a unit without banging into one another.

    1. Or a flock of sheep, you libertard!

  3. this is a coordinated network, not a hierarchy. There is no chain of command. No group or person is subordinate to any other.

    And we will assimilate your asses!

    1. Karl Rove: [referring to O’Donnell] Hannity, if you had half the sense you pretend to have, you would get her off your show immediately. And if you’d like, I’d be more than pleased to expedite her departure.
      Sean Hannity: [to O’Donnell] You know him?
      Christine O’Donnell: We have had some dealings.
      Karl Rove: Those dealings were two centuries ago. This creature is not what she appears to be. She’s an Imp, and where she goes, trouble always follows.
      Sean Hannity: You’re speaking of yourself, Karl, not O’Donnell.

    2. Borg, you are no match for us. We have more tentacles therefore we can multi-task more efficiently. You will be cast into the dustbin of history, resistance is futile!

      Actually its good to know the TP in practice is what it preaches.

  4. The best thing about the Tea Party is that they’ve scared the bejesus out of the party establishment of both Democrats and Republicans. When’s the last time you saw such frightened washington fat cats at town hall meetings across the country?

    Incumbent politicans are now very well aware that they are not garuanteed tenure any more. One can quibble about the pro/cons of the Tea Party participants, but no one can argue that they’ve clearly sent a message to Washington.

    1. LOL!!
      Democrats are cheering.I sent the cretin creationist from Delaware money today!!

      You can legislate morality” – The screeching dingbat from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell.

      And that, my fellow prisoners, is all you need to know about the GOP’s “small, non-intrusive government” ideology.

      And libertarians can cozy up to that..sure they can.they have no ideas or principles either.Libertarians are just the wackjob- cheapskate- crazy uncle of the republican party.

      True Conservative


      1. I’m sick of you liberals abusing me.

      2. “I sent the cretin creationist from Delaware money today!!”

        If she manages to win, will you feel like a tool?

  5. In the case of the Tea Party, nobdoy in the movement has aenough brains to assume a leadership position

    1. HAH-HAH-HAH-ha-ha-ha! That’s our Max, the silly little goose. *chuckle*

      1. What the fuck did you say? You call him a goddamn asshole like a real fucking man!

    2. Max, stop bothering these nice people and start studying, please. You have a spelling test tomorrow, and you can’t afford another F if you want to stay on the synchronized swim team.

    3. Wait max…only a year ago you were telling us the tea party was ‘astroturf’.

      What changed?

      1. The nutroots is capable of thinking two polar opposite things about their opponents.

    4. That’s my man Max, he doesn’t even realize that he elects me to do the thinking for him.

      Max please go home now before the smart people here make a fool of you and blame me for your stupidity.

  6. Isn’t the tea party just using the post-9/11 Al Quaeda business model?

    1. We’re SABOTEURS not TERRORISTS! Besides the whole cell network thing was used by resistance forces in WWII and earlier!

  7. “Baffled politicians and lobbyists can’t find anyone to negotiate with.”

    Especially the ones who supported and voted for TARP, I’m sure, to all of whom, I’d offer the Weigel imperative.

    If you voted for TARP, please set yourself on fire.

    1. Ratfuckers!

      1. Flaming Ratfuckers?

  8. “Isn’t the tea party just using the post-9/11 Al Quaeda business model?”

    I think it’s just that groups like MoveOn and others are so accustomed to making organized, professional advocacy look like a grassroots movement, that when they really see one in action, it’s hard to comprehend.

    Whether it’s Terry Schiavo on the right or making hay out of somebody burning Qur’an on the left, these people are professionals at making something that only outrages a few people look like half the country is mad as hell about it…

    So there must be someone behind this Tea Party thing–it can’t be genuine. Because outrage doesn’t just materialize out of the ordinary course of business–outrage is something that’s carefully synthesized by professionals working organized political networks and the media.

    They’re pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz–but there’s no charlatan there! There must be one somewhere, otherwise that would mean it’s real. And it can’t be that–it just can’t be!

    1. This is much of what I was going to write. But of course the left can comprehend it, it just scares the pants off of them. They know their “grassroots” movements are usually largely astroturf, and all but the most deluded know this one is genuine. Except the wrong people are doing it!

    2. Whether it’s the job creation or the Tea Party, the left is a bunch of “intelligent design” enthusiasts at heart. There must be “somebody” in charge.

    3. The Left’s attempts to demonize the Koran burning were feeble at best. The hypocrisy of these guys being for flag burnings for the last 20 years was too thick.

  9. Without getting into a tedious argument over the Tea Party, I know for a fact some of the people involved in Texas are familiar with the concept of leaderless resistance. I’m not surprised the Tea Party went this route.

  10. Enough about the tea-party.
    We Libertarians should distance ourselves from them. They’re nothing but religious nuts.


    1. “We Libertarians should distance ourselves from them. They’re nothing but religious nuts.”

      They’re religious, and they like social security. They’re not particularly fond of immigrants, and they’re prone to identity politics…

      …which makes them just like America. Unless you think distancing ourselves from typical Americans is a good idea–but being exclusive isn’t what being “libertarian” means to me.

      A little conceptual shift might help–try not to think of people as the enemy. Think of them as the battlefield. The Tea Party is the battlefield, and we want to win over as much of it as possible.

      The Republicans are trying to turn them into their army, but they aren’t about to take orders from anybody. We should think of them as the battlefield, invite them into the big tent and make ’em feel at home.

      So they don’t agree with us on a lot of thing? …I didn’t always know everything I know now. Distance ourselves? Not if we want to be relevant.

      That’s America out there holding those silly signs. I don’t want to distance them–I want ’em to join our church.

      1. That description of the Tea Partiers, except for the bit about liking social security (maybe), kinda sounds like the Klan…

      2. Exactly! Make friends with them, learn from them and REASON with them. Drink!

        For example: A bible thumping TPer. Ask them where in the Bible it says to thump people over the head with it. Jesus said spread the Good News and move along. God gives us free will for that very reason. You might be surprised at how well learning the Good Book helps when Reasoning with well intentioned religious people instead of calling them nutcases and alienating them. We all agree leftism is evil.

        Ecclesiastes 10:2
        New International Version
        The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.

        New American Standard Bible
        A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.

        King James Bible
        A wise man’s heart [is] at his right; but a fool’s heart at his left.


    2. Im a libertarian and a religious nut. I should distance myself from myself.

      Nope, doesnt work for me.

      1. You’re not trying hard enough.

      2. Don’t make me have to separate you!

  11. uh
    it’s not quite so leaderless. Hasn’t freedomworks been organizing it all?

    1. while a number of people involved/interested in tea party activities (like me) may be on their e-mail lists, as well as C4L and Tea Party Patriots and numerous state and local tea party email lists, many of us don’t contribute money to the big guys and certainly don’t take our marching orders from them. Attend a local meeting and find out; don’t quite fit with the tone of that one? go to one in the next town over.
      I’m not a local organizer, but I’ve attended meetings and events within the state and this is the most accurate article I’ve seen about what it’s really like. IMO, the local tea parties around here (Central Massachusetts) have done a great job providing debates and exposure for any candidates willing to run against incumbents, and pretty good lectures on issues like macro-economics and the Constitution.

  12. Howard Dean’s campaign, the ‘netroots’ and all the other lefty garbage cited is nothing like the Tea Party.

    Nor is ‘leaderless resistence’.

    The Tea Party has leaders, lots of them. The leaders are the ones who come up with good ideas and implement them. They change all the time. Sometimes you lead, and sometimes you follow. It all depends on what’s getting done.

    That’s a concept that escapes people who are used to the idea of ‘leaders’ as some specific group or person whose task is to ‘lead’.

    We’ve all seen how good that works, no?

    1. The Tea Party has leaders, lots of them. The leaders are the ones who come up with good ideas and implement them. They change all the time. Sometimes you lead, and sometimes you follow. It all depends on what’s getting done.

      That’s how the MeetUp-based heart of the Dean campaign worked too. It’s just that there ultimately was a central office that could make statements on behalf of the candidate (and waste most of the money the grassroots were raising). The Tea Party Patriots have taken the next step past that.

      1. The ideal networked political organization would have a powerless central office where all the busybodies who want a top-down structure can be sequestered away from the action.

        And a sham annual convention where all the people who want to argue about by-laws can do their thing, too.

      2. That ‘central office’ negates any actual similarity. In the end, the Dean campaign was like what most leftism promises–a simulacrum of freedom.

        The Tea Parties didn’t ‘take a step past that’–they actually used the format the Dean campaign simulated.

        Structurally, the Tea Party is a lot more like anonymous. There’s a background idea, but no one’s ‘in charge’ of it.

        I don’t know how long the Tea Party can last. Like all human groupings, the bulk of the Tea Party is followers, which is fine, but, also a perstistant irritant are the ‘people-who-know-better’. They’re not leaders, per se, but they can, occasionally lead. Unfortunately, if they succeed at leading once they think they’re good at it, and think it’s what they should ‘do’.

        That sort of thinking leads right back to the point where the Tea Party started. And the non-structure of the Tea Party means that those people are all through it. Vigilence must be constant to prevent a useless coalescence of the Tea Party itself.

  13. A network without a head…

    Why has no one ever compared the Tea Party to Al-Qaeda?

    1. ‘Cause the tea party dosen’t have an infinite supply of number three guys ready to sacrifice themselves?

  14. Yes Ken, lick the balls of the tea party fascists. I’m sure that’s the way to turn them into libertarians…

  15. Although some people are turned off by the “God” aspect, Alcoholics Anonymous is a great example of decentralization working slpendidly for over seven decades.

    1. If by “working splendidly” you mean having a dismal success rate no better than any other method.

      1. I wasn’t talking about the efficacy of the methods, which from 15 years working in the field of alcoholism treatment, I say you’re wrong about the success of the methods — I was referring to the formation of groups around the world with no top down leadership. I thought it was obvious that’s what I meant, but I guess I wasn’t clear.

  16. Its all run by Dick Armey!!! Squak Squak Squak!


  17. As times change, then our focus will change, because we’re so bottom-up driven. As everyone decides there’s a different agenda, that’s where things will go.

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